My guest tonight is Arlene Goldbard. She is a writer, speaker, social activist and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere from interpersonal to the transnational. Her books include Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, Community, Culture and Globalization, and her novels, Clarity and The Wave.
A.G.: Well for example, let me give you an example that's developed very fully in my other book that was companion volume to this one, The Wave. One of my characters is a member of the Storytelling Corps at Bellevue Hospital in New York, twenty years in the future. So when you have to go to the hospital, instead of having the kind of horrific intake experience that many of us have despite the goodwill of individuals who work there where we're made to wait for a long time, there's someone with a clip board who treats us like a number, we're in distress but there's nothing there to assist with our distress. In this new model, Lulu and her fellow members of the Storytelling Corps are the intake system at Bellevue Hospital. When you come in, a Story-
Teller sits with you. That person elicits a story of your illness from the perspective of the understanding of healing as a process in which your history, the resilient factors in your past,
all of those things are going to help you along with your healing.
The person is going to listen to how you feel and be present to how you feel and some times prescribe something. A particular story. They're going to listen to the lullabies that were sung to you when you were a child and make sure you have an iPod to look up music on it. They're going to make a piece of art with you that you can hang in your hospital room and will help remind you of what it is in your history that makes it likely that you'll get well. So that's a really developed example of connective tissue but what I mean-
R.K.: I have to tell you that listening to you describe that, I've got tears in my eyes. I mean literally you just ripped right through me, because what you're describing is a system where the idea of giving a diagnosis, a number and pathologizing whatever is going on with a person is mostly gone, and it's replaced with such a different totally different fabric of handling and embracing and enveloping a human being. In all the dimensions, wow. I love it. I just, wow!
A.G.: Thank you, Rob, I'm so glad you do. And that's an example I think to sit down and say to someone, what if a hospital was like this and then in their own minds they're comparing it to the actual reality, the present time reality that they've experienced. That gives you a big glimpse of what we mean by paradigm shift, huh?
R.K.: Yes, it sure does. It's, you know, it's so different and there is so much money invested in and continually funding the old Datastan model, your Datastan way that you describe as Datastan which is the industrial complex way. How do you see it changing?
A.G.: Well, I mean of course that's the zillion dollar question. Me, my guess is that the change is going to finally be actuated by two things: the total breakdown of the old system because it's not doing so well, you know? Even though there's a lot of propaganda being generated saying the market is the model for all things and business really knows how to do stuff and government doesn't, we shred ample evidence every way of the untruth of that.
And I think people are beginning to see through some of the claims for competence and primacy of those systems as more and more of their suffering leaders fall. So that can be one factor. The other factor feels to me like it's important, underlying realization that's like the switch, that will toggle us into the new reality and that's recognizing for example that there is a zillion more of us than there are of them.
That the people who actually control and benefit from the current social arrangements are very small in number in comparison to all the people who are subjected to their choices. There are just so many ways to look at the question of people power in twentieth century and twenty first century history. I saw Arianna Huffington on the Daily Show this week and she said there are two traditional forms of power.
Excuse me, two traditional forms of value, political power and money. And that the third form is the value of whatever we do to effect the well-being, and driving the human subject, our ability to sustain and thrive in the future. And it feels like there's a lot of different writers, thinkers, activists, who are coming to this realization at the same time. So I don't think this is something that we actually make happen, like there's a ten point program and then Ah-Ha! the paradigm shifts.
I think it's more a question of our vision right now. If we can bring into focus all the ways in which this emergent truth is growing stronger, we're going to wake up and see that in fact it's taken the high ground. It's taken center stage. So right now I want to focus people's attention on re-reading reality. On seeing a different version than the consensus reality of the dominant media that's being beamed from the center to the margins all the time, to pay attention to what else is going on around us and understand that that mainstream story is neither the only story nor necessarily the truest one.
R.K.: I love it. I love it. Now the title of your book is The Culture of Possibility; Art, Artists, and the Future and this is an incredible book. I have to tell you that one way in which I gauge a book is by how much I mark it up and put notes and underlines and asterisks and stars and what have you next to parts of it and this book, it's really really marked up. I started reading the digital version and I realized I had to have a paper version. I had to put some marks on it.
