Why Does it Matter?

Posted by Ms. Maryo Gard Ewell, Jul 14, 2017 0 comments

Content sponsored by University of Massachusetts Amherst Arts Extension Service.

When I initially wrote the “Community Organizing: Building Community Through the Arts” chapter that appears in the new Fundamentals of Arts Management 6th edition, we were in a very different moment than we are today. Amidst the recent calls to “Save the NEA!” I might have included material about the demise of the WPA arts programs (captured beautifully in the Tim Robbins movie Cradle Will Rock) or the so-called “Culture Wars” of the 1990s. But to me, what’s happening today is about much more than preserving the National Endowment for the Arts. As I write this on July 4, I’m thinking about what “freedom,” “democracy” or “representative government” have meant and mean. I think about phrases like “liberty and justice for all.” I think about government “of, by, and for the people.”

I’ve certainly heard statements like “We survived these debates before, and we will again.” That may well be true, but it can also be a rationale for simply staying the course. Now, more than ever, we must step back and reflect on our work—or we may fail to realize the vital role we can play in defining, or redefining, what it means to be an American.

Have you ever played the game of the Five Whys? You ask a partner, “Why do you do this work?” and your partner responds. You then ask, “But why?” and again, and again, and again. By the fifth “why?” you are struggling to talk about some of your deepest beliefs, like the nature of God, the nature of humankind, the meaning of life. It’s hard, it’s emotional—and it’s vital.

Robert E. Gard, an arts activist who wrote about community arts work over a 50-year career, remembered an English teacher who thought his writing was very good, but said that it wouldn’t be meaningful unless he first articulated a philosophy of life and of his writing within that framework. (Gard’s words have recently been reintroduced to us via Americans for the Arts’ To Change the Face and Heart of America.) Who has gone before us who has articulated philosophies that remain true through time? Here are a few of the people I turn to. One is W.E.B. Du Bois, who, starting at the turn of the 20tg century, wrote about cultural identity, race, inequity, and cultural exchange: “We must come to the place where the work of art when it appears is reviewed and acclaimed by our own free and unfettered judgment. And we are going to have a real and valuable and eternal judgment only as we make ourselves free of mind, proud of body and just of soul to all men.”[1]

An associate (but no relation) of Du Bois was Rachel Davis Dubois, who, in 1940, said this: “… the melting pot idea, or ‘come-let-us-do-something-for-you’ attitude on the part of the old-stock American, was wrong. For half the melting pot to rejoice in being made better while the other half rejoiced in being better allowed for neither element to be its true self. … The welfare of the group … means finding ways to share unique qualities and differences. … Democracy is the only atmosphere in which this can happen. … This kind of sharing we have called cultural democracy. Political democracy—the right of all to vote—we have inherited though we do not as yet practice it perfectly. Economic democracy—the right of all to be free from want—we are beginning to envisage and to plan for more courageously. But cultural democracy—a sharing of values among numbers of our various cultural groups—we have scarcely dreamed of. Much less have we devised social techniques for creating it.”[2] [Italics are mine.]

Speaking of economic democracy, consider these words from Dean Chris Christensen of the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin. In 1937 he said, “In emphasizing the social or cultural values arising out of the improved economic conditions, it is well to keep clearly in mind that this will come about only if the economic process operates in some kind of cultural framework.” He went on to say, “The achievement of wealth itself contains no guarantee that it will become the means to more significant living. … As a matter of fact, wealth in careless hands may be a two edged sword wielding destruction to its owner and to society.”[3]

And Hallie Flanagan of the Federal Theater, in her testimony before the Dies Committee of Congress (which believed that the arts programs were synonymous with Communism), was clear that “access” to the arts was not enough; access must be blended with excellence. Or the many artists of the civil rights movement who understood that the arts are vital in the struggle for equality and justice.

Identity, cultural democracy, excellence, justice—just a few of the “whys” behind our work. We have many spiritual ancestors who can help us articulate our “why” because, as discussed in Fundamentals of Arts Management 6th edition, this work has been weaved throughout our country’s history.

I urge us all to take to time to connect with our own sense of “why.” This may be our most important moment to define or redefine, and then to support and defend our democracy, and we must be strong and clear-eyed. Knowing whose footsteps you walk in will be vital, for it will help you make focused choices, stay visionary, and stay strong.

There is no work more important.

[1] DuBois, W.E.B., “Criteria of Negro Art,” in Lewis, David levering, W.E.B. DuBois: A Reader, Henry Holt, 1995, p. 512.

[2] Davis-Dubois, Rachel, Get Together Americans: Friendly Approaches to Racial and Cultural Conflicts Through the Neighborhood-Home Festival, Harper & Bros., 1943, p. 5-6.

[3] Chris Christensen, Foreword to “An Exhibition of Work by John Steuart Curry,” Seventh Anniversary of the Land Grant Colleges, November 1937, Washington, DC


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