Some Expressions about the Arts and Creative Expression

Posted by Charles Jensen, Jun 23, 2015 2 comments

I was thrilled to sit in on the “Vocabulary for Arts and Arts Education” session at Americans for the Arts' Annual Convention this year. All three presenters—Christopher Audain, Kevin Kirkpatrick, and Margy Waller, along with moderator Margie Reese—were all on point for the session and I perhaps overtweeted in my enthusiasm over what they shared.

As I left the session, I started focusing on what Kevin presented on changing the conversation about arts and culture. Arts Midwest recently released the study Creating Connection: Research Findings and Proposed Message Framework to Build Public Will for Arts and Culture, which examined how existing attitudes and values of our audiences connect with our field’s message output. The study suggests reframing arts activity to be “creative expression” will have a more effective connection to broader audiences, and that connecting with others, with their families, and with their inner selves is their largest motivation for participating in arts and culture.

I do communication for the Colburn School, which provides the highest quality performing arts education at all stages of development, from 8 months of age (seriously!) to conservatory music study. We present over 300 events each year on top of our educational offerings, so inviting the community onto our campus is a high priority. The content of the Arts Midwest study resonated with me.

We struggle a bit with existing perceptions about classical music and dance, and I won’t reinforce them by naming them here, but I’m sure you can imagine what they are. They relate to that idea of Art—capital-A Art—as something unique and distinct from, well, just about everything else.

Creative expression is a more compelling idea for me because it includes art of all kinds, capital-A or not. It can include cultural heritage as well as the humanities. It’s a big tent idea, and sometimes that scares people in our field because it’s perceived as diminishing the importance of fine art, or high art, or however you want to distinguish it.

If anything can art, it seems to follow, then nothing really is.

My response to that might be extreme. So?

Who wins when we build fences around the definition of art? Most people in our field can’t even come to an agreement about what art is, much less what good or great art is, or why, or who it serves. Maybe it’s time to throw out the bathwater. I don’t think there’s been a baby in there for quite a while.

Creative expression is accessible, and that accessibility is not mutually exclusive from quality—should we all feel quality is still the most important criterion (please notice my use of the superlative—most important). Another thread of the Convention and the preconferences was the importance of cultural equity/equitable access to consume and create culture. Arguments against creative expression elevate art—too often white, Western European traditions because that’s who has held the power in our society—and limit who gets to play in the Art sandbox, and how valued their contributions are by established power brokers.

All of this is to carefully say, What if we tried something different?

Art is literally—literally!—thousands of years old. I feel confident “art” and “Art” can take care of themselves.

Creative expression is—guess what—even older than art. It’s more inclusive. It empowers rather than disenfranchises. It gives us tools and opportunities to connect with each other.

Personally, I want to exist in a field that invites as many people as possible to our tables. Trust me, there’s room. If not, we’ll build more tables.

To bring it back to my organization and out of the thought clouds, I believe there’s a way for me, in my work, to highlight the fact that we have 2,000 brilliant young artists here at the Colburn School all committed to creative expression to their best ability. This alone is something to celebrate. When we sit in the audience and watch them, listen to them, that experience not only empowers them to express themselves creatively, but also we all become connected—audience members, performers. And the shared experience, what we take with us from the concert hall, is what resonates among us.

2 responses for Some Expressions about the Arts and Creative Expression


carter gillies says
June 25, 2015 at 9:23 am

Part of the issue seems to be our expectation for the word 'art'. Does it describe something or is it a name? I like the use of 'creative expression' for its unabashed descriptive function, but the problem I see with the word 'art' is that we often expect it to be similarly descriptive, and yet it is no more descriptive than my name is. The entire argument that if anything can be art then nothing is art relies on the confusion that we are actually describing a true state of affairs. Rather, 'art' is a convention of naming, and we can name anything 'art' if we want to....

For too long it has been assumed that 'art' describes some essential quality that some things have and others do not. Perhaps criteria are more easily found the more specific we get with particular 'arts', but the truth is that no one common thread runs through all the various things called 'art'. Nor should we expect them to have some essential descriptive uniformity. 'Art' doesn't MEAN something specific, it names a collection of practices that through convention have come to be organized and thought of in a certain way. The contingency of this collection is evident in how contestable the use of the word 'art' is and how negotiable the borders evidently are.

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January 31, 2017 at 8:27 am

We need to continue to develop and become better than yesterday. You're great! Keep up!
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