— Cultural Sources of Newness

Arts to change or not to change?

“Can artists make the world a better place?” Not surprisingly, given the high-culture context for the discussion (Aspen Ideas Festival) and the panellists (Damian Woetzel, former Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet and co-initiator of Arts Strike; designer Fred Dust at IDEO; and philanthropist Dennis Scholl, initiator of Random Acts of Culture), the quick answer is a resounding “yes!” Under the skilled leadership of BBC journalist Bridget Kendall the panellists and the audience came up with questions and thoughts that both supported this claim and illustrated the disturbing societal challenges involved. The program is still available online, so I am capturing here only a few points that struck me, many of which resonate with my research findings.*

The panellists are passionate about what I would call their artistic interventions in different kinds of organizations and public spaces: schools, hospitals, department stores, airport concourses… What excites them is bringing art to people in order to create opportunities for what Damian Woetzel calls the “intangible moment when a person takes a step and participates, choose to engage.” He emphasizes that people discover “It’s not just nice, it’s work! That is what the impact is. … It is how you participate and the energy you put into it. That’s where the difference is made.” And he adds that: “It is about taking what exists as a resource and putting to work in various ways.”

I was glad to hear Bridget Kendall bring up several concerns during the discussion, starting with the question of time. She suggested that if there is not enough time for the interaction, people will not get anything out of it. Two interesting responses followed. The designer Fred Dust said that the best idea he had taken from the Aspen festival so far was “Slow art. We all love the slow food movement, …  why not take more time and get to know an artist, get to experience what they go through to make a work of art, so that we are all a little wiser.” Damian Woetzel addressed the question of time differently. He has found that “Sometimes the transformational moment can be a moment. Look for those and you can develop tools for this. Some of the things we do take a minute, but they slow things down to the point that that you can be receptive. When your antennas are finally available, something in a song or a visual ignites your imagination and your curiosity, and that is where you learn!”

Another concern Bridget Kendall brought up was risk that people may experience an artistic intervention, such as the sudden eruption of opera in a department store, as an invasion of their space.  Dennis Scholl explained that indeed, there are typically three moments of response to the Random Acts of Culture. “First anger, someone has invaded your space. Second is confusion, you are not afraid any more but you still don’t know what is going on. Finally it begins to seep in that you are in the right place at the right time” and people then experience joy.

A third concern Bridget Kendall asked the panellists to address was “Does it have to be accessible, does it mean that you can’t do complicated things, that you can’t do things that make people feel sad?”  As wonderful as joy is, is that all that such interventions should aspire to for the arts in society? The panellists emphasized that “Quality matters. If you do something of quality, people have the innate realization that it is special. That comes through. We want people to have the range of human emotion …  We just want to make sure you are feeling something and it is profound.” They also agreed that context matters—it is important to design the “right approach for the right place” (e.g., they do not recommend suddenly playing a tragedy in a crowded department store).

The audience brought up disturbingly diverse and numerous problems in society that art is being called on to address:

a)     The need for arts as  “a digital campfire, a place where we can gather, where children feel safe, where families who are so busy working and are struggling to make ends meet can have a softer landing.”

b)     “In this society that values über-productivity and high, high speed and nurtures ADD in a hundred and fifty different ways, art slows us down and it connects us to ourselves and to other people. And I think for kids one of the things we miss in their learning is what are their tastes, what do they like, what do they dislike, what do they desire, what do they want and what do they not want? Art plays a really critical role in that.”

c)      “Break down political barriers… art makes people rethink about politics, brings a kind of unity.”

d)     The fear of being (considered) incompetent that is bred in educational systems, and the cutbacks in programs for the arts in schools also came up in the discussion.

e)     A panellist brought up the “unprecedented levels of inequality in society today.” But he remains optimistic, saying that art can contribute because “Power comes from participating. … harnessing voice.” He believes that by experiencing and participating, people make change happen. There is surely truth to that view, however, Bridget Kendall subtly but effectively questioned the reach of this claim to affect power relations in society.  She compared the curated examples that the panelists gave with her experience of the potentially subversive power expressed in a flashmob art performance in Russia.

By contrast, another audience member suggested turning the question on its head: “Art reminds us of our past, remind us of where we’ve come from, who we are. And that is as important as changing us.

Plenty of food for thought on this Sunday evening, and plenty of space for more research on artistic interventions in the months ahead … after summer vacation.


*Note: I type fast but I do not guarantee that the quotations are absolutely precise, so check the program before requoting!