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State of Emergence: Why We Need Artists Right Now

March 2, 20222 March 2022

The arts and post-pandemic transformations: Societal changes, artists, and the arts

Shannon Litzenberger

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The thesis of this essay is that “artists are not adequately centred or supported in the professional arts ecosystem, nor have they been ambitiously mobilized as change agents during this time of crisis, much to the detriment of the arts and culture sector and to society at large”. The essay characterizes the current situation of artists as “alienated” and discusses opportunities to use culture as a lever for change, to view artists as “world-makers”, and to work toward a new socio-economic system.

Regarding the current situation of artists, Litzenberger cites statistics on the precarity of artists and notes that some artists are leaving the field altogether. Artists, along with smaller arts organizations, work in an environment of “highly competitive all-or-nothing project funding, micro-granting and Kickstarter campaigns”. In this context, the author argues that “guaranteed basic income for artists is necessary because our system of cultural production has so significantly eroded the value of the arts and disabled the artist’s ability to make a livable income in this system”.

According to Litzenberger, art can and should be a way of knowing, a way of imagining new worlds. If art is “a process of transformation concerned with collective human development”, as the author believes, then artists should be thought of as catalysts of change, not just as “creative unicorns here to entertain, distract and comfort us”. Art and art-making processes are particularly important during a pandemic that the author views as “simultaneously an emergency and a revolution-in-the-making”.

Regarding culture as a lever for change, the author indicates that the generations-long process of “building a culture liberated from the historical colonial ethos” in which Canada is embedded will involve a reimagining of cultural policies, participation, and equity. The arts will have to reflect “a culturally pluralistic citizenry in a post-colonial society”. She states: “We need to engage in a more fundamental process of creation organized around principles of cultural plurality, equity and justice, sustainability, creative engagement, collective care and wellbeing, and others.”

Litzenberger recognizes that she is proposing a “near impossible task” for artists, i.e., to balance “competitive pursuit of scarce resources with the work of collective advancement”. Important challenges include:

  • The precarity of artists’ professional lives.
  • Burnout.
  • The conundrum that the arts industry “is steeped in the rules, dynamics and cultural norms that we are seeking to disrupt”.
  • A reliance on “every and any small benefit afforded to us by the [current] system”.
  • A need to “focus on artistic activities that have the best chance of being funded and promoted”.
  • Low returns on artists’ “emotional, spiritual and creative investment”.

In working to overcome these challenges, Litzenberger argues that “we will need to experiment with new ways of working that are better aligned with the world we want to live in”.

Regarding artists as world makers, Litzenberger notes that artistic process is “capable of world-making because it explores horizons of possibility in ways that engage our fully embodied sensory capacities, including our imagination…. A meaningful artistic experience can move us toward new understanding, engagement and action.” Artistic processes, being relational and conditional, are “particularly relevant as catalysts for transformational change in a highly complex, transitioning world”.

To achieve change, the author proposes that individual artists be centred, with “their honed ability to experiment with emergent artistic practice” becoming “an organizing strategy during this transitional time between worlds”.

Litzenberger offers her thoughts on building a new socio-economic system. She argues that, “through the transformative power of their creative practices, artists are especially and uniquely capable of catalyzing the kind of systems change we need right now by leading at the level of culture change”. Within the arts, systems change involves turning away from notions of “artistic excellence” toward an imagining of “new ways of understanding how art creates meaning in our lives”, thereby challenging “concepts of explicit value, public impact and evaluation when we engage with ways of knowing beyond what is measurable”. The author argues for an increased emphasis on experimentation and discovery, with less focus on production and distribution.

Litzenberger concludes that, from “artist-led discoveries – grounded in values of care, creative possibility, social justice, interdependence, and sustainability – a new world will emerge”.

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