Fixing what’s broken: The arts and the repair of democracy

Elections elect candidates, but usually they do much more than that: They tell us about ourselves and about the state of the culture that surrounds us. A national election, the one we held yesterday, reveals the characteristics of the collection of subcultures that form the nation and the condition of the national culture, which imperfectly negotiates the union of those subcultures. Among other things.

Our national culture is in crisis. So are many of our subcultures, geographic and otherwise. Maybe we knew that before the election, but elections can insert exclamation marks that can’t be overlooked.

America at its best and healthiest reflects its most profound founding principles, which our culture has saved for us. All people are created equal. They are endowed with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This election demonstrated how shallowly these assertions are held within the culture. All people are created equal, maybe, but some more equal than others. That I borrow from George Orwell (“Animal Farm,” 1945) demonstrates that this isn’t a new problem in Western cultures. Under the stress of war or even the day-to-day punishing grind and periodic crises of our economic system, the “more equal people” in Western democracies have found it easy to abandon principles like the ones in our Declaration of Independence. America did that in this election.

You can dispute this assertion. I’m not going to spend time attempting to prove it here. You saw this campaign and the results of the election. If you believe that it upheld our principles, that it wasn’t one long insult based on race, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and size of bank account, then we’d have to have a long and probably fruitless conversation about it. All of these can limit the “equality” of a particular individual in our national culture, or help propel him to the top of the pyramid. I use the male pronoun for a reason.

A healthy culture preserves the best lessons from its history and gives an approach to solve the problems that arise in social life. Reason and the importance of evidence in arguments, for example, which existed before the Greeks but which they codified in such a way that we might use them today. Various expressions of ethics. The rub of liberty against responsibility. Our loyalty to ourselves and to something larger than ourselves. The sense of unity and purpose that larger “something” (whatever it may be) can give us. Our appreciation of tasks well done, both simple ones we do alone and complex ones we do with others. The wonders we have encountered, the discoveries we have made, the maps we have constructed so the discoveries and wonders don’t get lost. The importance of the integrity of language. The different ways that beauty appears to us.

These are always changing over time. The Constitution is a good metaphor: It’s ambiguous enough that it always requires reinterpretation (whatever foolish “originalists” may say). Culture is that way, too. I think of it sometimes as a toolkit. Sometimes you need to turn a tiny screw one-eighth of a turn. Sometimes you need a sledge hammer. You are best at using the tools you use the most.

In our political life, we rarely employ a language of integrity or an ethics, except in service to expedience, immediate desire. We rarely remember history, and when we do we misapply it. Our map room is locked and we can’t get in. So we get elections like this one. In this national election, we forgot that we even had a toolkit at all.

Isn’t Oregon different? (At least some precincts of Oregon?)

I don’t think Oregon or Portland is all that anomalous. By and large (with some big exceptions) we didn’t vote for candidates who expressed most directly the crisis of our culture, but that’s a pretty low bar. I observe a lot of liberal lip service paid to equality, to the problems of our fellow citizen, to critical national issues such as climate change, education, economic fairness, bigotry of all kinds. But I see next to no action on any of them, except from committed individuals and small groups, who are doing their best to model behavior for the rest of us. They’ve done enough to make most of us aware, at least, of what we face, but our local culture hasn’t been strong enough to generate a society committed to addressing them conclusively. The operant metaphor is the way we chase homeless people from camp to camp. How open is our society? How inclusive? How free from various bigotries? How committed to solving the essential problems that confront us? Mostly, this was a status quo election in Oregon, and that’s not something to celebrate, except in relation to the radical turn AWAY from positive solutions the national (and many local) electorates just took.

So, the question of how we repair a culture applies as much to our city and state as it does to the country as a whole. I have some preliminary thoughts about where to begin.

I think we start by directly addressing the communities that were targeted in this election—African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, the differently abled, women, immigrants from Middle East, non-Christians. As unsettled as I feel this day after the election, they must be feeling much, much worse. Unless they just expect this sort of thing from the dominant culture, which would be even sadder, when you think about it. What do we say?

We’re with you.

