To Have and Have Not
In a commercial society, artists must claim their own language, their own values, their own space
By Jaan Whitehead
What happens when artists sit at the table with administrators and their efforts to articulate human and artistic concerns are overwhelmed by the language and values of commerce? What happens when an artistic community cannot establish the importance of its work to the larger society? And what happens when our art increasingly articulates the superficial rather than reaching that vital, dreaming, aching part of us where the best art lives?
We in the artistic community live in the midst of the questions; they are part of our lives. But I think we are seldom aware how much these questions reflect the profoundly commercial society in which we live. Because they are so familiar, it is easy to underestimate how deeply the language and values of commerce intrude on our space, absorbing and displacing our own language and values and leaving us with little ground of our own to stand on. It is not surprising that we often feel impotent, either turning our frustrations inward in an isolating loss of self-esteem or allowing ourselves to be deflected to more accommodating questions such as how to quantify the economic value of our work. Within our society, we do not have a place to call our own, a place where we can claim our own values independent of commercial values. We do not have language that illuminates this place and expresses our sense of our own identity. And we do not have a deeply established legitimacy that supports the value of our work to the larger society.
These are some of the issues I want to explore in this essay because I think they are the issues most masked by the way commercialism reduces the many different experiences of our political, social and artistic lives into one economic story line. If we can stand outside that story line and find other points of reference, we can gain a clearer understanding of these issues and begin to ask different kinds of questions about them.
Language of Our Own
I start with language because I think the relationship of language to identity is one of our least appreciated issues. Language is always more powerful than it seems in everyday life. It expresses our view of ourselves, but it also constitutes that view. We can only talk about ourselves in the language we have available. If that language is rich, it illuminates us. But if it is narrow or restricted, it represses and conceals us. If we do not have language that describes what we believe ourselves to be or what we want to be, we risk being defined in someone else’s terms.
One of the most violent and poignant examples of this in our country’s history occurred when Native American children were taken from their families in the late 1800s and put in boarding schools run by whites. In these schools they were forbidden to use their language, wear their own clothes and long hair, or tell—or even remember—the family and tribal stories that contained their history. Some of these children became mute—forbidden to stay in their own identity, they were unable or unwilling to assume a foreign one.
In our commercial society, artists and arts institutions experience a similar although less drastic loss of identity. Arts institutions are defined as being part of the nonprofit world, along with institutions such as universities, social service agencies and churches. But when you think about it, the term nonprofit does not say anything relevant about us. Quite the opposite, in fact. The term describes what we are not rather than what we are, what we fail to achieve rather than what we do achieve.
Nonprofit is an economic term with legal implications. Like other "non" words such as nonwhite, nonprofit started as a classification category. With time, however, it evolved in general usage to describe social institutions that serve a public purpose but structurally cannot support themselves through the market system. In part because they are highly labor-intensive, these services would be priced prohibitively high in a free market. If we want these services to be widely available, they must be sold at a below-cost price, which, of course, means they generate a loss rather than a profit. We then compensate for this by giving nonprofits a special legal status that allows them to accept tax deductible charitable contributions to cover this loss.
No name or word can completely describe something, but language is like a sieve; certain defining characteristics are caught by a word and others are lost. In the case of the word nonprofit, I think the most important characteristics are lost. When we define our social institutions in economic and legal terms, what is lost is the reason they exist in the first place—the center of their identity. A commercial company exists only if it can make a profit; it really is not relevant whether it produces cars or computer software. If it does not make a profit, it eventually goes out of business. But that is not the case for social institutions. Social institutions, including arts institutions, only exist because of what they produce. A church exists only to offer religious services, a ballet company to offer dance, a homeless shelter to provide housing. These services are not interchangeable. They are provided in spite of the fact that they do not make a profit because their purpose is social, not economic. The term nonprofit does not reveal this aspect of their identity.
