BEYOND THE MILLENNIUM
Delivered to the Governor's Conference on the Arts
Hotel Inter-Continental, Los Angeles
December 7, 1998
I would like to thank Barbara Pieper, Director of the California Arts Council and Barry Munits, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust for inviting me to speak today. It is one year shy of 25 years since I was appointed to the California Arts Council, and in the hustle and bustle of this exciting conference, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle, awakening after his long sleep, dusting himself off, and being rushed by a horde of media folk, demanding, " So whaddya think, Rip?" It is always flattering to be asked, and so, I'll try my best to organize disparate and sometimes apparently contradictory perceptions into a coherent whole.
It is my fervent belief that art of the future will be precisely the same as art in the past, namely: the creative play of the human mind. The underlying human preoccupations of exploration, order, form, surprise, delight and astonishment will not change any more than we have evolved as a species since the Paleolithic. Technologies will change certainly, mediums and delivery systems will be different, but we can't possibly determine all the ways in which they will impact both artists and culture, any more than the inventor of television could have determined the future impact of his work. I don't think it particularly profitable for me to speculate about these unknowables and there are guests here who are more skilled at doing that than I. What would be profitable to discuss would be our weaknesses and failings as a community which have prevented us from fixing State and Federal government subsidy of the arts into an appropriately scaled, permanent feature of our National landscape.This is a subject which can be analyzed, is malleable, and more importantly, within out control.
Theoretically, the arts should no longer need advocacy and defense, since they are now so ubiquitous and widely represented, and yet, here in the last moments of the millennium, the reverse is true. Annual arts budgets are still being attacked and pared down, and the National Endowment's very existence is being questioned by the wise folk in Congress who obviously feel that the saga of a priapic President and a barely post-pubertal interne was a more suitable expenditure of 40 million public dollars than subsidizing the Nation's cultural life and institutions..
So, I would like to begin this morning's discussion of the future by looking backwards to the situation which existed in California arts politics before then Governor Jerry Brown dissolved the extant California Arts Commission and replaced it with the California Arts Council.
Prior to 1975 the California Arts Commission had a budget which never rose much beyond 1 million dollars. California was 48th out of 50 states in per capita arts funding. Setting aside the cost of administration, the rest was passed out as direct grants, primarily to the State's major arts institutions or representatives of Western European high art - the Opera, Symphony, Ballet and major theater companies. Needless to say, these grants were small, generally in the $2-5,000 range. This Commission's budget did not accurately reflect the health and vitality of California's cultural life, however. If one walked through the streets of any major city, music, painting, dance, and theater were well represented by a myriad of active (though underfunded) companies; art fairs were generating considerable local revenue; craftspeople were gaining purchase in the state's economy, and the general population had many opportunities to inter-relate with art if they chose to. There appeared to be a discernible disconnect between the health and vitality of the living arts in the community, and the "official" art recognized by the California Arts Commission.
In 1975 California poet Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems Turtle Island, and Governor-elect Brown appointed him to chair a new, California Arts Council made up of primarily working artists a radically, suspiciously, new concept in the field. Eight working artists besides Gary were invited to join, myself among them: Allaudin Matthieu, director of the Sufi Choir, Sculptor Noah Purifoy, graphics artist Suzanne Jackson, film director Alexander McKendricks, theater director and playwright, Luis Valdez, visual artist Ruth Asawa, and the sole non-artist, Karney Hodge, the President of the American Symphony Orchestra League.
As a member of the then disenfranchised "community arts", I beg some understanding for my early abrasive utterances and confrontational style which contributed to an environment where the State's arts community was divided by in-fighting rather than cooperating for the common good and polarized along distinctions of have/have-not. I, and several of my colleagues, particularly Noah Purifoy and Luis Valdez, were particularly sensitive to the ways in which popular cultural expression had been barred from receiving either the imprimatur of State acceptance, or its funding and I don't think that it would be overstating the case to say that we felt that it was "payback time", - time for the community arts to achieve official recognition and recompense for its contributions. The fact that this turnabout meant cutting an already meager pie into more pieces, giving the lion's share to the majority population, and rescinding funding from important and deserving institutions did not disturb me at that time.