A.G.: Thank you so much.
R.K.: A lot of the book is about the artists. So you kind of vaguely alluded to it, let's get into that. I'll start off throwing a quote at you, from you, you say art is the practice of freedom. Culture enlarges our spirits, connects us to our past, our future, and each other and enables the imagination and empathy that support individual and collective resilience.
I love it, it's a beautiful line. And let's use that as a take off to go wherever you want to talk about how art is going to contribute to the shift in what we're looking at, what we're paying attention to, and the way our culture functions.
A.G.: Okay, thanks Rob. Well I want to talk about two different ways I think quickly. One is in terms of the capacities and skills that we need to face the future and develop a future that we want to bring into being. One argument I am making throughout these books is that the skills that are intrinsic to artistic practice; imagination, especially social imagination, empathy, the capacity to create a moment in which we feel something of who the other is and what the other is experiencing.
Improvisation, resourcefulness, resilience, a frame of mind in which everything isn't structured around avoiding making mistakes, but you understand that trial and error is the only way that we really gain from our experience. So all of these capacities are very much the core capacities of art makers. In all forms, I'm talking about people who make music, people who make art, people who do visual art, drama and dance, the whole ball of wax.
All have the development of those skills and those I argue are the skills that everyone in this society needs now. It's not having the three cars, it's the capacity to look at what's in front of us. Imagine a different reality. Re-purpose the broken pieces of the old reality in order to bring it into being. And we could all learn from our participation in art, from our art-making, how to develop those skills and capacities.
I'm particularly focused on imagination and empathy because when I look around I think that the golden rule, the notion of not doing to others what you would hate to have happen to yourself seems to me to be the DNA of all moral and social constructively social systems, a humane system. And that in order to live by the golden rule we have to have a really developed capacity for empathy to imagine ourselves as the other.
And art, the way to get there, when you sit in the theater and you cry because of something you see on the stage or on the screen, it's not that you know that actor and you're relating to that person as an individual, it's that the artists, working together have managed to generate an experience that's strikes a chord within you and enables you to connect to that experience in a way that's complete. Body, emotions, mind, and spirit.
So learning those capacities felt really critical to me and that's one of the really strong themes. And then the other question is what are people doing with their time these days, how do they learn? And what I see is when a film comes out that excites a conversation about racism, Twelve Years a Slave, a recent one, then suddenly around the country we have a dialogue on racism that is much more vital and vibrant.
Different people participate in it. There's a different ground for it than what is a response to a white paper that's been generated by a think-tank somewhere or a story in the newspaper even. I notice that when people want to console each other now, they give each other play-lists. They console each other with music. I have noticed how many people are involved in writing poetry that they might put in a drawer, taking photographs, since the advent of YouTube we have become a nation of filmmakers and I would argue that the short film has probably become our primary lingua franca in political discussion.
So no matter how you look, people are opting in a completely voluntary way to enter into this realm of art and culture as the primary mode of expression, communication, and connection with each other. And I think the old paradigm just hasn't been able to bring that change into focus yet but I hope my books will help people to see that.
R.K.: So your book with twenty eight different aspects of art and culture, am I saying that properly? Twenty eight reasons to pursue the public interest in art.
A.G.: That's right.
R.K.: Can you talk a little bit about that specifically?
A.G.: Well I wrote this book with two different arguments. One part is an extended essay on corporation nation in art and how the pickle that we're in has developed. The section that has the twenty eight arguments is entitled Hidden in Plain Sight and basically it looks at a number of different aspects in brief chapters. My idea was something you could read in twenty minutes, half an hour at the most and feel like you've learned something.
So for example, talking about the way that we shape our stories shaping our lives. How you meet two people who are suffering from the same challenge, we both lost our jobs. I find a way to look at that as an opportunity to reconsider what matters most to me and what I want to go towards and shape a new story of my life. Another person finds a way to think, I'm being punished again, to subside into just a kind of pliant despair.
