Stop Making Sense

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Mary Sherman, Executive Director, TransCultural Exchange · www.marysherman.org

The reason that I decided to create this panel is that something has been troubling me; and I wanted to discuss it, especially in light of the proposal Don Ritter sent for his presentation. Today, I’ve noticed that the proliferation of residencies – as well as biennales, open studio events and the internet – is changing how art is being made and sold (which many here are speaking about). Alongside such traditional media as painting and sculpture, there are now ephemeral works, social interventions, installations and public interactions. The 19th-century invention of the gallery system is waning. A heady new array of possibilities is taking its place. And these, combined with the accompanying anxiety of super-sized, global competition and the race to keep up with the inevitable rise of insatiable appetites, causes everything to speed up. Complex ideas are reduced to elevator pitches. Everything is about getting to the end point before anyone else; and, then . . . getting to the next one. There is little time for discussion, still less time for reflection and none for failure.

Throughout history and across cultures, the arts have stood in opposition to this. Since the dawn of civilization, they have accompanied us and provided us with avenues for reflection. They offer insights into our past, present and future. They engage our senses; our primary means of accessing and knowing the world. Yet at the moment, they seem to be left flaying about like a fish out of water, in search of a justification.

As many of you work in this field know, it is no longer enough to create, support and show people great art. Those who make and support it also have to, for instance, gather statistics to be able to say that X number of people attended their programs and X said they learned X. Moreover, in terms of food, beverages and other indirect impacts, X amount of revenue was generated, and if one adds direct impacts as well . . .

Sadly, without this kind of data, TransCultural Exchange would not have survived past its first Conference. This eureka moment came – like most do – from where it was least expected: a complicated grant obligation. TransCultural Exchange's first major grant required us to do a Department of Policy Analysis and create a “Robust Survey Tool” to evaluate our programs.  And, as time-consuming and expensive as that first evaluation was, TransCultural Exchange has now come to realize that it was a gift in disguise. We now have eight years of programming data to evaluate, extrapolate from and cite. So now, when we tell people what we do – instead of watching them smile politely and look as quickly as possible for a more lucrative connection – we can quickly say, “Our combined Conferences have brought in over one thousand people from more than sixty countries to the State of Massachusetts, which has generated over one million dollars in revenue in just two short weekends alone.” Now, that is a plus even non-art lovers can get behind.

The point of all this?  We at TransCultural Exchange certainly do not believe that we and other like-minded people and institutions need to become more businesslike. On the contrary! We think the world could do with more pleasure, contemplation and nonlinear thinking. In fact, a lot more! If we stopped, smiled and thought a bit, a lot of harm might be prevented . . . but the issue – at least nowadays – is that one needs to successfully argue that position.1

This demand for qualifiable and quantifiable justification is nothing new, but the situation is worsening. Nor is it unique to America. If the new European Union funding guidelines are any indication, then European art institutions are beginning to feel the sting of this bottom-line myopia as well.2 This means, unfortunately, that it is not enough for artists and those who support them to do great work and advance their fields; they need to adopt the same, very time-consuming strategies for justification.

But I am getting very tired of this talk; and – equally – I am getting very tired of the need to justify the arts as an aid for other disciplines. I am not against the arts helping students learn math, etc., but I am against the arts not being taken seriously as a necessity in their own right as well.

How did this happen?

How did this come to be? – that we have to justify what we do? That people came to doubt the arts and even become scornful of them? How is it that when I recently spoke to some government officials who fund the arts, they told me that the visual arts are a thing of the past. (Truly!) As if something that has existed since the dawn of humanity was no longer relevant? I almost drove off the side of the road after that meeting.

And how is it ­that, as far as I can tell, the recent wave of residencies that have sprung up in other parts of the world – those that primarily support global understanding by inviting artists from different countries to interact with their local peers and/or the community – has yet to gain a strong foothold in the US (although the growth of these types of residencies is certainly on the rise)? How is that one of the only ways to gain public support for art is to be sure that it is reaching children or disenfranchised communities, or is engaged in some other socially-redeeming issue? There is no doubt that there is growing support for artists who are doing what I call social work; in other words, going into communities to create “positive change.”

