I spent the first part of this week in Sacramento, where I gave a talk to a statewide "arts visioning retreat," an audience of about a hundred artists and administrators who wanted to help lead a conversation about reframing the arts' public purpose.
The drive, a little over an hour through rolling hills and vast flat stretches, was a little surreal, a scene from a personal sci-fi picture in which time folds back on itself, with uncanny echoes. I haven't made that journey for many years: no reason. But long ago, I lived in Sacramento for a year or so, running a cultural project in the now quaintly kooky days of the Jerry Brown administration.
When I drove away from my rented house in Sacramento for the last time, it was exactly half my life ago. Today is my birthday, so I am able to make this calculation with some precision. Back then, the trip was a drive in the country. At night, when I usually made it, there were long passages with no illumination but the stars and moon. Now most of it is a repeating tableau of discount malls and tract houses, spotlights on billboards tinting the night sky pink.
In between trips to Sacramento, the politics of culture have morphed through several incarnations, including a very long time in which my ideas about culture and democracy (and others like them) have been in official disfavor. But as I am discovering, if you stick around for half your life (so far), you may see the wheel start to turn. Right now, many mainstream arts people—by which I mean leaders of institutions and agencies, mostly—are concluding that the old support strategies are no longer valid, whether on account of their intrinsic flaws or the poor state of the economy, or both. So there's demoralization, leading to a certain amount of desperation. People keep saying maybe we should abandon the word "art" because it has so many toxic associations, and tremendous energy is being poured into finding a new rubric, as if it were a matter of magic words: creative sector, expressive life, arts ripple effect. But beneath the magical thinking about "branding," and slogans, there's an emerging receptivity to new or different ways of understanding the public interest in artistic creativity.
The response to my talk was gratifyingly positive. I pointed out that those who steer our lives along the path of art have almost always been set on that path by an experience of the ineffable enabled and activated by human creativity in the service of beauty and meaning, of "something that can never be adequately expressed, but which ignites in our hearts the desire to keep trying."
To characterize the state of congruity we seek, I quoted Walter Pater's inspired assertion that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, because, in its ideal, consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the form from the matter, the subject from the expression.” But along the path of art, there is a wide gap between aspiration and actuality. In the decades marked by the half-life since I lived in Sacramento, our impact has been constrained by dominant social values that make many people tone-deaf to this truth:
Arts advocates have been trying to pour the vast personal and social importance of this experience into containers—into language, slogans, arguments, strategies—far too small to hold it. The result has been almost unbearable frustration at being unable to put our point across. After long exposure to the framework of understanding that insists on privileging material value and things that can be counted, weighed and measured over all other forms of value, we have been reduced to making weak, even desperate arguments that do not do justice to the powerful truths contained in those experiences of the ineffable that set us on our paths in the first place.
As an antidote to this frustration, I shared what I have learned, inviting listeners to experiment for themselves:
Our power to persuade is at its height when there is absolute congruence between what we know and what we say. Many of you are visiting legislators this afternoon. Imagine how it would feel to make even a subtle shift away from repeating the same old and weak arguments, toward representing the much larger and deeper truths that animate your work.
People are hungry for such moments now. It will be a long time before anyone knows what was really happening in this hectic time, when the natural world slammed into the cracks in our human creations, shattering lives as in Haiti, when countless people awakened from the long, fitful slumber of modernity's superstitions while others kept trying to put their questions to sleep. But I have a growing sense of certainty: the largest movement I discern in this swirling storm is toward a renewal of awareness, such that the things that have been treated as marginal—beauty, meaning, reflection, creativity, facing loss and finding resilience—may be moved toward their true value, toward the center of our collective understanding. I am putting my shoulder behind that movement.
Yesterday, I took a walk with a new friend who told me she had wanted to contact me for several years, since she heard a talk I gave at another meeting, on community arts as spiritual practice. My words had helped her recognize her need to bring her own work into congruence with her deepest truths. She had risked doing what she most desired, and by all measures, she had succeeded.
I thanked her, but I don't know if I adequately conveyed what an important birthday present she had given me. I understand that the power to spark self-recognition and possibility is not inherent in a particular offering. I'm sure that no matter how much a particular talk resonates with some of the people present, at the back of every room, someone is texting baseball scores, someone is making a grocery list, someone is waiting for it all to be over. Transformative moments emerge from a kind of relationship: my readiness to speak a particular truth, your openness to it (or vice versa). But to know I have been instrumental to some such moments means more to me than I can express.
Half a life ago, when this understanding began to dawn for me, it was primitive and inchoate. All I could really do was imagine some sort of ideal world, and chip away at the orthodoxies that impeded others' imaginations. Now I have very little interest in the ideal, but I still believe in the power of our capacity for social imagination. They say that blessings can direct energies from hidden realms into this world. If you want to offer one for me on this birthday—and of course, I hope you will—let it be for long, wide-awake life, as filled with the opportunity to catalyze transformative moments as a jumbo box of matches is filled with the potential of fire. (Love and livelihood welcomed too.)