How we make our collective stories about what's happening to us as a society really matters in this way. Remember C. Wright Mills, he said that one of the problems in America is the privatization of public issues. That when someone loses their job we tend to blame that individual and look at his or her short comings as the reason that bad thing has happened. When actually it's often, almost always, an expression of a larger public issue that's been privatized so that we don't have to address the underlying question.
So what is our collective responsibility? Create a big story about what's happening in terms of unemployment in this country right now that inspirits individuals to understand themselves as part of a larger story and gives them more choices for the future. You know there's other sections that talk about-
R.K.: Well I like that section that you're referring to: " The prohibition against pointing these things out, or to be more specific against naming the beneficiaries and culprits and showing how much of the expense of their self-serving actions is borne by the rest of us, is powerful. Some people may stop reading what I've written on account of the discomfort this triggers. What's required to see things clearly in the face of such prohibitions is refusal to accept the inoculation". What do you mean by the inoculation? Talk a little bit more about that.
A.G.: In that section I talked about this history of not just censorship but powerful discouragement to free speech as being a series of inoculations. So for example, you know you can start back with the Spanish Inquisition and look at the numbers of how many people were executed in order to begin that inoculation against having a different understanding in the world than the most powerful ideological institution at that time, the Catholic Church.
And came up to the McCarthy era, looked at how many people lost their jobs, their livelihoods, went to prison, and so forth in order to create a strong, strong prohibition against pointing out the true power of money in creating social power and distorting democracy in this country and how that was a really strong inoculation that lasted for a long time. There were decades in which people were afraid to use certain words, you know words like socialism, it just wasn't part of the conversation.
Because of the shot in the arm that people had gotten during the McCarthy era. And I trace how it takes less and less to produce the same result over time. The result being that self-censorship is probably the most decentralized aspect of our social policy. We hardly have any overt censorship in this country because we all obligingly do it on behalf of the people who want us to be silent.
R.K.: Wait, you're saying that this is a decentralized thing?
A.G.: I think, what happens is we as individuals end up carrying water for the people who want us to be silent and compliant because we've been inoculated with the idea that there are big consequences in speaking our truth, we start to censor ourselves.
R.K.: Man it's true. So your answer is the arts. How does, do you have to be an artist to do it? Do you have to have a degree in fine arts or in dance or play an instrument to do it?
A.G.: No, no absolutely not although it's amazing how many people do. The arts is such an abstract concept, I always try to look for another way to talk about it, although I don't always succeed.
I have a friend who every time he gets on a bus sits down with some people and does this little test, do you participate in the arts and everyone says no, no, no. And then he says do you sing, do you play an instrument, do you do needlework, do you take photographs, do you make YouTube videos? And everybody says yes.
So almost universally every one of us, we're singing in the choir, we're knitting in a circle, we're beautifying, we're gardening, we're humming to ourselves in the shower, we're all partaking of these methods of expression and communication. You don't have to be certified if there's any way to do that. There are particular roles for people who do define themselves as professional artists and who have chosen to place their artistic skills at the service of the development of justice, democracy, and so on.
There are certain key social roles, back in the 1930's, we had the WPA. That was one of the biggest programs resulting from the New Deal. It put all kinds of artists to work in community, making plays about the issues that people cared about, creating amphitheaters and post office murals that you still see today. And a lot more. Right now, today, we really have a level of unemployment and a need for investment in social infrastructure that would justify a new WPA. But even if we couldn't mobilize the political will to do that right away, we have allocations in every local state and federal government department for PR, you know?
Leaflets nobody reads or for public processes that are meaningless. You know, meetings where citizens can come and testify for one, two, or three minutes to a bored group of people who aren't really listening to what they're saying. Those things all cost a lot of money and they're supposed to be creating a connection between the agencies that sponsor them and the larger public, the larger citizenry and all of that money could easily be redeployed right now to employ artists.
To make theater about social goals. To engage with people in story telling workshops where they connect the public health challenge that we're trying to respond to to their own lives and in a more meaningful way. To create beauty in their communities that connects them to larger questions of social healing. We could be doing that right now.
So I think there's definitely lots of roles for professional artists and many, many of us are enacting those roles around the country but to take part in this, no. You just, you need to go to the theater and sit there and allow yourself to notice what is happening to you as you enter into the story. And take in the alternate reality of people portrayed on stage and then ask yourself whether this capacity has some application in your life when you leave the theater.
