All Over Creation: What Do You Mean?
Shaking up the lexicon once in a while is necessary if we want to be clear
Last week's debut of a new identity for AMOA-Arthouse marked the dawning of a new day in the life of that venerable institution (or pair of institutions, considering their separate histories before the merger two years ago). The name change to the Contemporary Austin doesn't seem to have generated earthshaking amounts of chatter, but I like it, largely for the reasons laid out in my report on the announcement. ("Now Showing: The Contemporary Austin," austinchronicle.com/blogs) The gist of my feeling is the name creates meaning where it was lacking before. Not that the old name(s) had no meaning, but the "museum of art" in AMOA's old moniker didn't provide any real sense of the organization's mission, just a generic cultural identifier for the geographical anchor, and the mash-up word "arthouse," while projecting a certain currency and hipness, could just as easily have applied to a crafty boutique or coffeeshop/performance venue. "Contemporary" still points to a distinct kind of work in the art world and isn't freighted with the unfavorable associations of, say, "museum." That word to many gives off a big whiff of "church" – grim, imposing architecture; oppressive rules; zero fun – and it's immaterial that there are plenty of cool, engaging museums (and churches); the negative connotation is there. So it's just as well the word's not part of the Contemporary Austin's name. If the institution is seeking a fresh start, it needs to be unencumbered by the baggage of the past and loaded nomenclature.
Think that's not relevant? It is, as was proven anew by Robert Lynch, president and CEO of the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts, in his speech on cultural tourism at the Marchesa last Thursday. He related an anecdote about meeting a couple of folks in an airport, and Austin came up. "Oh, we love Austin," they told him. "Great," he said. "When you're there, do you ever do anything related to the arts?" "No," they replied. "We never do the arts, because we're too busy doing music."
Sure, we know what those people meant, but it still points to this divide that persists between anything artistic in popular culture and what are called traditional fine-art disciplines, as if all those sounds being cranked out at clubs and concert halls every night couldn't be part of the arts. Naw, that stuff is church; what bands play is fun. If you want to know why I and a number of other advocates for arts and culture have been ramming the word "creative" down your throat as a surrogate for "artist" of late, that's the reason. After 30 years of culture wars in which the arts have been demonized as elitist and offensive, "artist" is too charged a term to be effective in most public discourse,
"Creative" as a noun – and sorry, lexicon cops, I gotta break the law on this one – not only dispenses with all that baggage, it's more reflective of our contemporary attitude toward who's engaged in artistic pursuits. It encompasses filmmakers, designers, craftspeople, chefs, knitters, mixologists, architects, slam poets, programmers, and, yes, singer-songwriters, as well as painters, playwrights, dancers, and classical musicians. What all these very different kinds of people do is creative, and these days they're much more likely to do it with one another – collaborating across discipline and form – than the artists of days past. If we want people in this city or elsewhere to gain a new appreciation for the expansiveness and pervasiveness of the arts in modern society and their profound impact in every corner of our culture – education, productivity, mental well-being, the economy, human values, entertainment – it behooves us to speak in terms that make our meaning as clear as possible. Sometimes that means setting aside favored words of old, words that in a sense point backward, in favor of words that are free of the barnacles of bad experiences and controversy, that can be heard without assumption, without prejudice, and point a way forward.