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Transcript: Arlene Goldbard, author, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future

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storycon.org H1'ed 7/10/14
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A.G.: Well I think both things are true. You're right. That our capacity to tell stories, I have a friend that says it's our evolutionary advantage and the cultural anthropologist that has been studying early humans have recognized that contrary to the cartoon view of evolution in which the biggest strongest is going to be the one that survives, that brute force are the real factors for natural selection, it appears that the ability to tell a great story is a huge factor for natural selection, which must be in part why there's so many artists in every successive generation, because the person who could stand around the campfire and talk about what happens when you meet a Sabre-tooth tiger in a way that really gives people a sense of not just the information but the feelings that accompany it, people want to mate with that person and it becomes an evolutionary factor.

It's also true, Rob that everything has a story, right? The story is being generated by propaganda machines that want to rationalize Datastan and all of its crimes and some of those are really cleverly made and creative and compelling stories that suck you in. So everything has it's story just like you need numbers to live in all possible worlds.

The reason that I'm saying that it's a new thing or an emergent thing is because, it's this idea of paradigm shift, you know? It isn't that Eras come pre-labeled; now we're living in the Renaissance- and it's exactly twelve o'clock- now it will be the Enlightenment. It's more that a gradual shift takes place and aggregates until things change in a way that people are able to comprehend.

So if we're on the cusp of that kind of change now, and I think in our different words you and I both agreed that this is true, then what is new about stories is the value that they are coming to have in effectuating that change, because to the extent that people refuse to just be counted, and stand up with their stories, other people become better listeners when you're able to tell your own story in such a way that it's received with dignity and respect. Then you invite other people to do the same thing, if you can listen to their stories in that way. We suddenly have the basis for a completely different society. In which we're not objectifying each other but we're being present for each other as full human beings. So it's something very old but its function is going to be to give the final blow to Datastan I think. That, I'm looking forward to!

R.K.: Amen. You know what it makes me think of? The kind of idea that we've transitioned from a top-down communication system where you know a handful of people were able to put out the stories, you know? You had a couple of networks and all the stories went out from them and it was one-way communication. And Clay Shirky was talking about, now we have two-way communication so that so many more people can participate in the conversation.

We have Twitter where everybody can share the experience of something like watching a major event and or on what's happening on the news and everybody can have their own blog and all of these are ways that people can put out their stories where they never really had a way to do it before. And you've got this concept of the long tail, where stuff gets put up on the web and it stays there, and it could be found over time so even stuff that doesn't get a lot of attention right away may end up getting a lot in the long run, and all of this enables people to feel like it's worthwhile to tell their stories. And gives them the ability to do it as well.

A.G.: That's exactly right, and what I'm encountering is that the obstacle to entering fully into that resides pretty much in people's minds. It's not actually anymore a concrete external obstacle. You're making the correct claim I think that the means of sharing our stories are available to us and you know that includes every means that has been contracted to the beginning of time.

We can sit around the campfire and beat on the foot drum and share our stories, or we can share our stories by pressing a button with everybody who is online in the planet at that moment and everything in between is possible. So we have a full toolbox of communication mechanisms, but I think demoralization somehow keeps people from believing that there is meaning to that, that there's a way, that it will make a difference if they tell their stories.

It's a thing that I'm wanting to address a lot in my work now, in both of my books, The Culture of Possibility; Art, Artists, and the Future and the companion novel, The Wave are addressing is this sense of the pervasive preemptive disappointment that is installed in people's minds as the result of living in this society in which what we really have to offer is not being received and not being made use of.

It makes people feel there's no point in standing up, there's no point in speaking out. And a lot of what I'm doing is I'm going around the country talking, on college campuses or in other settings, is to ask people to notice that what they've done is silence themselves, in their own minds, in a way that's complicit with the external order that wants to silence them.

R.K.: And you mentioned before we started that you're seeing more and more people who see the truth about what's emerging and then they kind of shut down and shut up and can you talk about that? I think this is where you're going.

A.G.: Well I will give you a really specific example that I just encountered, and it needs a tiny bit of background. In one of the things I write about in The Culture of Possibility is the notion of artists as an indicator species for the well-being of society. The way the clams and oysters are indicator species for the well-being of the ocean, for example. That how society treats artists is significant as something worth deconstructing and examining for social meaning in our time which is characterized by the corporatization of absolutely everything.

The way that artists' work has been devalued and treated just as a commodity is pretty significant and one of the things that is within that is what the public sector does. The public sector could have as a social goal to promote active cultural participation to disseminate the means of creative work, of making and distributing creative work to preserve multiple cultures in the community, to engage people in beautifying their own neighborhoods, I mean the list is very long, but it doesn't have that goal.

What it does is have a very anemic presence, that the National Endowment for the Arts lost about two-thirds of its real value since 1980. So I was speaking at Harvard a couple of weeks ago and I talked about, because most of the people in the audience were professors or students in various arts departments, I talked about the way that that support for the National Endowment for the Arts has unfolded and told people that even though the current proposal for the allocation for the agency is a hundred and forty six million a year, the cut back from the prior year, it's about the same as in real dollars as what it was in 1980, but the value of it has declined such that we would need four hundred and forty million to equal the spending power of 1980 now.

And there's some kind of collective delusion going on where the people who advocate for these budgets think that they've been successful; when they've actually lost two-thirds of their value!

And I talked about some of the errors that have been made in promoting that kind of advocacy campaign, that basically doesn't talk about what art can really do in terms of social transformation, in terms of building connective tissue in society.

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