Note from State of the Artist: Thanks for all the thoughtful and provocative comments on Laura Zabel’s thoughtful and provocative post “The Importance of Being Ordinary.” In this post, Bill Cleveland of the Center for the Study of Art and Community responds directly to Zabel. You can find her original post here.
Caveat: For the past year I have been working with the McKnight Foundation to better understand how Minnesota’s artist ecosystem works and what artists need to thrive. These comments are duly influenced by this extremely interesting work in progress.
Dear Laura Zabel: Thank you for the SHOUT-out.
Yes, the artist as “precious”impulse sometimes separates the cultural community from Main Street at a time when our collective competence and creativity is most needed.
And, if what artists do was considered as “important” as the activities of police, firefighters, community organizers, teachers, lawyers, doctors . . . and most of the “rest of the people in your neighborhood” then we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Yes, some artists, arts organizations, and arts marketers drag out the velveteen-draped pedestal as a way to elevate and distinguish their art in our hyper-commodified cultural marketplace.
And, we have found from our ongoing research that most artists are not the least bit interested in being portrayed as levitating geniuses.
Yes, people don’t need other people to tell them when to shout “bravo” and which artists deserve respect. And yes . . . they can be trusted and celebrated for deciding for themselves.
And, some artists create work that transcends the time and place of its making and is truly transformational. (See R. van Rijn, A. Wilson, M. Buonarroti, P. Neruda, J. Coltrane, B. Marley, M. Graham, R. Zimmerman, A. Verdi, L. Hughes, et al.)
Yes, human creativity is naturally occurring, massively abundant, and certainly not the sole province of artists. In fact, by the age of four, every child has employed its processes to learn the language, symbol and social structures that they will depend on for the rest of their lives.
And, this creative process is not a vague and abstract thing. It is humankind’s most powerful capacity. It can be practiced, strengthened and disciplined. This is something that many artists do with intention and rigor to great effect.
Yes, the “artist as special” myth does more than just isolate and separate; it also helps feed the legitimacy of a darker narrative that stereotypes artists as degenerate and dangerous outsiders.
And, under the right circumstances artists can be extremely disruptive and . . . yes, dangerous. Just ask Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic, Jan Smutts, and dozens of other tyrants who jailed and murdered hundreds of thousands of artists to stifle their vision and voices.
Yes, most of us have a secret art maker inside. It is, after all, what humans do, imagine and create. So the “artist as other” story also divides us all from this potent and essential aspect of ourselves.
And, more and more artists and arts organizations are recognizing that the “artist as genius/hobo/Martian” narrative is a dysfunctional product of our culture. These creators see their work and their roles as part of a social/cultural ecosystem that can only thrive when work is woven into the broader fabric of community life.
Post Script: During the 1730’s, when the sea threatened to inundate the Netherlands, Dutch experts in hydrology and stone dike construction were in high demand and considered critical for community survival. We are approaching a similar time in our own history. Only this time, the immanent threat is a failure of imagination. As such, new stories are needed to provide the foundation for new beliefs about the planet and our place on it. I believe achieving this significant shift in human consciousness will require the active participation of the ordinary and undervalued creators in our midst.
William Cleveland directs the Center for the Study of Art and Community, specializing in the development and assessment of arts-based community partnerships; and training for artists and their community and institutional partners. His most recent book Between Grace and Fear: The Role of the Arts in a Time of Change written with Patricia Shifferd was published in 2010.