Aspen Institute Arts Program Hosts Panel on Democracy and the Arts

September 26, 2013

Erica Sheftman is projects manager of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, where she manages a series of projects connecting artists, policymakers and communities around critical issues at the intersection of the arts, education, healthcare, urban development and diplomacy.

Watch the full session of the Aspen Institute Arts Program event “Citizenship, Democracy and the Arts.”

“The idea of the arts as being participatory is timeless.” said Aspen Institute Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel, expressing a recurrent theme of the program’s latest public event, “Citizenship, Democracy and the Arts.”

The conversation, hosted at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, brought together Commissioner of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Kate D. Levin, former speechwriter and Deputy Domestic Policy Adviser to President Bill Clinton, Eric Liu, and President of Hunter College Jennifer J. Raab. The event was part of an ongoing series hosted by the Arts Program exploring the work of citizen artists, and how the arts can contribute to the challenges facing society today.

Woetzel, leading the conversation, asked guests to consider several questions. Should government ensure that all have access to ways to express themselves, and to find their voice as artists and as citizens? How does exercising one’s rights as a citizen create power, and how do arts and culture contribute to that work? What responsibility do arts leaders have to foster a sense of shared national culture? And what is the role of educational institutions in harnessing the benefits of “art for life’s sake”?

At a small seminar organized for Hunter College students in the hours before the public event, Liu described his first encounter with Woetzel as a meeting of minds. Woetzel was deeply invested in initiatives around citizen artists. Meanwhile Liu — who, post-Clinton White House had founded “Citizen University” and authored a progressive book on American citizenship, “The Gardens of Democracy” — was investigating its flipped counterpart: the Art of Citizenship.

If Woetzel was thinking primarily of artists’ function and responsibility in civic roles, Liu was exploring creative citizenship and democracy as an act of art — an idea inspired by his time training as a violinist (“Everything I know about a democracy I learned by playing in an orchestra,” he said).

Liu considered the “musicality of speech” during his time as Clinton’s speechwriter. “I don’t think of the arts and citizenship as separate domains,” Liu explained. “They are always informing each other.”

One student in the session, who was pursuing music and political science concurrently at Hunter, asked how Liu saw politics and art intervening and collaborating most productively. “By enjoying art, you already have the capacity to organize, motivate, persuade and dissuade people more than the average citizen, because you have an innate understanding of narrative,” Liu told him.

Pressed for recent examples of art activated in an emotionally and socially impactful way, Liu pointed to popular rapper Macklemore, who has made a mass-scale appeal for marriage equality, and playwright Tony Kushner, who through his film “Lincoln” re-examined ethics and issues relating to the contemporary presidency and Congress. “Be open to using art in the realm of social justice,” Liu said.

At the public event, Liu reiterated Bill Gates Sr.’s line that we must all “show up for life,” rather than, as Liu put it, “run on autopilot in the ways we are relating to each other.”

Woetzel suggested that many untapped opportunities exist to capitalize on the skills of artists uniquely suited to involvement in the public sector, whether in education, community building, or economic revitalization. He called on Levin to explain just how involved government can be in incentivizing this process. Levin said she thought that the government should function more as venture capitalists, seeding artistic initiatives which, in particular, provide a service for the public and involve participation in a major way.

Levin questioned whether there was a primary way to value artistic work and define participation, and pointed to two Cultural Affairs-funded projects, which in her mind met productive benchmarks of success. One project called “Key to the City” provided citizens with keys to open 24 locations around the city and “gave people an incentive to go outside their neighborhoods in a way even a MetroCard can’t.”

The other project is the “Gates” project in Central Park, by Christo and his late wife, Jean-Claude, which not only attracted 4 million guests and brought in $254 million in revenues for the city, but also, “for the first time, put New York City on the front page of every national newspaper for reasons that had nothing to do with politics or ideological attacks” following the September 11 attacks, Levin said. “It positioned the city as a place that was wonderful and open to lots of different ideas, and it gave people something to talk about, together.”

Hunter College President Raab added that government can support civic-oriented arts initiatives in a more subtle way by supporting higher education. She pointed to public programs like Hunter’s undergraduate and graduate departments, which are characterized by unique socioeconomic and cultural diversity, and often incorporate service as part of their curricula.

“It’s hard enough to make it as an artist, and it’s impossible to make it as an artist with debt,” Raab said. She explained that the role of a great holistic education is to provide access, and eliminate exclusivity in learning about and experiencing the arts. Moreover, she said, it’s to educate young people and set good examples for cultural involvement, so that they are well primed for those gateway experiences that can become habitual.

Ultimately, Liu and Woetzel concluded, artist citizens and citizen artists must prioritize making the kind of art that is “reciprocal,” giving as much to the individual as it does to democracy and society.

“True self-interest is mutual interest,” Liu said with a smile. “Any society that learns how to cooperate, understands that reciprocity and mutuality of obligation keeps you from collapsing into chaotic anarchy.”