This initial conflict was not all negative. It promoted cultural politics to the forefront of the media's attention, and for the first time, the political implications of art and culture were being widely and very publicly debated. As a consequence, grass-roots communities began to mobilize for their fair-share of cultural resources. However, the newly disenfranchised major institutions resented the negative language directed at them and being forced from the economic fold. They fought back, and though smaller in number, their weaponry was equal to our charged rhetoric. Their networks of powerful boards of directors and sophisticated knowledge of the political system ground all the Council's political momentum to a halt. The purpose of this talk today will be to examine that deadlock, elucidate what we learned by correcting it, and explore the relevance of those lessons to the future.
After one particularly embarrassing reversal, I went to seek guidance from the Governor who offered me a practical political truth by observing, " In a democracy, either all the boats rise, or none will." That remark clarified what should have been obvious to me from the beginning: that the Council was charged with serving the entire population of the State of California, not merely the ones whose politics we agreed with. Each and every sub-culture within the State had a legitimate claim on tax dollars expended for the arts, and it was our job as a Council to create policies which served them. All of them.
The flip-side of this potentially Balkanizing insight implied that the larger the audience we served, the greater our potential for political power might be. The first corollary of this shibboleth should be: each community may be unique, but together they form a constituency. Coherent and intelligent public policy would respect the distinctions, utilize the differences, and keep the whole focused on commonalties of need and purpose. No matter how true these observations might be, it was obvious that we could not feed a family of ten on food for two. If we were to serve the entirety of the State of California, one or two million dollars a year was too pitiful an amount to quarrel over. As Chairman, I made a deal with Governor Brown that if he would enter a request for 20 million dollars for the arts in his next annual budget, he would not have to expend one iota of political capital to fight for it. If the art constituency could not mobilize to win that support, he would be off the hook, and could take the credit for having tried. He agreed, submitted that amount to the legislature, and that goal became the incentive for the State's diverse arts communities to organize itself into a force capable of fighting for this pot-of-gold, which at the time, felt as elusive as hitting the lottery.
One might ask at this point, "Fight who and fight what?" Who are the enemies of the arts that must be vanquished if they are to thrive? One would like to think that everyone loves the arts; that they are a hallowed principle like "freedom" and "justice", a self-evident good. That unquestioned belief system has been, from my perspective, the primary reason that rationales and strategies for defending arts funding have been largely ineffectual. Spiced up with feeble talk about " building young audiences" and the like, it has become an outdated weapon in an ineffectual arsenal which has left arts budgets and curriculums in schools and government increasingly challenged. My tenure on the NEA Literature panel, (an honorific seat reserved for State Arts Council Chairpersons) was terminated a year early for my cranky insistence on anticipating pending budget cuts to that agency. I was sorry to have been correct and witness the 50% cut of the Endowment's budget the following year.
My crankiness was fueled by contrast with our successes in California. At a time when property tax-reform strangled cash-flows to State coffers, and all Departments took a mandatory 10% cut, the Arts Council Budget rose 800% the year Governor Brown requested 20 million dollars, and 500% the second year, to peak finally around 14 million dollars annually. This was not a lucky break or an accident, and as much as it reflects the coordinated work of an engaged and dedicated constituency, it was the Council's radical reconfiguring of art and its multiple roles in society which overcame the legislative hurdles previously placed in its path.
I know of no extant arts policy body which has so radically re-defined the utility of the arts to the culture, made such principled, effective arguments for sustaining funding based on two general principles. These principles bear reiterating here because they appear to have been forgotten for the duration of Rip's nap.
Before elucidating them, however, let me return to the question I raised earlier about enemies of the arts. There are two principal (and several lessor) antagonists to the idea of State subsidized art. One emanates from a conservative philosophical position that maintains that the smallest possible role for government is its best possible role. I personally disagree with this position, and my caution to its adherents has always been, "If you don't like government, wait until you try monopoly". However many people who maintain this position do so honestly and honorably and it will never serve the arts community to dismiss them as boors and no-nothings. These are philosophical differences which must be respected as part of the diverse fabric of culture. This mode of thought will never be obliterated, and attempting to do so is wasteful of energy, and counterproductive.
The second enemy resides in the breasts of artists and arts supporters themselves. It manifests itself in several ways either as a refusal to recognize the incalculable diversity of cultural expressions and attempting to reduce that complexity by favoring one mode over another, or, by using the arts as a stage on which to perform minuets of heirarchical social status either high or low thereby dissipating cohesion and fragmenting unified struggle.
