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Sep 5, 2012

Irvin Mayfield's Biannual Lecture: Advancing the Conversation on Artistic Literacy

Thursday, September 13, 6:00pm

The University of New Orleans, Education Building, Room 103



Thursday, September 13, 7:30-10:00pm
The New Orleans Jazz Institute presents Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers
The Cove Student Center at the University of New Orleans

Over the next six weeks, we will be inundated with speeches, debates and conversations stemming from the election for the United States presidency.  In many ways, there’s no better time to have a discussion on artistic literacy than during a presidential race.  Winning in politics is largely about how well leaders use symbols to give people a sense of community, safety and belonging. By symbols I mean the stories, heroes, myths, foods, ceremonies and rituals that we embrace. Symbols are the artifacts of our culture and the art of our everyday lives.  Just think of your relationship to a fleu de lis, Hubigs pie-man icon or a set of plastic beads.  What comes to mind?  How do you feel?

Those who can articulate, manipulate and manage cultural elements that give communities meaning will have demonstrable influence on our decisions.  Listen to how the presidential candidates and their parties clothe data within words about culture and values.  The unemployment rate alone has conjured more poetry than Maya Angelou.  We wrap metaphor and symbolism around numbers because culture gives meaning to otherwise lifeless data.  Culture gives us the vision of whether the economic glass is half empty or half full.

Uplifting symbols also validates specific communities.  I wouldn’t recommend saying, “pinch the tail and suck the head” in Omaha, Nebraska.  Wearing purple, green and gold in Pittsburgh may turn some heads.  But if New Orleanians are close by, then Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Seventeen days after Katrina’s landfall, President George W. Bush’s gave a memorable speech from Jackson Square in the French Quarter. It was a splendid example of the use of symbols.  With St. Louis Cathedral in the background Bush stated,

In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful "second line" -- symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.” (President Bush’s Jackson Square Speech, 2005)

Those who evacuated needed to hear these images. The imagery and tone throughout Bush’s entire speech illustrates the art of writing and the power of the artful delivery of prose.  With the exception of one major flaw, this speech would have been received as certainly one of the best in Bush’s career if not among all presidential speeches.

The words were offered fifteen days after landfall.  He spoke on the ground long after the public and media decried his administration’s horribly late response.

Timing is everything.  Whether it’s a song, dance or speech, timing is everything.  Timing is an important element of artistic literacy.  Many people are technically gifted, but are artistically below standard. We also see people disingenuously uplift symbols in place of truth.  There are no right or wrong answers when dealing with symbols.  But there is the matter of integrity.  For an artist, integrity is more important than truth.  When one has a good grasp on the manner in which leaders and communities use symbols, then one can say she is becoming artistically literate.

Although Bush delivered that speech late, New Orleans needed representation at that time.  As I will make clear later in the speech, sometimes symbols and ritual are all a community possesses.  During the aftermath of Katrina, we needed the sincere inspirational sway of art.  Art has the power to move us when words simply can’t. Hannah Harrington in Saving June said,

“He took his pain and turned it into something beautiful. Into something that people connect to. And that's what good music does. It speaks to you. It changes you.”

Harrington captured the power that all art holds.  Those who can tap into our artistic/spiritual/inspirational selves – those parts that make us uniquely human – will hopefully use their powers for good.

Should we be surprised that a saxophone player performed the most impactful speech between both presidential national conventions?  Saxophone players are widely seen as the coolest people on earth.  I said coolest – not sexiest or most intelligent.

In other words, President Bill Clinton trumpeted a political message that resonated with the millions of people who heard it. Clinton’s masterful speech during the 2012 Democratic National Convention had much to do with his tremendous communication skills, which can be partly attributed to his training as a musician.

Also, we shouldn’t be surprised that Clinton has roots in the Crescent City and the New Orleans music scene.   After Bill Clinton’s biological father died just three months before Billy’s birth, his mother moved to New Orleans to finish her nursing degree. Clinton frequently visited New Orleans. But his saxophone playing in high school instilled a deeper appreciation for this city as he brought his musical aspirations with him during future visits.  Just think how the world would sound if Bill Clinton continued pursuing a musical career.

Aside from Clinton’s speech, the public has experienced some of the lowest forms of communication during this pivotal time for the country and world.  The crass and repetitive use of annoying “robo-calls,” negative television and radio commercials, patronizing emails and nasty tweets are some of the lowest forms of persuasion.

Playing a bad tune over and over again won’t make it harmonious.  Raising your voice won’t make your argument better.  The pounding from volume is making our collective minds deaf and numb.  We are experiencing the most artless splattering of ideas that I’ve ever seen or heard.  However, one can easily argue that the communications from the campaigns are extensions of what we have become as a people.

