In August 1991, the Headlands Center for the Arts1 gave me a room, a food stipend, and most importantly about a week and a half away from the constant demands of my office.
I arrived with the intention of mulling over questions of artists and economics that had been on my mind for several years. Many of my thoughts on the subject had been prompted by specific writers, and at the Headlands I took time to re-introduce myself to their work. I carried a pile of books with me and used a computer that was considered “portable” in its day. I lived and worked in one room of a big house full of other artists on their own journeys.
Every day I took at least one long walk, to Rodeo Lagoon and the ocean beach on the other side of the sand bar, or up and over the low windswept hills, past cliffs and coves, decommissioned officers’ quarters and sites of former military installations, to views of San Francisco across the bay. I especially loved the smell of the head-high wild fennel.
But except for the walks and time out to prepare my meals, I buried myself in the books, mostly resisting the temptation to join the other artists in community-oriented activities. Every day of reading and writing was precious.
The books I took with me examined economics from a range of perspectives. They included: Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985) by Jane Jacobs, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983) by Lewis Hyde; Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life (1984) by Dolores Hayden; If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics (1988) by Marilyn Waring; an anthology edited by Paul Ekins, The Living Economy: A New Economics in the Making (1986); a short book, Behind the Veil of Economics: Essays in the Worldly Philosophy (1989) by Robert L. Heilbroner; and Economics in Perspective: A Critical History (1987) by John Kenneth Galbraith. Because I was intent on exploring ideas about artists and economics not just by writing but also by finding ways to take action in my own life, I also used a few experiences from my own life.
I recorded my engagement with these writers’ ideas in a paper, Artists and Economics: Notes from the Headlands, that contains short excerpts from their writing, paraphrases of their ideas, and some of my own thoughts, especially about artists and economics, that the writers provoked. The first book I considered was Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs. That section is posted on this site as “Jane Jacobs – Economics and messy inefficiencies.”
The paper remained open-ended and, for 10 days’ work, it felt finished enough. At the end of my time there, I made a few copies and presented them to a small group of artists and others at a gathering organized by the Center.
All in all, it was a very satisfying time away.
1 Headlands Center for the Arts offers residencies and other programs to artists in all disciplines to support independent and collaborative work. The Center took over the property in the early 1980s and since then has rehabilitated its historic buildings through artists’ commissions. Much has happened since I was there.
About the photos. In 1991 I didn’t carry a camera in my pocket as I do now (that is, my phone), so I have no images of the Headlands that I took myself. I’m grateful to the website of the Headlands Center for the Arts for the photos here. Even though taken several decades later, they bring back the spirit of the place I experienced.
“Successful economic development must be an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…”
Jane Jacobs Cities and the Wealth of Nations
The 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ birth is being celebrated this year by many people around the world. Jacobs is best known for her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of 1950s urban planning. Her influence on the field of urban planning is considered revolutionary.
My own introduction to her thinking, though, was a different book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, written more than two decades later (1985). In what seems to me a natural extension of her thinking about the physical form of cities, she had begun to consider the economy of cities, to “probe the mysteries of economic structure,” as she put it. In this book I found, as I wrote at the time, “new ways to connect artists and the world of economics.”
After reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations, I invited Jacobs to participate in a 1988 conference I was organizing about “creative support for artists” because I saw in her ideas a place for artists in economic development as she described it. She wrote back and, though declining my invitation, sent me a copy of her book, The Economy of Cities (1969) because of my interest. A source for this book was a question she asked herself: Why do some cities decline and die while others live and grow? A common assumption she challenged is that economies depend for their growth on large industrial and economic institutions – the huge modern corporations that are still so dominant. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations she took this inquiry further.
In a 2001 interview, when asked what she’d be remembered for most, she said, “the most important thing I’ve contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I’ve figured out what it is.”1 When she wrote Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she hadn’t quite “figured it out” yet (a summary of her economic theory came later in The Nature of Economies, 2000), but I found plenty in that book to expand my thinking.
Cities and the Wealth of Nations was in the pile of books I took with me to the Headlands Center of the Arts in 1991 where I spent 10 days reading, reflecting, and writing to pursue my inquiry into why artists didn’t seem to fit into the economic structure of our society. As I went along, I captured my thoughts in a paper, Artists and Economics: Notes from the Headlands. The section on Jane Jacobs follows here.
The act of writing the paper more closely resembled taking notes than writing a finished essay. It was a way of recording ideas that impressed me and that I thought might be useful at another time – as a source of more writing or as support for action and finding new directions. The paper remained open-ended, especially since I thought of it as notes for future use. It’s fun to pick it up again now and see how I’d argue with my 25-year-younger self.