R.K.: So, we don't have much time left so I want to get a couple things in. You're doing a lot of consulting and lecturing all over the place, you just mentioned you gave a talk at Harvard. Why do people bring you to speak and what are their goals? What do they want to get out of it?
A.G.: You know, that's a question I have been thinking about a lot lately because I think there's two answers. One is that most of the people who bring me to speak have heard me speak somewhere else. Because they've had an experience in which I said things that validate something that they know deeply but haven't been able to bring to a complete articulation or haven't heard validated, and so it feels like an opening out experience and I guess inspiring is the word that people say to me the most which I like very much.
I like to inspire. The other reason they bring me, which I'm not so thrilled about, is that an adjective I get a lot is provocative. While I do definitely want to be thought-provoking and feeling-provoking I'm worried that in some places provocative means let's hear this as a far out point of view and then we can all go back to consensus reality. So I'd like to be able to find a way to continue to be provocative and open people's thinking to the idea that things that provoke their own thoughts and feelings can be shared, not just sequestered into kind a of spice or seasoning, but in the actual main course of life.
R.K.: This consensus reality, that's a really fascinating concept to me. To me it seems that consensus reality is very top-down, it's kind of put out there and then, but it takes this decentralized self-censorship that you describe to embrace it and own it and accept it. And it-
R.K.: It also seems to me like art, it can be very much the answer to disconnecting people from consensus reality. And you talked about that in your book a lot.
A.G.: Yeah. You'd have to be able to envision an alternative, right? If you're embedded in the consensus reality, so for example you just have these kind of default settings in your mind, these people are experts, they know so much more than me, what do I have to say about this subject, this topic of climate change or whatever, however complex it is, income inequality, these things that I am living through, I just don't understand it, what's on TV.
That's an expression of the consensus reality. The alternative reality is to recognize that there is a lot of different experts, that they are about as failed in their predictions of the future as a coin flip would be. That there is no material reality to the idea that you don't have something valid to contribute even on the biggest and most complex challenges of our time, and the way that people tend to realize that is when a challenge is brought home to them in the form of stories. In the form of something that engages, not just their mind, but their body. Their feelings. Their spirit at the same time.
R.K.: Now story is a concept that you keep coming back to. You have named that as the future paradigm, the Republic of Stories. Talk to me about story and where that fits into your view of change and making this a better world.
A.G.: Well because I am really interested in the Golden Rule, I am really interested in the notion that there is a very simple underlying principle that if it were enacted it would transform everything. For example, if our policy makers had to actually live under the condition that they prescribed to the least tax payer, they would be prescribing different conditions. So because I'm looking for ways to get people to treat the Golden Rule not just as an abstract principle out there but a real guide to living... then how does that happen for us, you know?
We experience ourselves as suffering in isolation but when we connect to other people we see that something that is happening to us is not a private trouble but an expression of a public issue, a public dilemma. It can only be a story. I can't imagine any other way to get to that. There's no substitution that will convey that to people in the powerful way that they need to receive it. So for example, many of the people I work with use a very simple modality called the Story Circle to do organizing.
You get people into manageable size groups, eight or ten, everyone in the group gets an equal amount of time, two or three minutes to tell a story on a theme that's agreed upon. Let's say our theme is income inequality. All stories that people choose to tell are acceptable. No one can contradict, comment on, or add to anyone's story.
There is a moment of silence between them and when the eight or ten stories are told, the group breathes on them for a moment, and then reflects together there on what can be extracted from them in terms of common wisdom. I have never seen a story sharing like that disintegrate into
a polarized shouting match, or 'forget this I'm leaving' kind of thing that our conventional public political discourse always winds down to at this moment in history.
And I've always seen the sharing of stories illuminate something that can't be illuminated by simple explanation or definitely can't be illuminated by numbers, by statistics and bar graphs. So just using the core modality of sharing our stories in a situation of true receiving, true equality, deep listening, and opening the possibility of reflection, which doesn't happen very much in most of our organizations and institutions, just by itself I think that can make a difference.
