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I Need to Say This, But I Don’t Know if You Want to Hear It

There’s been an art-blogworld swirl lately about need versus want. You can find a summary with links to relevant posts by half a dozen bloggers in this entry in Barry Hessenius’s blog.

In this context, I find the distinction nearly meaningless. Need how? To sustain life, we need air, water, nourishment, sleep, and shelter. To thrive, most of us need caring, connection, pleasure, meaning—the myriad things that account for the difference between mere survival and a life lived fully into our capacities. To keep up with the Joneses, one’s home needs a new car in the driveway or a new coat of paint. The further from survival’s necessities we get, the more we use the word need to signal intense wanting or intense obligation: I really need that pair of shoes; I really need to kiss you right now; I really need to wash my car; I really need to see the dentist. Sometimes want elides into need without noticing. The archetypal experience my young self shared with many other artists jumps an arc from the spark of awakening interest to the strong current of desire-drenched need: I needed to paint, and now I need to write.

My fellow bloggers said most of what there is to say about the want/need distinction when it comes to artists and arts organizations: the arrogance of presuming to know what others need in the realm of art; the daring to make art that speaks to whatever its creators believe is required to awaken, edify, or inspire action in their community or society in any given moment; the necessity of engaging in deep, collaborative dialogue as the basis for any sustainable claim to know either needs or wants; the impossibility of judging relative need in the moment, and of predicting the consequences of such judgment; and so on.

It’s what they didn’t say that has me thinking. Both want and need take on different meanings depending on who is posing the question. If, out to dinner, we peruse the menu in a Chinese restaurant and I ask what you want, the implicit boundary conditions for my question are known to both of us. You aren’t going to say, “pizza” or “paella.” Transpose the question to a theater season or a museum’s exhibition calendar: whether the question is framed as want or needdoesn’t really matter: if someone else has composed the menu, my selections are constrained by those prior choices.

Several of these bloggers exhort artists and organizational leaders to confer with other members of the surrounding community so as to ground their offerings in relationship. That’s a good thing so far as I am concerned, and far more likely to inspire participation than composing programs without attention to those you hope will attend. But in terms of engagement, in terms of real relationship, it doesn’t come close to cocreating work with community members as my friends at Roadside Theater do, or muralist Dave Loewenstein does, or countless others. I would never say that is the only legitimate way to work as an artist. Sometimes the individual voice, true to itself, speaks the loudest to others’ hearts and minds. But in the end, if we are speaking of institutions, and the right to compose their menu is reserved to those with a particular value system, entitlement, and set of credentials, power rests with the menu-makers. Whether people want or need to order from that menu is a minor detail.

I’m also impressed with the hermetic quality of the debate. Many of these thoughtful and active commentators on nonprofit arts organizations and policies continue to refer to “the arts” as if the world they are talking about were sealed off from the rest of the universe. “The arts” as they use the term almost always refers to subsidized nonprofit corporations that produce or present music, visual works, theater, dance, film and other artworks by professionals, a relatively small slice of a cultural ecology that includes amateur or informal creative work, a vast set of commercial cultural industries, and everything in between. Commercial culture as a whole evades the menu problem by offering an aggregate menu as vast as the world. When we order from it, many of us choose work that is shaped by an individual sensibility that rhymes with our own, going toward a filmmaker or songwriter who creates from a deep place of personal desire and authenticity that speaks directly to our own longing. Do I want or need or want to hear Glen Hansard’s new version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night,” linked below? Yes.

My encompassing idea of music pulls back the lens for a wide-angle view. All around me, I see people downloading songs, playing instruments, composing via computer program, listening to their oldest and most beloved recordings, singing in choirs and choruses, rehearsing everything from hip-hop to Haydn to heavy metal in their garages, fortifying themselves on their daily rounds with playlists created to lift their spirits or align with their moods. They are free to say for themselves whether they are choosing what they want or need—I can’t see that it matters either way when the question is so entirely subjective—but in charge of their own choices, they choose music in huge numbers, and to me, the way music matters to them is what ultimately matters.

Inside the sphere hosting this want/need conversation, using the phrase “the arts” to describe just a particular slice of our vast creativity creates a conceptual moat. Those behind the moat seldom acknowledge it, let alone question it. But it isolates what they call “the arts”—the subsidized nonprofit corporations that produce or present music, visual artworks, theater, dance, film and other creative work by professionals—and in the end, that will do more to shape their future than any attempt to parse whether people want or need their offerings.

Pull the lens back further to look at the entire cultural ecology in the context of the larger society. Barry connects the want/need debate to another blogger’s discussion of “ethical altruism,” which says that philanthropy should be guided by doing the greatest good for the greatest number. Again those pesky questions: who defines? Who decides? He also links it to another blogger’s discussion about a school principal’s choice to cancel a production of Rent because it was deemed too controversial, too unsafe for students. Who defines? Who decides? We are living in a world in which countless decisions are made in our names, ostensibly on our behalf, further narrowing self-determination and choice. Did you want or need to have your taxes go to support the biggest prison-industrial complex and military-industrial complex on the planet? How meaningful are these distinctions beyond the moat?

You know the questions I think we should be asking. Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered? I can’t think of better ones to guide anyone: artist, organization, citizen of the world. It is incumbent upon us to answer them, each and all. Everything we do encodes our answers, the ones we choose, the ones we construct with our failure to choose. Let’s talk about those.

Glen Hansard’s new version of “Drive All Night.” Want meets need.