Peeking Over the Fence: An Academic Eavesdropper at Nea's Art-21

August 31, 1994

"Art gives us the opportunity for stillness in the midst of chaos."

"Artists close their eyes in order to see."

"Art challenges despair."

"Art saves lives."

Statements such as these energized Art-21: Art Reaches Into The 21st Century, the first conference of its kind sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, as the 30th anniversary of its creation approaches.

[I was among a very few academics attending. Would the conference address some of the issues which CMS has identified as crucial to music in higher education? To what extent would the new National Standards for Arts Education be discussed? Would the perspective of a music theory teacher from Northwestern University -- i.e., my perspective -- be represented, challenged, enlarged?]

Characterized by NEA Chairman Jane Alexander as an opportunity for those whose lives are impassioned by art to share their visions for the future, the conference (April 14-16, 1994, Hyatt Regency, Chicago) was organized around four Themes: the Artist in Society, the Arts and Technology, Expanding Resources for the Arts, and Lifelong Learning through the Arts. Each theme was introduced at a plenary session that included elegant dining and performances by celebrated Chicago area music and dance groups. Distinguished keynote speakers then set the tone for subsequent breakout sessions during which panelists and registrants told their stories, shared their dreams and frustrations, and argued passionately for the value and necessity of the arts in our lives. There was concerted effort to ensure that the ideas, thoughts, criticisms, and suggestions of all participants would be passed on to the NEA leadership in order to impact planning efforts for the next decade.

THEME 1. The writer Thulani Davis, who wrote the libretto for the opera, X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, (New York City Opera, 1986) spoke of the crucial role of artists in our society. While buoyed by the tremendous productivity and originality of today's artistic activity, Davis observed that much of the chaos in our lives comes from the absence of art. She stressed the need to provide both psychic "room" and real support so that artists' can fulfill their responsibility to create "interaction between people one at a time [to] bring a whole society from warfare to storytelling, [from] despair to song." Individual sessions on "The Working Artist," "The Artist as Community Activist," "Facing Society's Censure," and "Funding the Individual Artist" followed her remarks.

[Throughout the conference, I was struck by demonstrations of the diversity of artistic expression and the persistence of the artist's voice in our society. Are we in as bad shape as we so often portray ourselves? Was the conference only a coming together of those whose budgets made the trip affodable? Could the considerable resources of time and money needed to mount the conference have been spent more wisely to support worthy efforts that might otherwise not see the light of day? Does CMS remind its membership often enough of its responsibility to the community outside academic walls? Do we celebrate often enough the many voluntary efforts of our teachers/musicians in those communities?]

THEME 2. The potential of ever more sophisticated telecommunications systems, the implications of the "information superhighway," and the move away from "works of art to ways of art" were the subjects of Richard Loveless's keynote address. Again and again, Loveless pointed to the collaborative nature of the art process of the future, not only among the creators of art themselves, but between creators and their audiences, interacting in ways that can change the nature and outcome of the artistic product as it is being formed. He used a video demo of Tod Machover's The Brain Opera, (planned for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta) in which the audience moves through a three-story space intended to simulate "what it feels like to walk into somebody's brain while a piece of music is being created," to show how the art process changes "from monologue to dialogue, from passive to interactive." The ramifications of technology were then explored in breakout sessions on "Virtual Arts Communities," "Making the TransitionAnalog to Digital," "?State of the Art' Art," and "The Endowment's Role in National Policy."

[Will CMS's plans to provide technological resources for the continued professional development of its membership be able to capture the frontier spirit that was so evident in the activities demonstrated here? In what ways can we encourage the thinking of music teachers to reach out to what promises to be a "Gesamtkunstwerk" of great wonder and potential?]

THEME 3. HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, fresh from brief but intense immersion in the harsh life of Chicago's low-income housing projects, offered an eloquent and moving plea for the full engagement of the power of art to transform lives. Cisneros expressed his fear that we are losing too large a part of a generation of young people to hopelessness and violence. The arts can bring self-esteem, sensitivity to others, discipline, awareness of community, means of coping with one's pain and fear, and can offer a glimpse of the spiritual that goes beyond the expressive powers of language. The problems of funding these vital efforts were dealt with in sessions on "New Ideas for Federal Arts Funding," "Government Partnerships at the Federal, State, and Local Levels," "Private Sector Collaborations," and "Ensuring Equitable Access to Resources."

[Does CMS challenge its membership to affirm the life-saving power of music? Are we too caught up in our professionalism to teach that all kinds of music can touch and shape the human spirit? Do we close our eyes to the needs of these despair-filled communities?]

THEME 4. Ernest L. Boyer, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, spoke to the value of lifelong learning through the arts. Among his many insights were reminders that artistic activity can have very special meaning for restricted children, who, "through music and dance and the visual arts . . . can become confidently expressive and self-affirming," that the arts can be a powerful palliative for those young people who feel alienated and unwanted, and that one of the significant ramifications of lifelong learning through the arts is the bridging of generations through the sharing of mutual pleasures and enrichment which is available to young and old. These ideas fueled the discussions at the breakout sessions on "Reaching Special Constituencies," "Destination: Schools Where the Arts are Central to Learning," "Dynamic Duos: Artists and Teachers Working Together," and "The Role of the Arts Institution."

[I expected that the National Standards would be discussed extensively within this theme. They were not. Yet NEA did provide grant support for the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, the group that developed the standards. How extensive a role should CMS play in assuring that teachers are adequately trained to help students meet these standards? Should CMS expand its interests to deal in some way with the ever-growing adult-learning segment of higher education?]

Jane Alexander, in her remarks during the final plenary session, expressed the excitement and the sense of renewed energy, hope, and conviction of participants. She assured all that the lessons learned at ART-21 would help define the national cultural policies at the end of the century and beyond.

[I, too, was caught up in the exhilaration of this love-fest for the arts. The enthusiasm of artists working outside academe in the face of shrinking budgets and at times in harsh circumstances was, frankly, inspiring. I wish all members of the CMS Advocacy Committee could have attended. There was much fodder provided to support their efforts to reaffirm the values of music in our society and in higher education. The task is not an easy one.]

2652 Last modified on May 2, 2013
Login to post comments