R.K.: Okay. You have this list of six skills that were needed to actuate the Arab Spring and all six are artists core methods and essential habits of mind. You mentioned a couple of them like imagination and empathy. You also have in that list improvisation, and an interesting one is awareness of cultural citizenship and the aspiration to inhabit it fully. Talk about that.
A.G.: Well cultural citizenship is a term for something very fuller than legal citizenship. So you know you or I may be citizens of the United States, we may have the papers, the entitlement, we can vote, that kind of thing. But it may be that we are not given the fullness of cultural citizenship which is to feel at home in our communities. To feel that our own contributions count as much as anyone else's, to feel that there's equal acknowledgment for our roles in shaping the world that we live in, to feel that our beliefs, our celebrations, our aspirations, our commemorations have equal validity with other people to understand that our past is worth preserving inside the public memory.
I could go on and on and on, so we all know lots of people who may have actual legal citizenship but to whom the fullness of cultural citizenship, that true feeling of belonging has been denied on account of all forms of discrimination, right? Racism, the anti-immigrant feeling that is so pervasive in this country now. The differential ways that men and women are treated. Questions of ability, these all shape whether someone is truly able to experience full cultural citizenship or not, and full cultural citizenship should be our aspiration. You know, it-
R.K.: Absolutely. I think the opposite of this sense of full cultural citizenship is disconnection and I recently interview Keith Farnish who wrote a book called Undermining which gives this thorough, very complete list of all the different ways that Datastan, as you describe it, or "the System" intentionally and systematically disconnects us from that state that you're describing that is so necessary.
Now you have, I just went through the first four, then you have creativity as the sixth which is kind of obvious but then you have another one, connectivity as one of the skills for artists and for the people who are engaged in the Arab Spring. You talk about the person-to-person horizontal relationships that create community. Can you talk a little bit about that connectivity and how that fits in with these other five?
A.G.: Sure, absolutely. You know there's a practical way that I talk about in my book, for example that section is in the context of a communication I had with one of the leaders of the uprising in Tunisia a few years ago and he and his colleagues were activists in the international coalition around net neutrality and restricted internet aspect.
That's one idea of connectivity but more importantly I think it's the question of what are all the different modes of communication possible between us and how do we want to be communicated with. A lot of the communication that I am on the receiving end is a lot of more or less electronic yelling at me by somebody who wants to sell me something. And that's not true connectivity. You talked earlier about new digital technologies and the way they're opening up the possibility of multi-directional communication.
Back in the 30's, Brandt pointed out that as radio networks have been set up a little bit earlier in the century around the world, that every radio transmitter is potentially a receiver too and the decision was made to use those technologies as modes of uni-directional communication.
So when I talk about connectivity I am talking about people who understand that multi-directional communication is the only possibility for true democracy, and who understand that it's not just the sending of a linear logical message from one place to another but that images, music, other kinds of sounds, many different artifacts of a particular moment indicate often much more powerfully even than the traditional old-style communication.
And artists of course are the people who are so adept at doing this, I mean that's why zillions of them work for advertising agencies. Again, just like story is intrinsically neutral, you can tell a story to justify the old order. There are artists who work to justify the old order as well but the ones I am interested in are the ones who see the potential for real democracy. For a social order of justice tempered by-
R.K.: I'm talking to Arlene Goldbard, she is, you can find her info at arlenegoldbard.com and she is the author of The Culture of Possibility; Art, Artists, and the Future . And you know, what you have described, what I take from; the reason I got into this book was because of the way it creates such a different alternative to most of the people I talk to about how to make change happen. Most of the people I have talked to are activists and I think you're an activist, too.
But they're activists who engage in civil disobedience, and protests, and who organize rallies and petitions and things like this, and what I am getting from your book is that profound powerful changes can happen by, in addition to those things or instead of them, looking at stories and looking at applying stories and getting people to embrace them and share them and working in all different kinds of art.
I have a friend, she goes out and provides art experiences to different groups of people and I have observed it on one occasion and it was unbelievable to see the changes in the people just by going through the process of painting flower pots. It was such a simple thing but these were young women who had been homeless with children and they were tough. These were people who were afraid to sleep with their eyes closed because they'd get raped. But then when they started doing the art, it was a huge change.
