In the early ’90s, the proper role of the arts became a topic of public discussion as the so-called “culture wars” raged in legislatures, newspapers, and talk radio across the country. Working artists nearly lost the battle because many of us were unwilling or unable to embrace multiple answers to the question of art's function. Forces were polarized between the kind of comfortable art that reinforces one's view of reality versus the kind of confrontational art that challenges one's view of reality. Political correctness became the primary way of evaluating art, and while artistic liberals were attacking artistic conservatives, the religious right stepped in and came close to dismantling both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Had the artistic community embraced multiple functions for the arts, we might have been able to preserve the artistic progressiveness of both endowments. As it is, they survived by shifting their support to non-controversial projects channeled through established institutions. And the opportunity—indeed, the responsibility—of individual artists to define their own role was never really addressed in the public conversation.
I believe, nonetheless, that identifying our individual function or role as an artist is essential for artistic maturation. First, we develop our technical skill (“Do I have the chops to do what I want to do really well?”). Then, we need to develop our awareness of our value systems and recognize the principles that guide us—especially in times of crisis.
Aligning my technically-proficient work with my values and principles requires me to consider the unanswerable question put to us by poet Mary Oliver: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Identifying my core values leads me to explore how mastering the performing arts is going to help identify what I “plan to do.” The function of my work grows from that alignment.
For example, two of my own core values are “personal development” and “helping others.” These complementary principles require me to explore how to maintain a sense of myself and still be part of a group, and the investigation of this fundamental dynamic between the individual and the community permeates my work as dramaturg, director, producer, and teacher.
As an individual artist, I am drawn to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of music-theater in all its manifestations. The concrete rationality of words and images combine with the abstract emotionalism of music and voice—each element retains their basic identity while simultaneously interconnecting with each other, creating an experience in which the effect of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Continued exploration of this particular (and peculiar) art form contributes to my own personal development.
As a member of a community, I help others by providing an unwittingly appreciated service. In a healthy functioning society, we have many different kinds of service providers. There are information workers, knowledge workers, social workers, manual workers, and of course, soul workers—the psychologists, ministers, and especially the artists who work with the intangibles of human interaction.
And I believe that, contrary to the belief of many artists, our work is valued far more than we sometimes recognize.
We know that if we have a legal problem, we call a lawyer; if we have a medical problem, we call a doctor; if we have a plumbing problem, we call a plumber—and if we have a problem with our soul, we listen to music, or read a poem, or see a film, or go to play. We may not consciously realize that we are feeding our souls; indeed, many people wouldn’t even think to use that language. We are simply “in the mood” for some artistic stimulation of any kind. In fact, when we expand our view of “legitimate” art, then, we see that our community is obsessed with artistic expression—music, video, movies, live performance of every kind.
Among the few positive results of the attack on the NEA have been the arguments generated to justify the value of the arts. We can now tell parents that if their children study music, they will be better at math; if they study theater, they will become collaborative team players in business; if they read poems, they will develop better verbal skills, and so forth. We can demonstrate that the arts comprise a substantial sector of economic activity; that theaters bring audiences downtown to restaurants and hotels; that nonprofit arts organizations are major employers and economic drivers in many communities. But as true as all of this may be, these are all secondary values, using an external set of benchmarks that focus on practical and economic benefits.
But the primary value of art in the lives of our audience, though sometimes ignored, is still discernible. People intuitively recognize that the arts’ sacramental power still survives in the unconscious and cannot be completely ignored. The spiritual role of the artist becomes even more important in a modern society which many perceive to lack communal mythology and values.
A few years ago, the Heinz Endowments, working with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance, initiated a study designed to explore why the general public actually valued the arts. Although the initial impulse was to use this information to develop a citywide arts awareness campaign, many of their findings are of use to artists as we grapple with the questions of who we are and what function we serve in a healthy community.
The study identified twenty-three ways that people relate to the arts, including elements of discovery, self-esteem, relaxation, and stimulation. These eventually generated what the study called “thematic metaphors.” Audiences valued artistic experiences because the arts offered transportation (leading audiences outside of themselves and of their daily lives); redemption (retrieving lost desires, impulses, and visions); appropriation (combining youthful innocence with confident maturity); and intermediation (re-visioning reality and humanizing abstract issues).
These are the primary roles that the arts play in our culture; and while the practical and economic impact of the arts cannot be denied, it is in these intangibles that our overall function reside: If artists have anything in common, it is our ability to provide experiences and objects that touch audiences in ways that can’t be rationally articulated.
And since audiences yearn to be touched, we can identify one, if not the, function of the performing arts: a communal function. When artists combine that function with an awareness of their personal value system as individuals, we begin to determine for ourselves, in collaboration with our audiences, what it is we have to offer—and by extension, what it is that we want to do with our one wild and precious life. ❦
Note: The text of this article has been corrected. (Oct. 1, 2008)