Let me adress the first case. There are many citizens who have honest difficulty agreeing to the following proposition: that money should be taken, at the threat of police power, from working people (who may not like what they must do to earn it) and given to a special class of citizen (artists), who apparently love what they do and might do it for free. Numerous politicians share this point of view, and furthermore argue, that since agreement in the arts community itself seems so difficult to achieve, why should the State be the imprimatur of excellence? Why not allow the marketplace to determine funding levels, and leave government out of the equation?
Anyone who cannot admit some truth in this argument need only to change perspective to see that they may advance it themselves in disguised form. Artists have been known to grumble at being taxed to pay for criminal justice or military budgets they consider inflated, and no government has ever allowed citizens to check off those functions of government they want to support and thus make taxation voluntary. Taxes are obligatory and it is that aspect of them which makes their expenditure scrutinized by a population already pre-disposed to disagree with ways in which those revenues are spent.
Furthermore, many artists themselves support the proposition that art does not exist to correct social injustice; that the art forms of poorer sectors of the population will invariably be less well-funded than art forms of the more prosperous. "Art for art's sake" is the credo of those who feel this way, and they see in this philosophy a protection against the manipulations of Socialist-realist art harnessed to the State's purposes. Whether you agree or not, this position has current standing, and represents the honest point-of-view of an important sector of society. It will not go away or be vanquished.
On the other hand, many socially committed artists would argue that the way to correct arts funding inequities is through economic and social reforms. The fact that they dedicate their art to such efforts does not make it inherently better or worse. Like the "arts for arts sake" community, this group is not going to go away either, and "either-or" conflicts between them divide and weaken the total constituency. Only "both-and" strategies will create an organizing principle for a powerful constituency. All boats rise, or all boats sink.
This seems simple enough to be considered a truism, and yet, during the most recent congressional debates concerning funding of the National Endowment, one heard echoes of these same old arguments reverberating in Washington, and the Arts Community has, once again failed to counter them effectively with philosophy and practice which might ensure the arts a permanent role in the functions of government. The reason, I believe, is that the arts community is divided divided by class and the aforementioned philosophical differences- forestalling common victory by vying internally with one another for dominance. In these disputes victory is conceived of as hierarchical, with winners somehow "above" the losers in measurable wealth and prestige. This is a mental pet which should be taken out into a field and shot, and in its stead we should re-conceive relationships in the arts community as horizontal, which is the equality of interdependence and co-existence as it is framed in Nature, our most reliable and aesthetic model.
Having identified the "enemies" of the arts, let me return to the radical principles of the new Arts Council to assess their utility. As working artists, despite our different disciplines, we had in common the "creative process" the common denominator by which all artists practice their craft. Brilliantly expounded by Noah Purifoy during his installation address, he reminded us that the creative process begins with a hunch, or an intuition. It proceeds by a mark, a motion, a word or a tone - the opening gesture. The artist steps back, reviews what they have done, sees what it implies and makes another mark, motion, word or tone, and in this manner, editing as one goes, integrating themes and raising and satisfying expectations, assembles a finished work. It was Noah's genius to identify the creative process as "a problem-solving mechanism." What makes it uniquely practical, is that by combining logic and intuition, integrating right and left hemisphere brain activity, the creative process becomes a model of optimal human achievement. Even a poor piano player for instance, must master scales, chords, and harmony left-hemisphere processes - and then combine them with feeling and interpretation right hemisphere activities. The Council came to realize that this process was a reservoir of skills in the state's artistic community which could be offered to the state to solve intractable problems for which the state was created. Equally importantly, payment for those efforts would not be for the art itself, but for the service provided.
This may sound like a fine distinction, but it is not. Colloquiolly, most people think of the artist as some sort of specialist in entertainment or decoration. In the public mind (as expressed by the legislature), despite lip-service to the contrary, it is placed secondary to the practical and important functions of government. Somewhere, deep down in our cultural psyche, we practical Americans still view art as the icing on the cake, and not as our bread and butter. We view it as secondary to bricks and mortar or guns and bombs, and this is why it remains the underfed guest at our national banquet. Historically art has always played a role for its patrons whether it is glorifying God, attesting to the grandeur of the Borgias or demonstrating that Exxon is a good neighbor. There has always been a quid pro quo between patron and artist. What, we might ask, is that quid pro quo today? Art itself is not in any danger. As long as people can move, hum, scratch in the dust or pile things on top of one another, art will exist. It existed 50,000 years ago in the Caves of Lascaux and Altamira and will exist tomorrow in the silicon chips and digital technology of the future. That is not the issue. The issue is "Why should the state pay for it?"