Not just white men, either, though I think we’re going to have to do that a lot. As a city, we have to make it clear that we are determined to make Portland as safe and secure for everyone as we can. The next step would go beyond that baseline: That everyone belongs. That we learn from each other. That we enjoy each other. That what each of our subcultures brings to the large culture is important. That our current segregation by income and race isn’t fair or just or beneficial.

The arts—and yes, this is an arts site, so I’m now going to shift that way—have a major role to play, simply because it’s so easy for the arts to reach out, to work and share work with various communities, to create various structures to make that possible, and then to show the fruits of that work to the rest of the city—and not just to the rich folk in the city center. This is what we make when we work together. This is how we change. The arts are the most powerful communication medium that we have, and the message, even if it’s just subliminal, should be about inclusion, equality, fairness. You don’t have to sing a song about inclusion to communicate that it’s a characteristic of a healthy culture; you just need an inclusive choir to sing it. And that choir needs to sing all over the city, all over the state. (In fact, some of our schools have very good and very inclusive choirs, just for the record.)

The Ethan Sperry-led PSU Man Choir at Lincoln Hall, June, 2016.

The Ethan Sperry-led PSU Man Choir at Lincoln Hall, June, 2016.

Most of Portland’s major arts institutions have outreach programs that attempt to engage the city’s “non-traditional” citizens with their art or art-making processes. These are important, and the ones I know about have done some exceptional work. It’s not enough: The exchange is too one-sided. Music, visual arts and crafts, theater, literature and dance are made in all the subcultures of the city, too. Everyone needs to see and hear and read them, our arts institutions especially, because that’s one of the most time-honored ways that the arts become more relevant to the needs of the culture—sharing among communities. Exchange, a real communication (not a one-way street), will be at the heart of any repair we are able to make.

Despite some efforts on our part, ArtsWatch has failed to sufficiently track the arts outside the predominantly white, downtown core. We haven’t tried hard enough. I know we can do much better, and I think we will going forward. As we figure out a new approach, we are open to your suggestions and to your participation in what we do. The best ArtsWatch is the one that is as open, diverse and creative as the arts groups we cover and as the society we want to live in. We are all in this together. I don’t think failure is an option.

I’m going to close with a few paragraphs from our ABOUT page. Maybe they will suggest to you how seriously we take the role of the arts and culture in democracy.

“Deep down, we think that the arts are central to the sustenance, renovation, celebration and re-creation of our life together in the Northwest. They aren’t a decoration or a sideshow. They give us an ongoing reflection of ourselves. They suggest solutions. They grieve and roar in pain and anger. They know when things aren’t fair, and they speak out. At least at their best, they do. And then they encourage us to think and feel along with them. This sense of social cohesion, a sense of the whole, this common sense, is often missing from our national lives, and it has made democracy itself difficult to conduct. We believe that Oregon has a chance to generate a common sense that is complicated and practical and adaptive. And if we are going to succeed, it will be because the arts have helped us create a shared language, shared experiences and ultimately, shared values—even if one of those is respect for deeply held values that we don’t share.

Most arguments for support of the arts seem either tangential or tepid. We believe that we won’t have a functioning democracy without arts to feed and nourish us. We won’t have a vigorous economy without arts to inspire and model our creative response to the world. We won’t have healthy individuals without the insight and space for insight that the arts provide. Sure, there are direct economic benefits to art activity. And sure, we benefit inherently from living in an environment that is more “aesthetic” than less. But what’s at stake in this is more crucial than these byproducts of a healthy shared culture.

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren’t alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment. They remind us that the individual can do great things, and so can individuals acting together. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. We can’t imagine a good outcome to our dire problems—as a community, a nation, a planet—without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

We believe that the processes of discovery, explanation and discussion of journalism have an important role to play in all of this. An “informed citizenry” extends to cultural matters, and that is the mission of Oregon ArtsWatch—to help those of us in this particular culture-shed support and create arts and culture that respond to our needs.”

A healthy shared culture, a common sense and a common concern… at this point I would just add—for everyone.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you Barry. I have nothing to add, except to say that everything we do to make the arts part of our lives, rather than something we visit occasionally, or regard as a frill or a luxury, contributes to a civil society, an inclusive society, and a sense of who we are, where we have been, and where we might be headed.

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