Anne Focke, 2016
I bought Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations by mistake. I thought I was getting her earlier book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Cities and downtowns were very much on my mind at the time (1985-86). Besides, economics is not a subject I’d have been drawn to intentionally. A dry and mostly unmemorable college course on economics left me with the impression that economics was fairly unrelated to daily life. About all I remember is something about sole proprietorships and the structure of corporations, plus larger and even more intangible concepts like “capitalism” and “socialism.”
When I bought Jacobs’ book, I was very concerned with how money moved around and how to get it flowing to things I cared about – to artists and work and activities I valued. In the 70s and 80s, I had been responsible for and had tried to raise money for a small, non-profit, artist-run organization named and/or. Fundraising for this organization was not an easy task. I began to realize that the problems I faced were not just my own; the artists and art work I cared about typically struggled financially. My interest in getting money to artists led to other efforts: working to establish an organization to support artists in Washington State (Artist Trust) and organizing a national conference on “Creative Support for Creative Artists” that delved into the topic of how artists are (and mostly are not) supported by our society or by the communities where they live. For the most part, though, something called “economics” was not on my mind.
“Probing the mysteries of economic structure”
Jane Jacobs writes of “probing the mysteries of economic structure” and the “rise and decline of wealth.” The first chapter of Cities and the Wealth of Nations, “Fool’s Paradise,” recaps much of the history of economists’ work and concludes that “several centuries of hard ingenious thought about supply and demand … have told us almost nothing about the rise and decline of wealth … We are on our own.”
The understandings that Jacobs reveals and weaves through her writing, both in this book and in an earlier one, The Economy of Cities (1969), appeal to me in part because they seem drawn from real circumstances, from close attention and observation, and from making connections among the things she discovers rather than from applying abstracted theories or handed-down principles. I didn’t need prior knowledge to follow along with her and to “get it.”
One of Jacobs’ principal points is that cities are the basic economic unit, not nations. Most economic thought proceeds with an assumption that nations are the primary economic unit. Jacobs believes this unexamined assumption is a critical flaw.
Beyond this (and where I got really hooked), she identifies the primary forces that drive economic growth: “economic life develops by grace of innovating; it expands by grace of import-replacing.” (By “import-replacing,” Jacobs means the process whereby cities begin to produce for themselves what they once imported.)
The value she attributes to innovation, improvisation, and insight and their centrality to her understanding of economic life, seems to make room for artists in the economic scheme of things, even though she seldom mentions artists directly.
She doesn’t say that humans are driven to innovate or imitate, just that when we do, economic life grows.
“The drive to better oneself” – Adam Smith
Adam Smith (1703-1790), whose work is the basis of much classical marketplace economic theory (and who, like Jacobs, apparently reached his conclusions empirically) postulated that the prime force motivating economic life is self-interest, a desire to augment one’s own wealth and to better one’s own condition – which has been turned, by now, into a desire to consume and to acquire. To me, it seems that bettering one’s own condition could have meant lots of things – increasing our knowledge, enriching our spirit, adding and deepening friendships. Instead, our economy has become dependent on acquisition and consumption, and our society has become one that often seems to have little other purpose.
The “drive to better oneself” does not seem to play a strong role in Jacob’s thinking. But I’m not sure. She doesn’t write about it explicitly. Instead, she talks about the mechanisms of economic growth itself, about innovation and imitation (replacing imports) – not about self-interest, acquisitiveness, buying and selling, capital accumulation, or supply and demand. Her notions of economic health (growth and development) aren’t about accumulation, but rather are about energy, the process, initiative, and the generation of new ideas and “new little things.” In a sense, the process is only incidentally about getting bigger. Sometimes economic development (or growth) results in a city getting bigger, but sometimes it leads to renewal or to a reversal of decay and stagnation.
Innovation and inefficiencies
Jacobs has thought-provoking things to say about innovation and economic life:
To be effective as developers and expanders of economic life, she says, cities need innovations (or “inputs of human insight”) and import replacements (or “inputs of human capacity to make adaptive imitations”).
Innovations are made by adding new kinds of work, logically and naturally, to specific bits of older work. When this proceeds vigorously, a settlement becomes a city.
Adding new work to old is full of surprises and hard to predict. The process, she writes, is analogous to a form of logic – intuition – that artists use. It involves being alert to messages in the work being made. The creator must have an insight and make a new departure. Innovation does not emerge from the logic of a customer; it does not come from sales departments.
Innovations are complicated and diverse.
A few of the examples she named are innovations that are part of scientific research at universities and innovations within an existing enterprise, like the dressmaker who developed the brassiere and the mining company that developed many uses for the glue that holds sand to paper.