As artists ourselves, the Council understood that if artists were paid a living wage for part-time work, they would create art with their free time. By regarding the creative-process as a problem-solving mechanism, the Council was able to devise a number of programs by which artists might serve the larger community; aiding and abetting the mandates of state and local agencies and departments chartered by the citizenry. The validity of our thesis became clear as data from our programs was collected and tabulated. When artists worked in schools and helped the students actualize projects which they had designed, average daily attendance (the basis on which schools receive their funding) improved; class attention and discipline improved, janitor over-time diminished and teacher morale improved markedly. We were about to begin the pilot program to test academic results when the Brown administration ran out of time and the new administration chose not to pursue the experiment any longer.
There were similar benefits in community centers, prisons, senior-citizen centers, mental hospitals and other departments of State, as artists brought their creative problem-solving skills to bear, not just on the "artistic" task at hand, but invariably on the problems inherent in the site: the limited movement skills of seniors, the discipline of class-rooms; the restrictions inherent in a prison etc. Eventually, the CAC had cooperative agreements with 19 other Departments of State each paying 50 cents on the dollar towards the cost of our programs. Artists were designing posters for the State parks, inventing plays which explained history, flora and fauna of various local areas; creating films with schoolchildren on teen-age issues. (One of these films designed and written by students for students won 5 Emmies.) The larger importance of these inter-departmental agreements was that for the first time, arts programs were being supported by State agencies whose funding were rarely ever in jeopardy. Which legislator would cut the education budget; Department of Corrections, or Agriculture? From the Agency perspective, they were purchasing necessary solutions to their problems at half the cost. From the CAC perspective, we were receiving a 50% leverage for our funds!
For a conservative legislator, paying for services was a legitimate argument they could support. The State was contracting for services, not dispensing "grants' to a special class of citizen. The services were providing tangible relief to community problems, and in many cases were being requested by State agencies and departments themselves. Because of this minor shift in perspective, there were several instances where avowedly conservative legislators saved the Arts Council in committee hearings by overriding objections of their own legislative analyst to support us.
One size never fits all, and obviously these principles and programs could not serve every type of artist and arts institution in the State. As the reward for their support, the State's major institutions were guaranteed 10% of the hoped-for 20 million dollar budget. (In most states they were receiving upwards of 50%, so we populists considered this percentage a victory.) Still, even 10% was enough to raise their annual grants from the range of $2,000 to $200,000. Our philosophy offerred added benefits for major institutions, as well. They were free to apply for grants in the community arts and schools, and should the opera choose to conduct voice classes in local high-schools for instance, there could be at least two additional benefits. The first would be more money flowing into the institution's coffers and the equally important second would be the nullification of class-conflict and envy which often prevents those institutions from enjoying warranted levels of support from public levies. A blue-collar parent may not choose to go to the opera, but neither will they rail against government subsidies for it if their children are receiving tangible benefit from its existence. This nullification of envy and class-bias by emphasizing interdependence and mutuality should be a primary goal of any person or institution seeking to increase its political base and arts funding. "All boats rise, or all boats sink".
The success of our "paying-for-services" policy created a climate where we gained the legislator's trust and permission to treat certain "master" artists and institutions as the special cases they deserved to be. The total amounts of money going to such programs were not the majority of our budget and did not attract the consequent flak they might have had they been so. Furthermore, these major institutions now benefited from the enlarged constituency of individual artists no longer competing against them, but struggling on their behalf for a larger common pie.
Governor Brown's successor, Governor Deukmajian had different goals and different philosophies. He cut many of the Council's non-traditional programs and before long, the major institutions were receiving closer to 50% of the State's arts funding. Were they really better off? I think not.
NEA funds had been cut and Congress, sniffing blood, was forcing the agency into a defensive, self-censoring posture, muzzling its own voice, lest Jessie Helms and his compatriots wrap the cord around their throat and eliminate the agency entirely. The "utility" of the arts was once again being questioned by those who saw no irony in spending billions on single-use armaments and pennies on the enduring cultural life of the general population. Rather than understanding art as the research and development arm of culture, buttressed and insured by standards of excellence of the past, Congress now approved only those art-forms consonant with conservative social values. All others exist under cloud of threat. This is tantamount to a corporation competing in this rapidly changing technological environment with no provisions or expenditures made for research and development. It is ludicrous and self-defeating.