Your idea is this consensus reality, the way art can affect that in a way that just by engaging in it seems to me so powerful. I know when, during Occupy I spent a time at about a half a dozen different Occupy locales and one of the things that always fascinated me was the art that was always there. The size, the posters, it really felt like an important part of it and I think that one thing that you really flesh out in great eloquent, beautiful language and imagery is this idea that art is revolutionary and art can change the world and has changed the world.
A.G.: Well thank you Rob. I am, indeed trying to convey that idea to people because from what I have been able to see, a lot of the old modalities of protests and proposition aren't actually moving the needle in the way that people would like them to, and my sense is that they are not doing that because they don't engage the whole person.
So that very often we have someone that is already convinced of something, committed to a certain set of ideas, wants to see a particular set of actions follow from that, those people get mobilized and come out into the streets or do their campaigns in other ways and that, I'm not saying that doesn't have value, I've done my share of it! but lately I have been asked to speak at conferences that were about climate change and sustainability because people in that movement are looking at the underlying question of how can we get more people to see the urgency of this crises and act on it.
And there's a lot of puzzlement in the question that they're posing, right? The feeling is this effects everyone on the planet, it's happening really fast, the whole world is in danger, why are you just sitting there? That would be the way to sum up some of the attitudes that I hear a lot and I've been talking to people about the way that specific pieces of legislation or social actions are kind of like the software on a computer.
There's a lot of choices, probably many of them work pretty well. If we pursue any of them with conviction we're likely to make something happen, to help actuate some kind of change. But what we really need to do now is work on the operating system. And the operating system is the underlying structure of how we see ourselves as citizens of the world in relation to other people. What we stand for. Who we are. How we want to be remembered. And then vetting the choices, decisions, creations that are done in our name once they live up to the answers to those questions. And that's very simple, right? Anybody can get that.
R.K.: And then you describe discrimination and racism as a kind of malware.
A.G.: Exactly. Which it is, right? I mean on the face of it, this is true, right? The feeling that the superficial differences between different people on the planet shouldn't lead to differential ways of treating them. It's just nuts, if you saw it on the Star Trek episodes you would laugh, right?
R.K.: You know I deal with malware. I deal with malware because I run a website. I work with a programmer designing the software so we have to constantly be on guard for hackers and malware and viruses and what have you and it's a never-ending process. It's not like you fixed it and it goes away, there's always something new that develops and I think that's probably true of people too. There's always going to be some kind of malignant aspect to some people and some behaviors.
A.G.: Yes. We can't live in heaven on earth. We can't perfect the human subject. But for me, it's not so much about perfecting the human subject and you know producing the perfect citizen as an outcome, as strengthening people's ability to uses their own innate capacity to think and feel and do in a way that's congruent with their true values. We just, too many of us feel like that's a gap too large to join.
We find ourselves doing things that aren't right because we can't see an alternative inside this consensus reality. So I am all for poking a pin in the consensus reality, and noticing that we can perfect our own operating system such that we're able to make more, have less compulsion, more choice to see the implications of our choices, to regard our society with imagination, to regard our fellow humans, another living being with empathy, and then I think we open up a lot of possibilities for change.
R.K.: So. To wrap this up. If your book is fabulously successful and the lecture tour that you're doing is fabulously successful, what will happen?
A.G.: Well, one of the things that seems to me pretty important in what I might call intellectual history, although that's not exactly the right phrase, is to give people names for things that they're perceiving but because they haven't yet been named or understood for their full value they're being disregarded.
What we need is to give this paradigm shift the attention that's commensurate with its full value, which I think is critical to the survival of the species and the planet. So what I'm hoping is that I have been able to give people some language, some ways of looking at things that will enable them to say yes. This is really happening and from everything that we know, when a critical mass of people say that, it becomes true.
R.K.: Beautiful. Keep up the work. It's fabulous stuff.
A.G.: Thank you so much.
R.K.: We've got to wrap it up now. I'm going to end the recording now, it's the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show WNJC 1360 AM.