And also about development and messy inefficiencies:
Development work is messy, consumes time and energy, involves duplication of effort, and is theoretically wasteful. Cities are economically valuable because they are inefficient and impractical.
To stimulate further development, new improvisations and innovations must be continually injected into everyday life.
Conditions that promote efficient production and distribution of existing goods and services are diametrically opposed to conditions that promote economic development.
The period when an organization is most fertile is when it is small. Economic life can expand quickly within symbiotic collections of little messy enterprises, unpredictably and opportunistically changing in content.
Developing new work at a high rate, Jacobs says, requires access to much inefficiently dispensed capital (perhaps developing new art requires the same).
In a large organization nearly all the divisions of labor must be sterile. That is, they can’t actively add new kinds of work. If they did, the organization’s “community of purpose” would vanish. Even in nature, when an organism becomes complex, it keeps its reproductive cells confined to one small part of the organism only. Large organizations likewise set up specific “reproductive organs” – research and development departments. (When we who are concerned about artists and new work use “research and development” as our metaphor, we’re using a concept that’s borrowed from large organizations rather than from small messy enterprises.)
“The great cold of poverty”
“The great cold of poverty and economic stagnation is the absence of economic development,” and this economic process is rooted in the development work that goes on in impractical cities, where one kind of work leads inefficiently to another. Poverty has no causes, Jacobs writes, only prosperity has causes.
People in government (and large philanthropies) tend to seek sweeping answers to problems rather than bring their minds and resources to bear on a particular small problem in a particular place. Yet, according to Jacobs, the latter is how innovations of any sort are apt to begin – as specific solutions to specific problems in specific places. Nationally- or internationally-mandated solutions are at cross-purposes to development.
The primary economic conflict is not between employers and employees but between people with already well-established economic enterprises and those with new ones. New interests need a “third-hand” as a protector to allow them to get a start, and Jacobs believes this “third-hand” role is best played by governments.
Curiosity and drift
Successful economic development, Jacobs says, must be open-ended rather than goal-oriented. It must make itself up as it goes along. It must drift. It must be “an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…” (Ellipsis is hers.) Goal-oriented, strategic planning assumes economic life can be conquered, mobilized, bullied – which works if the activity is warfare, but not if it is development. The last chapter of her book is titled simply, “Drift.”
Cyril Stanley Smith, quoted in Jacobs’ book, writes that necessity is not the mother of invention, rather necessity takes advantage of invention. Invention proceeds from something much more like aesthetic curiosity. Most minerals were discovered for use as pigments, Smith claims. Metallurgy began with the making of beads and other ornaments. Techniques for casting cannons were based on a technology developed to make bells. Further, big things grow from little things. New little things can be destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like aesthetic appreciation than like “practical utility” or success in the marketplace.
“Discoveries often happen on the way to something else.”
There is an order to the drift of economic life as it grows and expands, but it is not the order of challenge and response more common in the military. Rather, the order is more like biological evolution. The more niches filled within a given ecology, the more efficiently that ecology uses energy and the richer it is in life and the means to support life. Similarly, economies that produce amply and diversely for their own people and for export, are better off than economies that are specialized.
In addition to innovation, many other things are needed in an economically vital city – energetic adaptation and replacement of imports, a cluster of cities of the same size with which to trade, sources of inefficient and unorthodox capital for new little ventures, and a “third hand” that protects new ventures from established ones.
What about artists?
Artists and artist “incubators” are additional sources of innovation that were not on Jacobs’ mind. They need investments and nurture, too, and not for their practical utility.
“Friends of the Rag” was a loosely-knit group of between 20 and 50 artists, clothing designers, costume artists and artists making wearable sculpture who were active in Seattle in the mid ’70s. While it would be difficult to prove that these artists were in any sense directly responsible for the emergence of a strong fashion industry in the area, they may well have played a critical role in generating the energy that made Seattle a place for innovative fashion, clothing design, and imaginative costumes. They changed the atmosphere, the spirit and the overall sense of creativity and potential in the Seattle clothing world. They infused it with imagination and innovation.
Innovation, invention, and especially aesthetic curiosity are traits that are being specialized right out of our culture, and the trend may be intensified by the separation of artists into their own worlds. Separating artists from the ongoing life of communities (as happens increasingly) might actually be detrimental to a healthy economy. Jacobs wrote in a 1988 letter to me, “By isolating artists or relegating them to the margins of ‘normal’ life, we have also been eliminating from ‘normal’ life traits that are part and parcel of economic development.”
Is the economy of artists different?
