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Feb 2, 2012

Irvin Mayfield's Lecture: Artistic Literacy

A Public Lecture

The University of New Orleans

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Featuring Guest Speakers Stephen Perry, President & CEO, The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and Nolan Rollins, President & CEO, Urban League of Greater New Orleans


As an artist and – specifically – as a musician, I am engaged with the concept of harmony.  Within a musical frame, harmony can be simply described as the simultaneous playing of notes and chords, which are coordinated by a set of musical principles.  Principles of Jazz bring together tensions and differences to create sounds and compositions of truth, beauty and love to otherwise isolated and discontented clatter. In other words, Jazz actively uplifts a new realism of togetherness that independent sounds actively work to suppress.

As you can hear, Jazz’s contribution to the concept of harmony extends well beyond music.  Jazz is a way of being of which I am constantly seeking enlightenment and grace.  The language of Jazz has given me a means to hear and see a world when words are woefully insufficient.  I’ve become artistically literate to understand the sometimes-ineffable world I’m in.

A great motivation for this lecture is the obvious lack of harmony in New Orleans.  While the nation hears good news about our recovery, the sounds of gunshots make it too difficult for locals to hear anything else. “Noise” properly describes the hypocrisy of flowery rhetoric that lies in stark contrast to the bleak backbeat of real people’s lives.  New Orleans is not even left with a soothing dirge detailing the sharp angles of tragedy. Instead, we helplessly flail our blaming fingers, which is a violent act in itself.

By offering this lecture, I hope to welcome those isolated and alienated voices into today’s composition. We should not – nor can we afford – to blast a national narrative of urban transformation over the painfully obvious sounds of economic poverty, violence and political disenfranchisement.

I posit that we need a vehicle of realism: a language – if you will – that acknowledges the fullness of how we live, while protecting the dignity of those that New Orleans’ recovery have seemingly forgot.  That language must pursue truth, beauty and love with greater ferocity than those who seek to sell and brand the City. It should come as no surprise that I believe Art to be that language, and we should strive to become as fluent in its many forms as examples set forth by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Leah Chase, John Scott, Ellis Marsalis and Tom Dent.  We need heightened artistic literacy.

In addition to making the case for artistic literacy, we must address the habitual narratives that want to pronounce the death of Jazz. Because announcements of Jazz’s death are as chronic as hurricane season, I will address them briefly only to illustrate and introduce why we need to heighten artistic literacy.

What I ultimately want to express today is that we need to improve our artistic literacy so we can create our way towards truth, beauty and love.  Ludwig van Beethoven said, “Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge, which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”  Beethoven knew that words alone will keep us short of arriving to truth, beauty and love.  We need a heightened conversation; we need to advance our artistic literacy to hear a higher humanity.

What is Artistic Literacy?

Because literacy is the central object of this lecture, I must explicate a meaning.  I generally agree in James Paul Gee’s description of the term “literacy.”  Gee states that literacy has much to do with the concept of “discourse.”  Gee asks us to “think of discourse as an identity kit that comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act and talk as to take on a particular role that others will recognize.”  In simpler terms, discourse is an identity kit that helps us recognize who we are and where we stand.

Developing an identity kit is difficult, and there are numerous variables that work against a person having one.  In his explanation, Gee eloquently explains that discourse is inherently ideological in that it carries specific values and norms.  Discourse is not open like coffee shop talk.  Discourse is actively resistant to differing views. Those who acquire a particular discourse strengthen their resistance to others by forming principles that discredit other ways of being.  For instance, in this room there is an English professor who is thinking that a trumpet player has no place in a discussion of literacy.

In addition, Gee says, “discourses are intimately related to the distribution of social power and hierarchical structure in society.”  Discourses that lead to power are called dominant discourses.  Those who have the fewest conflicts in accessing and using a particular discourse are called the dominant groups.

Some people acquire dominant discourses primarily through their membership within a dominant group.  Others must learn the dominant discourse through exposure and instruction, typically under the auspices of the dominant group.  For instance, acquiring a second language and mastering an instrument is partially dependent on how well your parents speak and play, but you can go to a school like New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts to master the latter.  However, mastering an instrument certainly helps if your last name is Marsalis or Batiste.  Mastering Spanish certainly helps if you’re living in Mexico.

Acquiring the discourse through membership is much different than learning a discourse in school.  We have many children in our public schools who may be learning the technical aspects of language, but they are not part of the dominant group and have little exposure to the values and customs that come in a well-tooled identity kit.  Consequently, literacy is not simply about learning how to read and write.  Literacy is about the acquisition of the dominant discourse.  Artistic literacy is about reclaiming art as a dominant discourse in New Orleans.

Can it be any clearer that the business community has the fewest obstacles in acquiring and maintaining the dominant discourse?  How many politicians, college presidents and non-profits – as well as other leaders – state how they need to connect to the business community?  I am very concerned that New Orleans’ cultural centers would rather adopt a discourse of the market than maintain and advance the discourses of art, culture, science and mathematics.  Remember, discourses are in constant battles to discredit others’ ways of being.