Equally important is what the term nonprofit substitutes for that identity. In our society, nonprofit is not a neutral term; it carries with it the values, epistemology, language and limitations of the commercial system. Just think of how we talk about ourselves. As institutions, we produce a product that is marketed and sold to consumers and, since our earned income does not cover costs, we produce a deficit that must be covered by unearned income or charitable contributions. This language mimics that of a commercial enterprise, focusing on failure and undermining both self-esteem and creative imagination. Since we do not have an alternative social language to describe ourselves and give us a different kind of dignity and status, we are defined by the commercial system. Instead of asserting our own passionate beliefs in what we are, what we do, and what we can do, we become inarticulate.
Nonprofit is only a word. But what would happen if we stopped using it—if we had to find other words to describe who we are and what we do? What kind of dialogue would emerge? Could we develop a different sense of identity and legitimacy? Would there be a wider range of ways to do our work? Would there be more doors open to change? Perhaps even more interesting—what would happen if the situation were reversed, if we were called social institutions and commercial enterprises were called nonsocial institutions? What shifts of perception and power would take place?
A Place of Our Own
Economic language obscures artists and arts institutions, rather than illuminating them. That is one view of the issues facing artists in a commercial society. Another view can be found in the perspectives of political theory. Among other things, political theory is concerned with issues of power, legitimacy and boundaries. Some thinkers, especially on the continent, have concluded that the economic sector of our commercial society has expanded beyond its natural boundaries and penetrated too deeply into the fabric of the political and social areas of life. To use political language: It has colonized these areas, imposing on them its own assumptions about human behavior and its own values and categories of analysis.
We experience this phenomenon in our daily lives when we are upset by the penetration of commercial advertising into school textbooks and classrooms, or we are frustrated when our health care is based on economic rather than medical considerations. We see it in the political world when the democratic process seems to be more a marketplace for political access and products than a place of leadership and intelligent discourse. And, of course, we see it in pressures on artists and arts institutions to justify their work on the basis of economic rather than artistic merit—pressures vividly captured in a review I recently read that described the most theatrical and stirring scene in the play as a "true money moment."
One increasingly popular approach some political theorists have taken to the problem of economic encroachment is to try to reclaim space by reinvigorating the idea of a civil society, an idea found in older forms of political thought. As currently conceived, civil society is an area of activity separate from economic activity, an area in which personal and family life, as well as artistic, intellectual and social life, take place. For some theorists, civil society also contains elements of political life—for example, democratic values and practices that they hope will restore commonality, civility and tolerance to political life. For others, it is a space separate from both economic and political life. In either case, the attempt is to establish the legitimacy of a sphere of life that has its own values and infrastructure and is vigorous enough to withstand economic colonization.
The popularity of the idea of civil society has now spread beyond the academy, and you hear the phrase used in social and artistic discussions as well as on the campaign trail. Although it is still a developing concept and open to various interpretations, what seems clear is that the term has touched a nerve and is expressing the desire of many people to have some way of describing a space in their lives that has different values than the commercial world. The image that comes to mind is a courtyard enclosed by strong walls where you can stand and breathe and go about your work with a free and energized creativity, sheltered from economic domination. Of course our lives are not separated into different physical spaces, but I think the image accurately reflects an inner need to feel there is such a space, where social and artistic values can trump economic values rather than being trumped by them. As with language, if we do not clearly articulate values of our own, the commercial society we live in will substitute other values—particularly economic values—absorbing us into a world not of our own making.
I have always found it interesting that one of the most frequent criticisms of arts institutions is that they are not run efficiently, that they are led astray by confused values or ineffective management. But this puts things backwards and is a perfect example of how economic values become substituted for artistic values. Of course arts institutions must be efficient and use their resources wisely, particularly when they are accepting charitable contributions. That should be a given, but it is only a beginning. It is even more important to evaluate the actual work of the institutions. When you plant a garden you need good soil. But you do not plant the garden for the soil; you plant it for the flowers. Similarly, we have arts institutions for the art, not for efficiency. Efficiency is an aid to the arts, not a substitute for them. And arts institutions are not economic institutions; they are arts institutions that have economic constraints. But values other than economic ones need to have currency for the present backward way of looking at things to be reversed.