How much is an artist’s process like other economic processes? Are the two similar, just in different realms? Or, if we assume that specialized realms once considered distinct often overlap, might we not find that the economics of artists’ worlds overlap with the broader economy?
Instead of speaking just of the “economy,” economic writers often refer to the “political economy” based on the assumption that the two (politics and economics) cannot be separated and that politics is not distinct from economics. Can creative or cultural concerns be separated any more easily from either politics or economics? What phrase might we use to reflect the reality that creativity and culture also are not distinct from the realms of economics and politics, and vice versa – maybe “political and cultural economy” or “creative political economy”?
How can we create ways to support the messy, inefficient work of artists and inject it into everyday life in specific places? In Jacobs’ terms, economic development occurs when cities “produce amply and diversely for their own people, as well as for others.” Isn’t there the chance that, in some inefficient and open-ended way, this will help cities increase their ability to produce amply and diversely for their own people, as well as for others?
Ways we could take action
We could learn from percent-for-art/public art programs that establish diversionary “toll gates” that direct to art work a small percentage of the money flowing to capital projects of various governmental jurisdictions. Presumably, this money feeds and nourishes the capital projects through artists’ work, as well as feeding and nourishing the artist. Using this experience, we could learn how “economic development” dollars work and where they flow within private and governmental agencies. Then we could set up similar toll gates and direct some of the money to artists, supporting them to nurture economic development with their energies, in the messy and inefficient way that Jacobs suggests.
We could provide a place for artists in “business incubators.” These facilities (sometimes governmental, sometimes private, sometimes university-based) provide work space, support, and working capital for new little ventures.
We could find places and roles for artists in private enterprises as well – in the research departments of large companies, in partnership with small innovative companies, and in collaboration with other inventors and scientists.
We could involve artists in the economic development process in other ways – make it more like an artist’s process. How could artists participate in setting economic policy and in deciding where economic development dollars flow?
And, just to repeat what Jacobs told me in her 1988 letter . . .
By isolating artists or relegating them to the margins of ‘normal’ life, we have also been eliminating from ‘normal’ life traits that are part and parcel of economic development.
1 “City Views: Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy,” interview by Bill Steigerwald, Reason.com, June 2001, the quotation I use is on the last page. <jane jacobs interview Reason mag>
A news article forwarded by a friend carried this headline. Without reading the piece, the headline immediately reminded me of a story I’ve tossed around informally for some time. I tend to pull it out in conversation whenever I or someone else in my general age bracket expresses concern about whether or not our money will last as long as our lives will.
As an equation, it might look like this:
I’ve never expressed it quite this way before, but here’s how I tell the story:
Using round numbers, I say, imagine that I started earning my own living at age 20. I was actually older than that, but it’s close enough and saying I was 20 makes the equation easy to figure out. Then suppose that I decided to stop working for pay at the societally-assumed “retirement age” of 65. I didn’t, but again I’m not quibbling about details. The kicker comes when we add the final assumption, that I might live to be 90. The average life expectancy for a woman my age has been going up and is currently about 86.5 years – again, the number is close enough for the purpose of my storytelling.
The simple arithmetic of the story suggests a conclusion.
Someone living according to my equation would have an earning life of 45 years – just half of a full 90-year lifetime. Hmmm . . . that seems to imply we’d have 45 years to generate 90 years of living expenses, two years’ worth for every year worked. Applied to real life, the equation seems crazy. The equation is all too simple, I know, since it doesn’t account for many things. Obviously, it works well now for a certain segment of the population. For many others, though, the economic life it points to is difficult if not impossible, and on the scale of an entire society, it’s hard to believe that the formula could possibly work.
My equation comes from thinking about the connection between aging and economics in the life of an individual, that is, it’s focused on the “economic slowdown” (or steep decline) in the lives of many older people. The news story I started with, on the other hand, considers the slowdown in the economy as a whole, a slowdown that a new academic study traces to our aging population. Written by Robert J. Samuelson for the Washington Post, the article begins with this sentence:
“An aging United States reduces the economy’s growth – big time.”
The study, out of the Harvard Medical School and the Rand Corp., a think tank, claims that: “The fraction of the United States population age 60 and over will increase by 21% between 2010 and 2020.” Then, Samuelson reports, the study estimates that this aging cuts the economy’s current annual growth by 1.2%, which is approximately the difference between the growth rate from the 1950s to 2007 (about 3% per year) and the rate of growth since 2010 (about 2% annually). This leads Samuelson to conclude, “If other economists confirm the study, we’d probably resolve the ferocious debate about what caused the economic showdown. The aging effect would dwarf other alleged causes…”
Samuelson discusses reasons for why an increasingly older population would reduce economic productivity. It’s partly because there are relatively fewer workers left to support production, but that accounts for only about a third of the slowdown, according to the study. One theory for the rest, Samuelson says, is that older societies may be more cautious with their spending, valuing stability and being more restrained, less experimental and optimistic. On this point, my equation would suggest their “cautious spending” is not necessarily about their sense of adventure but rather about their pocketbooks.
