Crossposted from the Creative Rights & Artists discussion over at ArtsJournal last week. The prompt for this post was a challenge from ArtsJournal honcho Doug McLennan to nominate “the biggest policy threat or potentially transformative initiative currently facing our culture.”
[…] Thanks to all for the stimulating conversation. I think for me, the most exciting policy development on the horizon is the ability of data to illuminate who we are and what we do. (Oops – just saw Brian’s post – I guess I’m not the only one!) Our increasingly interconnected, networked world is generating huge reams of information too dense and extensive for any human to handle. But our technology has reached the point where batch processing of that information is almost trivial, and the real–and yes, creative–challenge posed to us is how to slice, segment, mash up, or otherwise arrange that data in ways that tell stories, that inform priorities, and that let us know how we’re doing.
A few years ago, when I first went to graduate school, I was convinced that the arts were antithetical to data. I vividly recall a Thanksgiving conversation with my cousin in which we were talking about why I was so passionate about the arts. He was finishing up an MBA at the time, and as I waxed eloquent about the impact of arts activity on real estate, the relevance of the arts to innovation in business, etc., his ears perked up with clear interest. “But I would never say that’s why the arts should be funded,” I finally concluded. Surprised, he asked, “so why should they be funded?” “Because they’re great,” I responded definitively. But it was obvious I had lost him. And I didn’t know how to get him back. He didn’t have an arts background. How could I explain to him why the arts were so great when they hadn’t been a formative part of his life experience? How could I ever convey to him the depth of that intensity in words, in a few minutes no less?
Now, a few years later, I have come to the conclusion that it’s not quite so black and white. If the arts do, in fact, make our lives richer in ways other than money, there are means of figuring such things out. I’m really excited for the intrinsic impact work that Clay mentions because for the first time, this line of research attempts to delve into some of these “unmeasurable” ways that the arts give meaning to our lives. Other methodological innovations like these are bound to proliferate in the coming years, propelled forward by the increased access we’ll have to more and more meaningful data. One area where I think our research could improve is more sophisticated segmentation of our subjects. I suspect a big part of the reason that some of the arts research literature seems inconclusive is that it tries to lump people or activity or contexts together when it would be more interesting to look at a subset of cases. For example, there’s a long tradition in our field of trying to universalize the arts: this idea that all of us have some hidden yearning to be creative and that our lives are forever impoverished by the lack of access to the symphony/theatre/museum etc. Yet my cousin’s experience and those of many like him seem to belie this notion. He may not realize how much art is part of the background of his life, but he appears to be perfectly happy and fulfilled without it in the foreground. So what if it’s the case that art is really important — important enough to save lives — but only for a minority of us? We’d have to figure out the policy implications later, but that would be pretty valuable information to have. By the same token, most research in the arts that deals with events treats all arts events as the same – 1:1 equivalence. Yet any artist can tell you that the “impact” of one arts event to another can vary immensely, depending not just on the show/production but even from night to night. And even at the level of a single event, goodness knows people, even knowledgeable experts, can have incredibly divergent judgments as to the quality of the experience.
I mention this because I think our policy, and by the same token advocacy, similarly risks putting too many people in the same bucket. I take to heart Molly’s example of the copyright views of the MIT scientist and the television writer being affected by how they each pay the rent. In a way, when we talk about “artists’ creative rights,” we’re really talking about two different things that our copyright laws and systems have artificially mushed together: the right to control who gets to use your work, and the right to an opportunity to make a living as a creator. If we segment our interest groups by who depends on copyright to pay their daily bread and who does not, and open up the possibility of dealing with those groups differently, the path forward may become a lot clearer.