Political speeches are now written to meet the lowest common denominator. Is this what it means to be in the information age?  I take this as more evidence of America’s educational regression, we’re dumbing down language arts. Not only that, we have become a twittering band of individuals.  We are void of composition and artistic representation.  I believe we need to rally behind symbols that heighten our sense of togetherness, if not simply our physical senses themselves.

In order for us to create, rediscover or remix those symbols of community, we must become more artistically literate as a society. During a time of intense individualism and balkanization, we need the type of art that unities our lonely spirits.  I will show how balkanized we’ve become through art.  I will also share an example of the patriotic power of art.  Ultimately, I want to advance the discussion on artistic literacy to include principles of democracy.

I will also argue that our elected officials and candidates should uplift a national agenda for art education.  Candidates always talk about the importance of art and culture in society, but our branches of government have simultaneously decimated budgets for the arts and disincentivized art education in public schools.  I hope to continue to work with the art community to wedge a commitment from elected officials so their rhetoric can match their budget sheets.

Symbols Are an Important Part of Our Community

Before I start a discussion on the importance of democracy in art literacy, I will briefly discuss why communities exist.  This may seem basic but I hope to make clear why symbols are critically important to them.  Consequently, I will demonstrate why artistic literacy helps to build cohesive communities.

Walzer states, “Men and women come together because they literally cannot live apart” (Walzer, 1983). Individuals cannot have their basic needs met without communities.  (Walzer, 1983). We form communities because we feel the survival of similarly situated individuals is at stake.  New Orleanians know too well that nature; a lack of adequate nutrition and other humans threaten people’s very lives.  Community and its outputs provide protection from these stresses.

Community outputs include protections that are cultural, political and religious.  Consequently communities become the references for art, culture, religion, politics, values, and identity.  A second-line may not be food or shelter, but the depth of the tradition is evidence that it helped a specific community cope with challenges to its very survival.  Rituals exist when basic needs don’t.  Traditions often keep communities together in the face of adversity.

You can see when traditions become woven into communities so tightly that they are seen as basic as food and water.  People’s identities are tied to their community traditions.  Who are you without your holidays, rituals and special meals? A community can exist without a second line, but you literally can’t have a second line without a community. Therefore, communities see their cultural traditions as essential to their survival.  Still we should not see a tradition as a community in itself.

MacIver and Page’s definition of community helps us distinguish a second line tradition from a community,

“Wherever the members of any group, small or large, live together in such a way that they share, not this or that particular interest, but the basic conditions of common life, we call that group a community.  The mark of a community is that one’s life may be lived wholly within it.  One cannot live wholly within a business organization or a church; one can live wholly within a tribe or city.  The basic criterion of community, then is that all of one’s social relationships may be found within it” (MacIver & Page, 1949).

Deep attachments to rituals can blind us to the substantive realities of our communities.  People easily trade quality schools, healthcare and safe environments to maintain the complexion of their neighborhood or a second-line parade.  Traditions often keep communities from advancement when change can improve basic living conditions.

There are times when attacks on tradition are traditions in themselves.  The historic relationship between the police and second line parades illustrate the point.  We often see entities attack communities by disrupting their customs and rituals.

Regardless of the motivation, communities react mightily to cultural and linguistic threats to their way of being.  Art is often used as a weapon in their defense.  There’s no irony that civil rights organizations use art in the same fashion as hate groups.  Thomas Merton said, Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”  The symbols we embrace can ultimately strangle us from truth, justice and basic human rights.  Art literacy enables us to see the discourse in which the art is situated.

How Art Reflects our Balkanized Community

We discussed why communities exist and the importance of symbols in the lives of their members.  For the next section of this lecture, I will illustrate how art reflects the degree to which we’ve become balkanized as a society.  Art can certainly bring disparate communities together, but art often tears communities apart.

In February of this year, an art installation in Boyet Junior High, a school in nearby St. Tammany Parish, depicted malevolent pictures of President Barak Obama.  [Click to Picture] One picture displays the President with a transposed bullet in his head.  Another drawing, which shows some satire and drawing talent, depicts Obama within a hunting season poster with “Obama Season” displayed on the moniker.  A smiling Mitt Romney also stands in the picture.  A total of five images comprised the installation, which a teacher displayed for the entire school community.  A concerned parent who saw the images alerted the school district about the installation.