In the US, the National Endowment for the Arts has been severely weakened. Tighter visa restrictions and the collapse of the United States Information Agency provide some explanations as to why these new forms of residencies – those sites for international exchange that I mentioned – have such a hard time gaining a foothold in the US. So do some very real economic pressures and the decrease in social services that has led to artists taking up such causes, especially as these are – with very rare exceptions – the ones publicly supported through grants and other funding. But perhaps the more systemic reason why we find ourselves in this strange place where we have to justify what we do arose around the word Quality. That word at one time was bantered about with some regularity in art circles in the ‘80s and early ‘90s . . . and it is still is being talked about today. Just a few months ago, I was at a talk by Thomas Hirschorn and he was showing some works by artists at local residencies at the housing project where his latest piece, the Gramsci Project, was sited. And there, each day, people voted on whether the work that someone had created had energy in it, and if it didn’t, then it was determined to be art. As if energy were diametrically opposed to art, as if (it seemed, to me, that it was implied) we had now made energy a more valued quality than art.

I am very wary in general of using public opinion and marketing research for creative endeavors (or much of anything). As Steven Moffat, the producer of the hit show Sherlock, pointed out:

Simply trying to determine what people like and give it to them is wrong. In truth, what I should say is that I actually don’t do any audience research because it’s a very good way to tell what they liked about last year. You don’t know what people are going to want next and you’re not going to find it in either what people say they want or they liked the last time. That information isn’t available. Anybody who says they can tell you that is a charlatan. There’s no formula. Tell the story you want to tell and are passionate about and if you’re lucky, it’ll be a big hit. If you’re unlucky, it will be a disaster. And most of the time, it’ll be just OK.

I have to say I agree.
I have a theory about how we came to this sad state of being, though – how we came to be driven by data and how everything may’ve gotten so distorted – and I credit Maria Tuerlings (the founder of TransArtists) for helping me flesh this idea out:

In 1981 Ronald Reagan became President of the United States with the intended plan to push Congress to abolish the NEA completely. Luckily, he failed, but the fire was sparked. Then, in the late ‘80s, there were two shows – first Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ (a picture of a crucifix suspended in urine), and then a perhaps more widely-known exhibition of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s works – that, briefly stated, led to a full-blown public outcry against the NEA. The reason was that the NEA partially supported a show of this work, which included images with obvious sexual (and primarily homoerotic) content. And many members of the public were so outraged that their “tax’”dollars were being used to support such work, which they found to be an affront, that, again, the NEA was threatened. What also didn’t help was that the NEA was already besieged by the removal, in 1989, of – again, a national-government-funded work – Richard Serra’s site-specific Tilted Arc from the Government Services Agency. The arguments against Tilted Arc, a 120-foot-long wall of raw self-oxidizing steel that took on a rust-like color with time, were many: it was ugly; it divided the plaza in a way that didn’t invite people to gather there for things, like lunch; and it was said that it was even a perfect place to hide behind and throw bombs.

But most damning was that most people did not think it was art. As one person stated: "Every time I pass this so-called sculpture, I just can’t believe it . . . the General Services Administration, or whoever approved this, this goes beyond the realm of stupidity. This goes into even worse than insanity. I think an insane person would say, ‘How crazy can you be to pay $175,000 for that rusted metal wall?' You would have to be insane – more than insane."

Even Calvin Tomkins, an art critic for The New Yorker magazine, was quoted saying, "I think it is perfectly legitimate to question whether public spaces and public funds are the right context for work that appeals to so few people – no matter how far it advances the concept of sculpture." And although many experts came out in support of the piece, the upshot was that it was removed (arguably illegally) and the public felt vindicated. They were sick of the so-called artistic elites using their hard-earned money for artwork they didn’t like and were not convinced was “quality.”  And so for a long time, that word – Quality – was ever-present in art reviews, op-ed pieces and the general discourse of the time.

Most of the country’s leaders, then, rallied around pulling the plug on support of contemporary art and certainly any art that had what many felt might be objectionable content. They did not protect the experts’ judgments or argue for the need for the public to embrace the difficult or tolerate the new. They stopped supporting, and still to this day no longer support, individual artists. As far as I’m concerned, they did not act as leaders; instead, they were lead, and we have been suffering ever since, with the likes of people like Donald Trump being touted as actual viable candidates to lead such a world power as the US. To me, this is not a democracy; this is the tyranny of the ignorant.

Anyway, sorry to digress. To go back: the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget is now significantly less than what it was before all this happened and the majority of works they now support, as mentioned, are those that have a very strong community focus, often not without political – i.e., perceived democratic – undertones, which makes me very nervous. As history has shown us, when art serves a political agenda, it can then take on another – and, I believe, dangerous – value.

