The version of the state Legislature now in session is like a weird invention. Call it the Set-Back Machine. It takes good ideas - the kind that might provide Indiana with some forward progress - and wrings out the momentum before they have a chance to catch on. You might think of it as a pre-emptive assault on the future.
The Set-Back Machine, er, Legislature has managed to take action that promises to make our state all but invulnerable to some recent thinking that emphasizes the importance of the arts.
In just the past week, the Set-Back Machine, er, Legislature has managed to take action that promises to make our state all but invulnerable to some recent thinking that emphasizes the importance of the arts.
"Gifts of the Muse" is the name of a report just published by the Rand Corporation, one of this country's most prestigious think tanks. "Gifts of the Muse" argues that the strategies arts advocates have been using to justify greater investment in the arts actually sells the arts short. Indianapolis is a representative example of what the Rand report is talking about. The Peterson Administration made an enlightened decision when it chose to make the city's cultural life a high priority. But it diminished the potential reach of this decision by reducing its focus to cultural tourism.
The Peterson Administration can argue, of course, that its emphasis on cultural tourism rather than culture itself reflects the art of the possible. In the world of practical politics, it's not enough to stand for what's good and beautiful, the good and beautiful must show a quantifiable return for each dollar invested. So if the arts can be shown to attract people downtown, where they spend money in restaurants and shops, which then results in jobs, the arts can be considered good.
By the same token, in schools, where achievement testing has become the measure of all things educational, the arts are considered relevant only insofar as they can be linked to improved student performance on standardized tests.
But the Rand study says that thinking of the arts in ways that can be measured fails to take the arts' intrinsic benefits into account. People aren't drawn to the arts because of their impact on the hospitality industry, but, in the words of the report, "because the arts can provide them with meaning and with a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation." The report goes on to say, "We contend not only that these intrinsic effects are satisfying in themselves, but that many of them can lead to the development of individual capacities and community cohesiveness that are of benefit to the public sphere."
In other words, the arts are good medicine - for us as individuals and as participating members of society. The arts, according to the Rand report, make us more empathic, invite us to try on new perspectives, create social bonds that didn't previously exist and enable us to express communal meanings.
There's nothing wrong with using the arts to push downtown development. In fact, given the arts' intrinsic power, it's a smart strategy. But it doesn't necessarily address the larger issue of how to involve more people, especially kids, with the arts on a regular basis. While the Rand study shows that this is a good thing in itself, a new book says it also lines up with where our economy is headed.
Daniel Pink has written a book called A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (to be published in March by Riverhead Books). Pink writes that the Information Age, with its left-brain emphasis on linear, logical, analytical talents, is morphing into an economy built on inventive, empathic abilities. He points out that jobs that can be reduced to a set of rules, routines and instructions are on their way to places like India, China and the Philippines, where they can be done cheaper than here.
Automation is also playing a part in this evolution. Machines, Pink says, are proving they can execute sequential, reductive, computational work better, faster and more accurately than people with the highest IQs.
Finally, Pink says that the abundance created by the Information Age - self-storage, for example, is now a $17 billion annual industry, nearly double Hollywood's yearly box office take - has placed a premium on less rational sensibilities, and an emphasis on beauty, spirituality and emotion. Pink cites the current craze for hip design in everything from kitchenware to lampposts as one example.
"Want to get ahead today?" Pink writes. "Do something foreigners can't do cheaper. Something computers can't do faster. And something that fills one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age."
Which brings us back - yes, back - to our state Legislature. House Republicans have proposed a state budget that will mean real cuts for every urban school district in Indiana. If history is any guide, this means that art classes and foreign language instruction, areas already in short supply, will be taking a hit. Which also means our kids will be deprived of experience in those areas where the intrinsic benefits are greatest, and where future opportunities could be brightest.
Maybe these kids can get work repairing Indiana's Set-Back Machine. It's got plenty of moving parts. Let's hope that most of them are disposable.