The teacher who led this art project received the brunt of the pushback.  The St. Tammany School District fired Eighth grade teacher Robert Duncan for “making an incompetent decision.”  The public hearing regarding Duncan’s firing was postponed due to the threat of Hurricane Isaac.  Nevertheless, the controversy swirled around the appropriateness of the lesson, free speech and what constitutes an appropriate learning environment.

I am more interested in the vision of America the students carried within the pictures.  Where or from whom did he or she develop these visions?  How are communities represented in the picture? Especially in regards to the picture with Obama with a bullet in his head, I would love to ask who are you in relation to your art?  To the teacher I would ask, how did this assignment make students more literate with the world around them?

Aristotle wrote, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Again the Merton quote is relevant. “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”  The images we just experienced say a great deal about how we see others and ourselves. Art provides a window to our individual and collective identities.

My work as a board member for the National Endowment for the Arts is largely about individual and community development.  Our vision statement is, “A nation in which the arts enrich the lives of all Americans and enhance the livability of communities.”  Our commitment to the arts is predicated on the belief that art makes us more self-aware so we can put our better selves forward.

The arts are critically important in identity development.  The start of this lecture series began in January of this year with a definition and framework for artistic literacy.  In it we talked at length about identity.  I will go back to the framework that helped me define artistic literacy in order further an argument for democratic awareness in my conceptualization of artistic literacy.

What is Artistic Literacy?

I subscribe to James Paul Gee’s description of the term “literacy.”  Gee sees literacy as having 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.

As I continue to define artistic literacy in the concept of discourse, think about the St. Tammany school example.  Think about the ways the student and teacher positioned themselves in relation to others in the school.  Think about how they recognized themselves in relation to varied communities outside the building.  What could be said about their conceptualizations of race, class and sexual identity?  How will the audience recognize themselves in the art?  Finally, what did the imagery say about power?

Gee goes on to say, “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.

In the St. Tammany art installation example, where did the student acquire the language for their expressions?  How was that language being reinforced?  Who can have access to the language?

The question of access is largely about having membership to a specific discourse in which the language is legitimated.  In terms of social goods, discourse acquisition can feel like membership in a private club.  One can’t access its privileges until one is perceived as having the status as a member.  Having membership to a particular race, gender or political party provides privileges to use certain language that is applied in a particular discourse.

Acquiring 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.

As I re-read this concept, it became clearer to me, that the arts are no more a part of the dominant discourse in education or politics than second line parades or Mardi Gras Indians.  The arts were shut out of the national convention speeches.  We literally served as background music for discourses on defense, the economy and other issues that do not see a substantive role for the arts.

Here is where we advance the discussion on artistic literacy.  Artistic literacy can’t be just about reclaiming art as a dominant discourse.  If the conversation never rose above the St. Tammany example, what would that mean for our communities?  Also, art can’t just play the background.  Art must be included in the dominant discourse.  We need access to the discussion on politics, education and national defense.  Artistic literacy has much to do with democracy.  Art can and has always spoken to difference, but art shouldn’t suppress communities and their voice.

I see the St. Tammany example as an artistic attempt to silence artists who are not part of the dominant discourse.  The installation was clearly undemocratic.  It was undemocratic in that it ostensibly tried to shoot down alternate voices.  The installation collectively seemed to carry a very exclusive and intolerant vision of community.  Artists rarely demarcate morals that can be expressed.  However, censorship is one moral that most would say is not good for artistic literacy.

This is not to say that artists should not challenge and critique.  In fact, true art comes out of the scrutiny of our ideas. In Audre Lorde’s classic essay Poetry is not a Luxury, she states,

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.

The artist and their art must welcome the scrutiny that is inherent in a diverse society.  Art is inherently democratic in that it assumes a certain type of patriotism. I’m not talking about the patriotism, which are poorly disguised allegiance checks that candidates offer.  I’m talking about the patriotism that Shabini describes as, “a powerful indication of a desire and need to belong to a politico-cultural entity that determines one’s identity”(Shabini, 2002, p. 419).  Shabini goes on to say, “Civic patriotism – as what promises to replace nationalism by providing the civic bond of citizenship necessary for one’s sense of belonging and identity while avoiding nationalism’s damaging features” (p. 420).

Shabini believes that we strive for individual and community identity.  We strive for expression. However, we must agree to live with our differences.  In this sense, patriotism is a belief in a mother country.  Art discourse should take on the same principle.  Art literacy is about claiming art as a discourse.  However, it is about promoting a discourse that is non-discriminatory and participatory – democratic.  Even if we don’t get along, our art must be neighbors.  The art discourse must be neighborly.