The question, of course, is what these values would be for the arts. If we remove economic criteria, what does success mean for the arts—or is this even a word we would want to use? If not, how do we know a play or a ballet or a painting is important? How do we define important? These are questions that have haunted us for a long time, but how can we establish the value of our work if we cannot articulate its worth separate from its economic benefits? Art does not originate in the economic sphere; why should it be evaluated there?
Civil society is a complex concept. It is about boundaries, values, and creativity and freedom. Whether such a space actually could be developed remains to be seen. It would have to have deep enough roots in language, infrastructure and behavior to withstand economic pressures. Otherwise it would be just another myth in the making. But whether or not a well-developed civil society is practical does not negate the importance of the questions the idea is trying to address. And, although the political concept of a civil society is only one response to these questions, we can still ask ourselves whether our own language, institutions and behavior support—or undermine—such an idea. Eventually, success comes from practice, not theory, so how we talk, what values we articulate, and how we build and run our institutions become important.
Meaning of Our Own
If we had our own language and our own values in our own space, would that be enough to establish the legitimacy of our work not just to ourselves but to the larger society? To some extent it would, because of the massive changes that would have to take place for this to happen in the first place. But I think you still have to ask the deeper questions of what legitimacy means in our society and why the arts are or are not considered legitimate. This is a difficult issue, reaching down to fundamental questions of what kind of knowledge a society believes in and what kind of meaning that knowledge creates—the slippery world of epistemology or theories of knowledge.
Meaning in society is not fixed—it is dynamic; it is created. That is how cultures evolve. But for meaning to be accepted or sustained, it must be considered legitimate. And its legitimacy usually is based on a society’s understanding of truth, what knowledge and ways of knowing it accepts as valid. For the arts to have saliency, they must be more than entertainment or a source of personal expression. They must be seen as having a connection to kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing that create meaning valued by society.
Our country is a product of the Enlightenment, the 17th- and 18th-century development of thought that believed man could use reason to control and better his environment. The competitive markets of industrialism—the thinking went—would free man from material want. Democracy would free man from political tyranny. And science would free man from the vicissitudes of the natural world. Modern economic theory, modern democratic theory and modern theories of science all developed in this revolutionary and emancipatory atmosphere.
But it was the paradigm of scientific thought that emerged in the 20th century as the overriding paradigm of knowledge. Fact based, empirically derived, scientific thought sought regularities in nature that could be understood, predicted and hopefully controlled. Such truth, because it was provable, could free man not only from nature but also from the superstition and myth that, with religion, have been the carriers of truth for much of human history.
Although science is only one form of knowledge and one way of knowing, as the influence of scientific thinking spread, it became equated with the whole of knowledge. And, because scientific knowledge acquired such power and prestige, other areas of thought sought its mantle. Economic thought, in particular, has claimed scientific validity based on the predictable regularities of competitive markets and the affinity of much of economic theory to mathematical expression. Political thought and sociology have also, at times, tried to claim scientific validity although with much less success.
The response to the rise of scientific power was the myriad challenges we call postmodern thought. The battles of postmodern versus modern thought that have swirled around us for so many years are, in large part, battles about the hegemony of scientific thought over the realm of what is considered legitimate truth. Postmodernists have challenged this hegemony from many directions in an effort to break up what was seen as an increasingly narrow and tyrannical domination of the definition of truth. They even challenged the idea of truth itself, seeing knowledge as a complexity of ways of knowing and types of understanding rather than a universal paradigm.
Postmodernism has offered many constructs to the arts—hermeneutics, deconstruction, semiotics—that have enriched our work. But I do not think it has effected much change in the saliency of the arts to the larger society, probably because the esoteric nature of postmodern thought has not lent itself to everyday political discourse. In order to champion the significance of the arts, we must develop more comprehensible and humanly relevant arguments that explain how they contribute knowledge and meaning to society.