On top of this, museums started hiring marketing firms to take surveys of their audiences to gather statistics to demonstrate that they also were performing a public service – that they were not just serving some elite and rarified audience, but instead were serving the broad, general public (which is, in essence, what has trickled down to us as well). And, somehow, larger numbers – not repeat visits – would show support for their institutions, which is not suprising, because repeat visits when admission prices for a family of four hover at $100 is going to be harder to show. And as for those rarified art forms that many people often poke fun of – symphony orchestra performances or the opera, for example – it was decided that if those high-minded elitists liked that kind of snobby activity (that most of the public supposedly had no interest in), then the elitists could fund it themselves. And sadly, that is what has happened. Sadly, the public doesn’t even know anymore that they might like something, because the chance of experiencing say, opera, is pretty low and now very, very expensive. Thus, some of those things that have throughout the ages exemplified the pinnacle of human achievement are now subject to the whims of the private market and accessible to fewer and fewer.
If you make the arts so prohibitively expensive after the children who receive those free museum passes have grown up, what good is exposing them to the arts while they are young? I dare say this is just another way to stifle creative thinking – i.e., making art, cultural heritage and other like things – by making it now nearly out of reach among those who can vote.

I find this remarkably sad. I am so thankful that I have a press pass to get into museums – especially since one night, recently, when I was in the museum and I started receiving so many texts that I found a bench to sit on and see what was the matter. It was then that I learned of the attacks in Paris. One minute, I was looking at a Vermeer, then I noticed I had a string of texts, and I just sat on that bench, surrounded by some of the most amazing feats of human excellence, and I couldn’t move. I stayed ‘til the museum closed. I wanted to be reminded of goodness; of some people’s attempt to communicate something that meant very much to them across time and space to us now.

I wanted – I would say needed – to be reminded of the excellence of humanity, of being human, of the heights that humans are capable of – which is also what makes the arts and other forms of human excellence, like sports, transcendent, borderless and timeless. And necessary.

Art has a great value, and it isn’t monetary and I believe we need to start arguing this. Years ago, the Harvard Art Museums had a policy of only allowing so many people into the museum at a time – it wasn’t even that easy to find out what their upcoming shows would be. They didn’t advertise. The number of school groups the museum allowed in was limited. That was because they felt that artworks needed quiet contemplation – that the museum was an oasis for this. We need this.3 Life is hard – whether under attack or not, we need a break, we need to get away, to look at art, just as we need vacations or to listen to music and play sports. We need to remember what is important in life, and it is not money – money can buy those things, but it is not those things. And, I believe everyone needs these things and our leaders should ensure that they are available to all. Access to and support of the marvels of human creativity are hallmarks of a great society.

Today, however, science, engineering and the maths are considered so crucial to our survival that societies such as Japan – I kid you not, and I thank Don for sending me the article on this – are considering completely removing the humanities and arts from their college and university systems. In the US, this thinking takes on other, but related, variations: the arts are being asked to serve the sciences, engineering, maths and/or social good (by engaging with problems of urban blight, disfranchised youth, etc.) – as summed up in that catchy term STEAM, which is a push to keep art in STEM programs. In both cases, something is being lost.

We all know that the arts are important to individuals and to society. Some things should not have to be explained; but – understandably – those in charge of public funds need to be able to justify their budget lines. For them, then – and for anyone else that might need hard, tangible and factual evidence of the value of the arts, cultural exchange and international diplomacy – TransCultural Exchange has collected such data for the past eight years, and it is now available on our website to be used, shared and disseminated. Please take it. Please add to it. Please use your time in better ways; because unfortunately this work has been at the expense of our programming and taken time away from producing artworks and exchanges. We, therefore, hope that eight years of data is enough for us and everyone else who does similar work to cite, so all of us can go back to what we view as much more important work. But I realize that this is a risk, and consequently, I’m interested to hear everyone’s take on these matters and my reasons for wanting to present this topic today.



[1] More information about our Evaluations can be found at www.transculturalexchange.org/about/evaluations.htm.

[2] For more information on the EU’s guidelines for grant applications, see Creative Europe: Culture Sub-programme Support to European Networks Guidelines. Background information on Creative Europe can be found at www.ec.europa.eu/creative-europe.

[3] Since then, the Harvard Art Museums have built a second expansion and increased the price of admission and the amount of money they invest in advertising significantly.