Crooner Frank Ocean provides a good example of showing how an artist’s and his work’s struggles with this problem of diversity and inclusivity.  Ocean’s work also displays openness to all things except intolerance.  I had to the pleasure to work with this rising star who recently turned heads with his amazing talent as well as his announcement that he loved another man.  This aspect of his life is revealed in his art.  In the song Bad Religion, Ocean writes:

If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion; Unrequited love, To me it’s nothing but a one man cult

Ocean responds critically to a dominant narrative against homosexuality, which is advanced by numerous religious orders.  The song conveys how the lack of reciprocation on the part of the church is institutionally malicious.  Ocean sees unanswered love as pathology. However the song’s content does not shoot down the church in which he seeks acceptance.  This is the difference between democratic art and the antidemocratic brand found in the St. Tammany installation.  One seeks inclusion.  The other seeks coercive assimilation or consequent annihilation.  One partakes in an art discourse the other would suppress.

Both example show how much art serves as a window into who we are and how we live.  Art literacy allows us to see the discourse in which the work emanates.  Being very literate would mean that one could see and respond to power dynamics inherent in art and society.

Again, election season provides ample examples of what it means and what it doesn’t mean to be literate.  We have seen the power of rhetoric used to distort our true selves.  We have seen our traditions being used to hide access to the information that would compel us to change our traditions.

Some have gone as far to say that truth doesn’t matter.  For an artisan, integrity may be a more applicable term.  Nevertheless, I think we heard a great deal of truth and a lack of integrity when Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."  Atlantic Monthly editor James Bennet raised a discourse when he asked, “What happens if the press takes a stand on the truth -- and no one cares?” After reading Bennet’s piece, I asked myself what does it mean to be artistically literate if truth is not the gravity we stand upon?

As an artist, I can appreciate imaginative illustrations or translations to express an emotion, fact or experience.  I am very conscious that many artists consciously motivate individuals to persuade the incomprehensible.  We know that art has been used particularly by governments as a tool for propaganda, hence the phrase – “art is propaganda.”

An artist’s appeal for truth can fall as flat as a politician’s appeal.  This election year has certainly tested the differences between art and a lie; between communication and noise; between messaging and manipulation. Elected officials are notorious for illuminating half-truths.  Politicians never share the tradeoffs and paradoxes of policy positions if they bear negative consequences on power.

However, what kind of house can be built upon an unreliable foundation? Truth is a requisite for literacy.  If our art lacks the type of integrity that is bolstered by honesty, then what do we really have.   Honore de Balzac stated, “Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true.”  Art literacy should increase our capacity to move past the rhetoric and form of our art and enable us to see the substance and power of it.

The Case for Mandatory Art Education

At the core, we must ask ourselves who we are as a country.  This query goes much deeper than the state of the economy.  I believe we are always asking ourselves privately, what is America becoming, and am I included in that future. The fences we put up to protect ourselves from the cultural and linguistic threats to who we want to be only expose who we really are as a people, university, city, state and country.  Our rhetoric shows me that its time we enhanced our abilities to look critically within ourselves.

On October 8, 2008 Barak Obama stated,

Part of what arts education does is it teaches people to see each other through each others eyes. It teaches us to respect and understand people who are not like us and that make us better citizens and it makes our democracy work better…That’s one of the main reasons we need to promote the arts.

Obama’s words rang true.  Let’s hope they were stated with integrity.  I know personally that I couldn’t have developed as an artist without the support of national and state dollars.  Over the last decade, particularly in New Orleans, we’ve seen schools rid themselves of art programs in exchange for increased math and English time.  This occurs in spite of the research that shows the connection between the arts and math development.

This fall I have the wondrful opportunity to play in Carnegie Hall in New York City in route to a meeting with the Ford Foundation.  The Ford Foundation instituted The Arts and Education Reform Initiative in 2004 to reach two goals:

  • -Significantly improve outcomes and opportunities for large numbers of urban public school students by fostering integrated arts education practices across school systems
  • -Help build the public understanding that arts education is, and must be, an essential part of any high quality public school education

Currently the program operates in nine cities.  New Orleans is not a partner city – yet.  The Ford Foundation shares my belief that without the arts, we will lose sight as to who we really are as a country.  I hope to convince them to invest in a historic city that has developed because of our love for the arts.

In closing, I leave you with a quote from Brad Hollad who stated, “Many of the contradictions in Postmodern art come from the fact that we're trying to be artists in a democratic society. This is because in a democracy, the ideal is compromise. In art, it isn't.”  I believe that as we become more artistically literate, neither democracy nor art is compromised.  We will literally create our way to freedom.

Thank you.

© Copyright 2010 Irvin Mayfield - All Rights Reserved