I know the art discourse, of which I have acquired, has contributed more prolifically to the character and sustainability of New Orleans than other communities.  I also know that the art community must not relent that our language is the lifeblood of the city.

While I appreciate contributions from the business community in New Orleans, I know that its discourse insidiously under-values my community’s worth.  For instance, the recurrent “Jazz is dead” rants are arguments and language of the market.

Wall Street Journal columnist and former fellow board member for the National Endowment for the Arts, Terry Teachout, states in a article titled Can Jazz be Saved?, “[T]he average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way.” Teachout continues, “They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music—and just as off-putting to pop-loving listeners who have no more use for Wynton Marsalis than they do for Felix Mendelssohn.”

I unapologetically consider myself an artist who has a longstanding language and discourse that has left a durable, positive legacy on New Orleans.  Nevertheless, those who rigidly measure Jazz’s vitality on how popular or entertaining it is miss how and why New Orleans’ art and culture communities exist.  Like activist/writer Audre Lorde made clear in the essay that carried the title, “Poetry is not a Luxury,” art provides the cultural capital that sustains marginalized groups.  The idea that Jazz’s vitality should be derived from how many people attend concerts is a patronizing attack vested in the idea of art as entertainment.  The value of entertainment is heavily weighted toward the audience’s enjoyment.  The value of art is nested in the art discourse.

In New Orleans especially, Jazz is high art because it rose mightily from divergent voices making harmony and meaning in a violently noisy world. Recognize the struggle that Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and others came from.  While individual artists received worldwide acclaim and filled auditoriums, their work translated the conditions that many of their audiences helped create.  While the music may have entertained, it also soothed weary souls and communicated that someone acknowledged those who were suffering.

Ironically, it’s the patronizing values inherent in Teachout’s economic framework that need to die. The comidification of culture kills art because privileged audiences often devalue the people who create it.  If its creators are devalued, their art will be as well.

Let me put this in a local context, so we can understand the need for artistic literacy.  If art critics and audiences are willing to allow curfews in the French Quarter that shamelessly target young black men, me and my craft will not reach maximum value.  As long as the gates of Armstrong Park limit access to the most noble of heroes and heroines, then high culture won’t reach the masses.  As long as we have schools that consider themselves college prep without an artist in residence plus robust music and art programs, then gunshots will echo in venues throughout the city.  Notice that I said “music and art programs,” not simply a marching band.

The dominant market discourse has seduced many of my fellow artists.  You probably read Nicholas Payton’s blog titled On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.  Payton riffs that “Jazz died in 1959.”  He continues, “There may be cool individuals who say they play Jazz, but ain’t shit cool about Jazz as a whole.  Jazz died when cool stopped being hip. Jazz was a limited idea to begin with. Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians. The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea.”

When I read the blog, I immediately said that ‘Jazz is dead’ discussions prove why we need the language of art to express ourselves.  The discussion that Payton engaged fell in the same trap of weighing worth by how many units are sold, or how much the audience appreciates his work.

From the trumpet to the upright bass, Payton’s range of expression is undeniable.  He can show you the sweat on a beggar’s back with the use of his trumpet. I highly recommend you pick up Payton’s latest CD Bitches to hear and feel a creative mind at work. However, a blog rant on the appropriateness of the word “Jazz” distracts us all from increasing artistic literacy.

Of all the travails in the world today, musicians and art critics are focused on a popularity contest?  We must keep our eyes on the prize of creativity, and our ears to the cries of the suffering.  Who will give their creative attention to people like Keira Holmes?  Keira was the two year-old who was recently shot while playing outside in the B.W. Cooper Housing Project. Who will dedicate a song to Keira?

Jazz is not dead.  Jazz will die when children like Keira no longer need a voice.

Again, “poetry is not a luxury.”

There are no bigger signs of New Orleans’ cultural decline than our crime rates.  I’ve already established in this lecture the connection between lacking access to the dominant discourse and its impact on power.  The artistic community can’t be shy about saying we must change a culture of poverty.

Since Howard Gardner introduced his concept of multiple intelligences, educators have generally expanded the expected range of cognitive abilities and literacies people must develop. Having the ability to play an instrument is not simply the icing on the reading and writing cake.  Music ability is an intelligence in its own right.

Gardner states, “[a]n increasing number of researchers believe…there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth; and that it is unexpectedly difficult to teach things that go against…natural lines of force within an intelligence.”

Gardner’s theory explains that musical intelligence involves the composition of musical patterns, tensions, notes and rhythms. Musical minds understand harmony.  If musical intelligence is a distinct and proven source of insight found throughout our population, then we have an obligation to advance musical intelligence within our schools.  More importantly, if musical intelligence is devalued as entertainment or novelty, we cut ourselves off from ideas created by this important source of knowledge production; we also limit innovations for our community’s growth.