I think some of these arguments can be found by opening up the process of knowing as the postmodernists have but in ways that are more familiar—and in ways that reflect how artists work and the kinds of knowledge they contribute to society. A few years ago I was in the Vatican Museum in Rome and was captivated by a Ben Shahn painting that had a quotation from the 17th-century physicist Robert Hooke embedded in it. The quotation said:
- So many are
the links upon which the true philosophy depends of which, if one be loose
or weak, the whole chain is in danger of being dissolved. It is to begin
with the hands and eyes and to proceed on through the memory, to be continued
by the reason; nor is it to stop there but to come to the hands and eyes
But I think this not only left people feeling truncated but also feeling an emptiness, a hunger to allow ambiguity, wonder and mystery back into their lives. The turn to Eastern religions and medicine, the fascination with native cultures and myth, the interest in carnival, puppets and masks are all expressions of the desire to fill this emptiness. So one way to argue the value of the arts is to show how they reconnect us to the spiritual, sensual and emotional parts of ourselves. Reclaiming these parts of ourselves restores more of the full person—and the arts—to the realm of knowledge.
Another way I think Hooke’s description opens up space for the arts is his stress on knowledge as a process. It has many steps and is dynamic not static, more a verb than a noun. Science focuses attention on what it sees as answers; answers become knowledge. In contrast, the arts illuminate and help define questions, a different step in the process. Illumination is a place of imagination more than facts, a place where the goal is understanding rather than answers. In its fullest and most open sense it is a place where new ideas and new voices are allowed into the process, so it is a place where critique and challenge can originate. Illumination not only precedes answers, but allows answers to emerge from a much wider and more provocative realm of ideas, certainly a creative and valuable part of knowledge.
When the process of knowing is seen as dynamic, it also has a much greater sense of authorship, of agency than science offers. We can be part of it, and it can be empowering. If we think of community as a verb rather than a noun, we get the same feeling. We are part of it, and it is something we can shape and build. Or if we think of institution as a process of instituting rather than a fixed entity, we see the potential for change inherent in institutions. It is the same with knowledge; it is the process of knowing that allows our entry. Verbs have room for us; nouns rarely do.
Finally, in addition to enriching the process of knowing, the arts can express what is often inexpressible, something factual knowledge can never do. Through dance, music, painting and storytelling, the arts reach us at a nonverbal level and make real what we feel but cannot articulate. The annihilation of the Holocaust, the life-giving need of Joe Turner’s song, Chekhov’s poignant understanding of middle age, Picasso’s expression of the obscenity of war, the exaltive beauty of the "Hallelujah Chorus"—these come to us through the arts. The arts illuminate a wider and more complex range of human understandings than science. And they show us what is not always directly knowable; they make mystery real.
Postmodernism has opened up the box of knowledge. Fortunately, science continues to make remarkable advances in understanding the natural world, particularly in such fields as astronomy, medicine and physics. Having achieved much of its goal of displacing superstition, however, it now can be accorded its rightful place as one part of knowledge and one way of knowing. I believe the challenge for the arts is to build on the freedom that postmodernism offers to argue the legitimacy of its own place in the realm of knowledge. And to do this through a politically viable, very human conversation.
Claiming Our Own
There are many ways to look at how artists fare in our commercial society. The thoughts offered here are just a few of those ways. Can they be translated into a richer dialogue about art and its place in society? I don’t know. But does it matter that we talk about ourselves in economic language? Does it matter that our values are too often trumped by economic values? Does it matter that we are not accepted as legitimate and needed creators of the knowledge and meaning in our society? Yes, it does.
Jaan Whitehead, a former executive director of Theatre for a New Audience, has worked as a staff member or trustee at numerous theatre organizations, and is a member of TCG’s National Council for the American Theatre. Before becoming active in the arts, she taught political philosophy at Georgetown University.
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