This is not to scape-goat conservative (with a small "c") arts and institutions or to blame them for sometimes being protected by unsavory allies. In order not to lose achieved ground, society must maintain the high-water marks from the past; must remain in debate with its own antecedents. There is no way to maintain art-forms developed under royal patronage efficiently or cheaply. You cannot computerize an opera, or down-size a symphony. Such institutions will require patronage to operate and should have it. The question is, should they have it at the expense of community diversity and I believe not.
No art exists in a vacuum. Genius is always nurtured in the broth of community - the bars, coffee-houses, theaters, and workshops, where artists and wannabe's of varying talents confront one another, perform for one another and judge one another. Without that critical polish of peer review, degeneration and decadence sets in; life-giving infusions of vitality and invention nurtured outside the accepted canons are denied access and the cultural body withers. To cream only the most excellent from the field of peers is like practicing irresponsible agriculture, taking from the soil and returning nothing. This may produce bumper crops in the short term, but only at the expense of health and vitality in the long-term.
Interdependence and mutuality is inherently practical. Increasing access to new artists and new communities will give major institutions infusions of energy as well as an expanded political base. Increasing access to their performance for the general citizenry will refine the nature of community art. Unless patrons want to pay several hundred dollars a seat for unsubsidized performances of the opera, symphony, and ballet, they will rely on public funding. It is their right as citizens, and the due of such institutions to receive it, but the class-antagonisms which suggest that such art forms are exclusive of the rest of the community are self-defeating and short-sighted. Both-And is the marching-order of Nature. All ships float you know the drill by now.
So how might this understanding be put into post-millennial practice and how might it affect the course of art and arts funding in the future? In the first place devising opportunities for creativity to be brought to bear on the problems besetting our culture can only be a positive. Artists are the single-largest reservoir of creative problem solvers available to us as a society, and should be utilized as such in every sector of public life. Everyone knows that one can be an average lawyer, doctor, or plumber playing by the book, and they also understand that to be excellent requires something extra, an intuitive approach. Integrating the creative process into the culture is a way of inoculating it against mediocrity, of preparing ourselves to compete on a world-stage where little quarter is given for failure. Aesthetics is information and intelligence. Design is information and intelligence. Beauty of form and proportion is information and intelligence. Even a merchant who understands his products intimately, who presents them with finesse and skill is adding value to them. Creativity can be trained through practice and can enhance the information and intelligence, hence the value, of any given process or product. The millennium is ushering in the information age, and the masters of embedded information, value, and intelligence are our nation's creative problem solvers, whether they are working on a canvas, a stage, or a high-tech research laboratory. All the political adjustments of curriculum to revert to back-to-basics and three "R" orientations will never enhance them with the added dividends inherent in creative play. If you doubt that, just consider the market today for video-games. To discount this fact is to shortchange our students, literally, of half of their functioning brain-power. It is like sending them out to compete in the world after lobotomizing them.
Furthermore students who are engaged with and having fun at what they do, reap an invaluable experience of 100% commitment which they never forget. Once someone has done something to 100% of their abilities they will never settle for less again. This is the surest cure against mediocrity a society could invest in, and along the way the investment will be solving current problems as it protects the future.
The perception that the arts are the R&D department of culture creates a commonality amongst all artists and institutions that makes banding together for common goals easier. The future is our common heritage. Once it is accepted that you cannot pour a quart of liquid into a pint pitcher; that the world will never be less than its present level of complexity, and that no one philosophy or political perspective will ever permanently vanquish the rest, than we could begin the necessary task of learning accommodation; the design and fit of our various social parts into a coherent whole. To do this is to apply the creative-process to the culture at large; to view it in the way an artist might, as a series of component parts to be recombinated in delightful and inventive ways. I do not know the shapes and forms the designs will assume any more than any person in this room does, but each of us, by applying imagination, can begin the reconceiving and reconfiguring of the attachment of society's parts. Each of us can invent startling and pleasing recombination's by behaving as if we are all, always going to be here, and are all finally interdependent and charged with caring for one another. Were we to behave as if this were true; as if "all boats rise or all boats sink" we might at the end of this Century's day, find ourselves anticipating a radiant millennial dawn, cresting gloriously over a boundless, infinitely replenishable, ocean of life as mysterious and dazzling as the most sublime work of art.
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