Arlene Goldbard on Imaginative Empathy

I had meant to post a link to Arlene Goldbard’s talk at the NET Summit in San Francisco some time ago, but time keeps on slipping, slipping. However, now is still as good a time as any, maybe more so after posting Ellen McLaughlin’s commencement address on the twin births of theatre and democracy.

Both are concerned with art’s role in civic life, and both engage with that concern by widening the possible/necessary in exciting ways. Read together, they offer one compelling answer to the question of value I raised here.

Here is an excerpt from the talk to tempt you into going to her website and downloading the whole thing:

“Now it’s up to us to apply this knowledge to the problem of national recovery and the challenge of building a humane, sustainable civil society right here in the United States. Now is the time for a radical re-understanding of the social role, the critical importance, the public interest in creativity, specifically artistic creativity. We can close the gap in understanding that has prevented so many people from seeing that artistic and cultural creativity is not just a nice thing to have around, and a really special amenity when you have the resources to invest in something extra, but a necessity for recovery, survival and sustainability.

How do we do that? We have to begin by enlarging our own thinking, speech and action. I estimate that I have been in about a trillion conversations, read about a billion arguments, that end in the slogan, “support the arts.” Accustomed to long-term deprivation, conventional arts advocates tend to think small, focusing on saving the tiniest government agencies, on hoping not to lose too much more this time around. Many conventional arts-support arguments are silly; for example, the “economic multiplier effect” of buying theater tickets: people who go to the theater may eat in a restaurant or pay to park their cars, they may have a drink after the performance. Each additional expenditure multiplies the economic impact of a dollar spent on tickets. That’s the economic multiplier effect, and, yes, it all adds up to jobs. But so what? Going to a dog show or a football game or lady mud wrestling has the same economic impact. And that’s one of the strongest conventional arts-support arguments! After decades of this stuff, conventional arts advocates have worn themselves thin stretching a point, with almost nothing to show for it. Adjusted for inflation, even the recently expanded 2009 NEA budget is worth only a bit more than half its value in 1981, the year of Ronald Reagan’s first budget cuts.

In a time of economic crisis, when people are worried about surviving, when it is hard to fund schools, housing and medical care (but still not so hard to finance war, unfortunately), arts support arguments become even more half-hearted and desperate, and therefore even less effective. You don’t need me to tell you what’s happening to your own organizations and your own communities right now. I am reminded of the dream of right-wing crackpot Grover Norquist, who said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” That is what has happened over the last three decades to the arguments for arts support, which are circling the drain as I speak.

The remedy isn’t more shrinkage but the opposite, to think big. Conventional arts advocates claim art enriches, beautifies, expresses and entertains. These are important social goods. But the elephant in the room right now, the large, unacknowledged truth that we had better hurry up and shout from the rooftops, is that in a uniquely powerful way, art can save us.

Does the grandiosity of that assertion make you uneasy? Just give me another ten minutes before you make up your mind whether to listen to your uneasiness or to your hopes.”

Read all of it here – and it’s worth the read.

Leave a comment