August 6, 2016

The Arts, Policy, Governance & Research

This is a repost of a reply I wrote recently on Ron Burnett's blog, Critical Approaches to Culture and Communications. His post:
Whenever analysts, researchers or policymakers talk about the Visual Arts and/or Design, they default to let's have some pictures up on some walls or alternately let's use Design to pretty up urban and institutional spaces. This approach is quite pervasive. This is because the creative arts are generally seen as decorative in the 19th century meaning of that word. Decorative means adding something pretty to an environment or space. Instead of recognizing that the creative arts are about problem solving and research, popular notions of the decorative are powerful reminders of the challenges that lie ahead for artists and designers. Notwithstanding statistical evidence that shows great success when artists and designers apply their approaches to problem solving, popular notions of marginality and examples from the sciences suggest that artists and designers are peripheral rather than central to planning for the future of our society. I would welcome comments.
My response:
"For a country to have a great [artist] … is like having another government." — Solzhenitsyn

The arts help us project our imaginations in new ways. They disrupt and they synthesize. Artists are like finely tuned antennae to social, political and technological currents expressing warnings and creating conceptual machines for transforming our routine, stuck ways of thinking. They intuitively understand the complexities of culture and are always studying and reading texts and images and other media, digesting and shaping meaning.

Art is and always has been a research process. Structured, unstructured, systematic, intuitive, social, personal, interpersonal, collaborative, iterative and experimental.

Although there are examples of artists like Havel or Reagan who became politicians, most artists choose to shape society through indirect tactics. Artists are the R&D department of the public relations industry. They drive the advertising messaging that speaks deeply to our subconscious drives and desires. Artists design political campaigns, public spectacles and (seemingly) accidental viral media moments. Artists can sidestep political and commercial systems altogether and create new models for social organization and interpersonal relations. They are the anarchists, the pacifists, the civil rights activists, the comedians and the truth tellers.

But perhaps more interesting than artists who act politically are the politicians act like artists. Antanas Mockus was mayor of Bogota, Columbia, for two terms. Thanks to his measures he "turned one of the world's most dangerous, violent and corrupt capitals into a peaceful model city populated by caring citizens." He did this in part by employing the tactics of a performance artist in the public spaces of the city. He wore a super hero costume to attract attention to issues; he hired mimes to act as traffic cops and ridicule offenders instead of ticketing them; he organized a women-only night for the city. Men had to stay at home."Antanas+Mockus"

Creativity, fun, and playfulness are all the realm of art and these tools can be deployed in conjunction with deeper conventional research methodologies (literature reviews, archival searches, quantitative studies, ethnographic interviews, user observation, etc.).

As for design, thankfully there is a convenient one-word answer to those who still treat it as a decorative after-thought: Apple.

The most valuable company in the world got to its current position by embracing art, design and creativity at the very heart of the organization. Creativity is not an afterthought — it pervades all their decisions. Engineering is deployed in service of creative vision and aesthetic choices. Users are studied and experiences are crafted around expectations of smooth and natural gestures and cognitive styles.

The business world is slowly waking up to this. The world's top consulting company, McKinsey, has for years been providing governments and major businesses with advice on improving their organizations' structure and efficiency. Last year they conceded that they needed more design expertise and bought design consulting giant, Lunar.

In terms of moving art and design from the periphery into the center of planning for the future of our society, I think it would behoove us to reexamine how we support the arts in Canada. At the moment , arts funding is based on categorical definitions of who is and who isn't an artist and what is and what isn't artistic work. The arts here are highly administered and siloed. Funding is structured with a certain prescription for how art should work and function. I think that is why we are seeing a lot more innovation in the private sector around technology and design startups than in the arts. Young people are gravitating to where there are fewer constraints.

To move art into the centre of Canadian society, we need to fund and support more experimental work. Artistic research is highly fruitful and has a clear historical track record of benefitting business, scientific and social sectors, but artistic research can only happen when emerging artists are given the room to fail.

Failure, after all, is the heart of research.

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