Gardner’s work tells us that creative minds will naturally create.  If an art discourse does not increase its engagement in the hood, people will still create.  In the absence of an explicit culture, folks will create their own underground economies, lifestyles and discourses that will be in conflict with middle class sensibilities.  Artists must redirect those creatively destructive minds that eventually result in isolation, imprisonment and death.

I’m not a cultural relativist.  You will never hear me say that all cultures are equal.  Again, I believe that art fluency leads to high culture. New Orleans needs greater access to music, dance and literature, as well as the heroes attached to those genres.  That’s why we need to open the gates of Armstrong Park. This city can’t become a protected museum of former musical greats.  The talent was in New Orleans then; and it’s here now.  We must cultivate it.

How Do We Advance Artistic Literacy?

The fact that I’m having a lecture on artistic literacy at a university speaks to where and how I believe we should advocate.  Cardinal Newman stated that a university possesses “the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery, of experiment and speculation; it maps out the territory of the intellect, and sees that…there is neither encroachment nor surrender on any side.”

A university and its faculty must constantly work to protect artistic literacy from the ever-encroaching devices of the dominant discourse.  As part of our protection, a university faculty must stack the libraries with materials that define our discourse.  Colleges and universities must teach those materials to future members of the culture.  The art faculty in our local universities must also be vigorously engaged within the broader culture and be perceived as active members.  As faculty, we cannot afford to place gates around ourselves. Artists, literally, have like-minded people in need of intellectual development and exposure.  College faculty also need an administration to connect with artists’ goals, intellect and economic strengths.

At the K-12 level, artists must advocate for the advancement of their craft and voice in school settings.  It’s discouraging to constantly hear that schools want to advance art and culture to help teach math or history.  Although music can certainly help teach other discourses and paradigms, music is not a teacher aid.  Music and other art forms are disciplines that need certified teachers, artists in residence, quality curriculums, suitable accountability systems and adequate resources.

We must also recognize that the actual rebuilders of New Orleans are artists.  I am proud to say that the University of New Orleans’ Urban Planning Program is housed in the College of Liberal Arts.  There is a peculiar imagination that goes into urban planning.  You know when accountants have too much influence on construction designs. Urban planners’ creative minds make our collective needs make harmony.

Unfortunately, urban planners and architects often don’t embrace their artistic identities.  In addition, artists often don’t embrace these professionals as artists.  When Teachout and I considered who would receive the National Medal of Art, we could not recommend a viable candidate in architecture.  As board members on the most prestigious organization for the arts, we limited our conceptualizations to musicians, writers and visual artists.

That is why I accepted an invitation to sit on Tulane’s Board for its School of Architecture.  However, how many boards that are significant to the rebuilding of New Orleans do not have professional artists on them?  I was the only professional artist on the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.  There is an art to urban planning.  Shouldn’t we have artists at the table?

In relation to the business community, artists can’t primarily be the hook to garner money for other industries.  The cultural economy should not rely on a model of art entertaining others. Art proliferation is an industry.  Artisans should be teachers, college faculty, administrators and directors of afterschool programs.  Advancing and archiving culture through education is and should be an economic engine. The folks who are fluent in art discourse are probably the biggest investors of time, talent and treasure in New Orleans’ cultural advancement.  We must maximize this natural resource.

As a community, we must also give young people more opportunities to create pieces that help them realize their standing in the world.  Giving the voiceless a means to express themselves is a central part of who we are as a music community.  Unfortunately, the voiceless includes many of my fellow artisans who don’t have an institutional home to rely upon.

Colleges and Universities should work with the school community to develop concurrent enrollment and summer programs that aim to identify, nurture and accelerate artistic talent.  In addition, educational leaders can work to develop MOUs between schools and universities to place a graduate-level artist in residence within every K-12 institution.  Moreover, my university must become the largest repository of indigenous music of any urban postsecondary institution. This archive should be a living, breathing resource for artists to continue to build upon New Orleans’ rich legacy.  The education community as a whole must seek to protect and advance the cultural community.

In closing, there are several metaphors that describe communities.  If we dare to let Jazz create a new realism for New Orleans, then let’s allow for divergent notes and chords to exist along poly-syncopated rhythms.  However, she should produce harmony from the tensions and peace from the performance. The time has come for art to conjure the truth, beauty and love found in the sound of Mahalia Jackson’s How I got over: “And I'm a-sing and never get tired;
I'm gonna sing somewhere 'round God's alter;
And I'm a-shout all my troubles over.

But there is so much work to be done.  New Orleans will get over when we apply muscle to audacious expectations.  Join me in helping New Orleans become the most literate city in America by the year 2022.  My position as board president of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation gives me an opportunity to work with artists, teachers, mathematicians, scientists and others who are concerned with increasing the intellectual capacity of New Orleanians.  It’s time to understand and act on the courage embedded in Jackson’s How I Got Over.  It’s time to allow high art to uplift our wonderful city.

Let’s hear it for New Orleans! Thank you.

© Copyright 2010 Irvin Mayfield - All Rights Reserved