Essays

A Grand Unified Theory of Art?

Flamarion Woodcut of 1888 depicting a man sticking his head through the “firmament.” (Image courtesy of wikimedia.org)

Could there be a unified theory of art? As someone who is a casual follower of the sciences and once happily attended a lecture in Boston by Stephen Hawking in which he amusingly illuminated some of the challenges that face physicists who, as of yet, do not themselves have a unified theory in their field, it seems more comic than serious to suggest a “unified theory” of much of anything. Plus, right around the time I printed out  “How Art Works: The National Endowment for the Art’s Five-Year Research Agenda, with a System Map and Measurement Model,” which proposes to find such a theory, I read John Yau’s evocative meditation on the work of Hanns Schimansky, which starts off with this thought:

“Can any theory about art’s mission be universal? Or is a theory, with its investment in a narrative of progress, more contingent and narrowly focused than the art world is willing to acknowledge … ? Isn’t a widely regarded theory (or vantage point) a sanctioned form of exclusion? An approved way of privileging one thing over another?”

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Cover, “How Art Works,” September 2012, published by the National Endowment for the Arts. (Click to down the full PDF.)

“How Art Works” attempts to layout not only a new research agenda for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), but also to diagram every input and output of the arts. While reading it I tried to step past the most obvious critique (beyond the mildly comic, if not irritating, attempt at making an equivalence between the social machinery of the arts and the physical machinery of atomic structure), that the current NEA chairman Rocco Landesman spent an unknown and likely extremely large sum of money to hire the Monitor Institute, a “global strategy firm” full of self-declared “change agents,” according to their website, to create a corporate strategy document for a public agency.

So, putting those critiques aside, what’s really in this document and why does it matter? Essentially, the 40+ page document builds on a nearly year-long process during which the Monitor Group held focus groups, or “collaborative working sessions,” with people from the arts, as well as psychologists, business people, politicians, economists, public health experts, and numerous others, in order to create what they call “a system of the arts.” What is a system of the arts? Essentially it’s a flow chart that attempts to show where there are feedback loops between artists, artistic creation, audiences, education, business, local communities, and society at large. You can see the primary chart in the screenshot below.

Illustration 1 from “How Art Works” (Via NEA PDF)

There’s an important premise behind the document that should be understood as you look at the flow chart — the authors have defined art this way: “An act of creative expression done within the confines of a set of known or emerging practices and precedence that is intended to communicate richly to others.” And further, they stipulate that, for something to be “art,” “at least one person other than the artist is required to engage with the work.” Now, okay: That first definition is certainly not elegantly stated, but the most obvious critique is that it’s intensely vague. What constitutes creative expression versus non-creative expression? What are the so-called confines and who determines them? Etc, etc. But the reason for the vagueness, according to the document, is that they want to put the onus on you to answer those questions.

Their perspective is that the wider your definition of creative expression, the more of society that the map encompasses. “Whether or not our definition includes publishing, radio, and/or movies, for example, strongly influences how many engage with art — and, in particular, how much direct economic benefit accrues from art.” So, forgive me, but I have to take a second to unpack that. First, that statement makes clear that what we’re really looking at in this report is economic impact, and second, it seems to want to jauntily sidestep the fact that by suggesting that we generously define all films as art we are, in fact, setting a precedent whereby entities like the Disney Corporation are considered arts institutions and their products possibly become eligible for government funding or arts-related services.

Illustration 5 from “How Art Works” (Via NEA PDF)

If you think I’m being overzealous, think about the fact that the pool of public arts funding is already painfully small. What would it mean if major corporations, with professional grant writers and on-staff lobbyists started petitioning to siphon off some of that tiny pie for themselves? Is there a chance that it’s already happening? In a climate where a huge chunk of arts money is already being spent on “economic redevelopment” projects, the growing potential for the majority of arts money to end up in the hands of people whose primary intention is to use the arts, or at least the idea of art, as a means to an entirely different end is very real (some current examples of such programs include a new funding structure in New York State, a new grant program in Maine, and the NEA’s own Our Town program).

While I actually believe strategy documents and goals can be incredibly useful and important, I think it’s important to understand that the underlying notions or principles that inform those goals are just as important. In other words, if your goal is to improve every American child’s life, but you believe that preventative health care is the most effective way to do that, then how you go about your goal is going to be very different from someone who believes that the best way to do that is through early education. Similarly, if we say that expanding the definition of the arts will extend the economic impact of the field, that’s a very different thing than saying an expanded definition of the arts gives more people access to funding and services, and each implies a very different framework for understanding the success of the system.

Beyond the problematic economic grounding of this proposed arts schematic, what the document does that’s interesting, at least to me, is try to break down the elements that make up each part of their diagrammatic definition of art. They’re doing this in order to get a clearer sense of what we understand and what we don’t understand about how the arts interact with the rest of society, and more specifically, to find the places where little comprehensive research has been done about those interactions, or the data we’ve been using is no good. For instance, when it comes to figuring out how many artists there are in the US, we have decent data reflecting how many people claim “writer” or “photographer” as their full-time or primary employment, but, as the document indicates “there are issues with measuring artistic employment as a secondary occupation, using the US Census Bureau methodology.” Not to mention issues capturing people who don’t earn a significant amount of money, if any at all, from their art work, but still pursue it seriously. In addition, the report points out a number of fallacies underlying the use of much of the data we do have available. One example: “There is a need to avoid the fallacy of homogeneity (e.g. that the arts will have the same effects in different types of communities).”

Illustration 6 from “How Art Works” (Via NEA PDF)

This “research agenda” is the first attempt I’ve come across at trying to look across the arts to see where some of our biggest gaps are in terms of understanding. It could inspire more progressive organizations to seek answers to deeper questions about where they believe the value of the arts lies without bending to the pressure to focus on monetary rewards. But it worries me that the person leading this particular effort, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, has largely show himself to be a classic Baby-Boomer-style manager, hauling in costly consultants and using top-down business jargon to trump up the economic payoffs over non-monetary payoffs that are harder to tally in a ledger. And I often wonder if he himself has ever spent an hour talking to young artists, or even mid-career artists, working both inside and outside of institutions or funding structures; if he has ever actually listened to the perspective of the people who make the work he’s charged with supporting in the first place. Because ultimately a huge part of the arts system relies on placing a large value on both artists and the creative process itself.

One final aside: I can’t resist pointing out that when considering the notion of a unified theory of art, it would be necessary to consider the fact that art has been part of human society since long before buzzwords like “Arts Infrastructure” existed, not to mention that art is present in cultures that do not perceive of art as something separate from things like religion or social bonding. When it comes to trying to reach a complete understanding of anything, the scientists of the world will be the first to tell you that research typically opens up new questions rather than revealing final answers. No system is fixed in time and space. The only thing that seems certain with the arts is that art has been with us just about as long as humans have been on the Earth and is likely to persist as long as we do. That seems like a far better entry point to looking at the role and value of the arts than 21st century economic frameworks.

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