There is an undercurrent to all the recent discussions held in conjunction with the Creative Time visits: who exercises cultural power? Repeatedly, the message that Creative Time communicated was: the artist. This reminds me of Ad Reinhardt’s brilliant complaint, where he asks: ‘Who is responsible for ugliness?’ If not the artist, then who?
One wonders if there is a single principle in the Creative Time report to which Dallas artists can subscribe without feeling that they are betraying themselves. There has been a lot of posturing going, most of which has been framed in crudest protectionist terms.
The main point of the Report for me is that the Meadows School of the Arts sponsored it. I have been saying to anyone who would listen: the role of the university in the life of the city is key. Creative Time didn’t give us ‘permission’ to think that; Meadows School of the Arts has been working in that direction before; awarding the Meadows Prize to Creative Time is an expression of our belief in the civic university, rather than the ivory tower university.
OK, let’s not polarize this; but if we are talking about MFA programs of quality and such, we will need to continue to puzzle the nature of the relation between what we call higher education and the surrounding territory. If the university is to be something other than an adjunct to the spectacularization of art, then academics and artists will have to declare themselves as public intellectuals. The tasks of a public intellectual are manifold; these tasks do not preclude criticism and dialogue. Public intellectuals are not wanton popularizers or cut-rate social workers; they are intellectually nimble and strategic thinkers and makers. They do not promote the world-view of ‘keep-your-nose-clean’ specialists (although there is some consolation for the specialist). Public intellectuals are not policy wonks. The public intellectual has a job to do; to raise questions and bring specific resources to bear on the issues confronting civil society. The means at our disposal are varied, from conferences to community projects to innovative MFA programs. Now, Creative Time has been involved with the idea of the public artist in an urban setting for a long time; they had recently begun to work with other cities on a similar basis. It made sense for us to invite them to Dallas to join in a conversation that was already in progress at the Meadows School of the Arts and elsewhere across the city.
I’m a New Yorker who spent two decades abroad, living in Britain where museum admission is free and art is understood as a public good (though not by the current Tory government, which slashed the budget of the Arts Council. . . the governor of Texas seems to be following suit). Like they say, the US and Britain are two countries divided by a common language! Yet, I can’t say that I’ve seen more interest in art and its potential to become a meaningful part of our daily lives in creative and unexpected ways than right here in Dallas.
This observation has to be balanced by another. I’ve lived in locales much smaller than Dallas and with just as much pride in their cultural heritage; cities and towns that are far less skeptical of “outsiders” than some of the individuals writing on this blog. Open your eyes, mate. The Lord Mayor of Sheffield, UK and the Mayor of Pittsburgh, USA — representatives of two cities that were once giants in the steel industry — have found common ground and have learned from each other about how to model their future as post-industrial metropolitan areas. Is Dallas so exceptional that it need not consider models of art and urban life offered by individuals and organizations that have worked in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or London? Are people seriously suggesting we go back to romantic vision of the pioneering individual while also giving lip service to the idea of Dallas as a global city?
Nothing in the report should appear threatening to the autonomy of artists in Dallas or prevent them from carrying on the great projects already underway. I think Creative Time had a pretty tough brief and they handled it with grace. If you want to set up a straw man, go right ahead. If you think Creative Time is that easy target, fine. But meanwhile, you will be missing the point of the report. It’s not about establishing a sort of Ministry of Culture. What we got was what we asked for and what we expected: a set of talking points assembled by an interested, knowledgeable group of people after a reasonable amount of time of consultation.
While participating in the consultation events I got the feeling that something new and exciting was taking place; namely, the beginning of a forum where the widest possible concerns of the creative community of Dallas could be addressed. It seems to me that the move from the general to the particular, from the good idea to the down-and-dirty project is already taking place in Dallas. What is really encouraging is to see this on the ground. It convinces me that there is a critical mass in Dallas for a new phase in the development of the public artist and the public intellectual.