You’ll find the Washington Post article, which appeared in the August 21, 2016 issue, here.
When he turned seventy in 1905, Mark Twain spoke at a lavish party thrown in his honor at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City.
“The seventieth birthday!” he exclaimed. “It is the time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity when you may throw aside the decent reserves which have oppressed you for a generation and stand unafraid and unabashed upon your seven-terraced summit and look down and teach – unrebuked.”
Even at 71, I’m still far from throwing aside “decent reserves” and taking a fully “unafraid and unabashed” stand. But I’ve still got time – 70 is no longer the summit it was in Twain’s day. At this point, I prefer to think of the seven decades of my past as many-layered substrata to stand on* or even a springboard for what’s next rather than as a summit. We live in an extraordinary time historically speaking, when it’s possible for many more of us than ever before to imagine a life beyond 70. In 1905, when Mark Twain turned 70, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years for men, 50 for women. Today the average is 76 and 81.
In the next several years, I’ll be exploring with some intention what this longer life might mean for me and others if we’re among those who reach a life span of “average” or above. Specifically, I’ll be developing the Jini Dellaccio Project – an experiment named for a remarkable woman who lived into her late 90s mastering a unique and powerful photographic vision. The project [described more here] celebrates Jini’s lifelong curiosity, engagement with others, creation of a life in her own way, and a work ethic that continued into her tenth decade. She did not understand the word “retire.”
Living into one’s 70s, 80s, and 90s is nothing new, of course. Although accounts of exceptionally old people can be found throughout history, it’s definitely becoming more common today thanks to modern medical advances and the huge increase in knowledge about health and aging. On average, we’ll live 30 years longer than people did 100 years ago, and as a group we also have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and sometimes resources. But culturally and economically we’re really not prepared. If we do live into those “extra” years and aren’t completely undone scrabbling for money to pay for them, we have to ask ourselves, how will we spend the extra time when “retirement age” comes so early?
Our society isn’t organized to know what to do with us, and certainly not for as long as many of us are apt to live. As anthropologist and author Mary Catherine Bateson told a crowd at Town Hall Seattle in 2010, “We can’t think of our extra 30 years as just tacked on to the end of our lives; thirty years is much too long for that.” She urged us to see these extra years as a whole new period in our lives, saying that we’re becoming a different species. “I can imagine playing golf for a year,” she said, “but not for 30 years.” And if golf isn’t your thing any more than it’s mine, her sentiment applies equally well if you’re not inclined, or can’t afford, to travel the world for 30 years or if keeping your body tuned up just doesn’t fill the days. Bateson called this time in our lives, “the age of active wisdom.” The Jini Dellaccio Project builds on this spirit.
* Substratum (pl. substrata): The material of which something is made and from which it derives its special qualities.
The Jini Dellaccio Project, a fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust, focuses on possible roles that artists and others can play as they inhabit the mostly undefined stage of life beyond “retirement.” The project complements Artist Trust’s existing program on artists’ legacy and estate planning, but rather than being focused on artists’ property (tangible, intellectual, financial), the Jini Dellaccio Project emphasizes the living person in their upper decades. It explores ways to enhance their ability to continue as engaged, contributing members of the community while they’re still alive. Financial support for the project – its fuel – comes from individuals who have the ability to give and are interested in where it will lead.
As I enter my own eighth decade, I’m excited to be developing this three-year project, and I’m inspired by the spirit of Jini’s life. She chose her own course, right through her last decades. Born in 1917, she died in 2014 at age 97. She toured the country as a musician in an all-girl swing band in the 1930s, studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and took up freelance fashion photography in Los Angeles in the 1950s. After moving to the Northwest in the early 1960s, she began photographing young rock and roll musicians like the Wailers, the Sonics, and Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts, often in lush, natural surroundings. These, along with iconic images of national musicians like the Who and Neil Young, defined her career. After caring for her husband through the last years of his life, she picked up her photography again, adding a digital camera to her repertoire in her late 80s. You can learn more about her here.
The intention of the Jini Dellaccio Project is to do reconnaissance into the phase that anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson called the “age of active wisdom” and to identify and provide a picture of the possibilities of life after Mark Twain’s “seven-terraced summit.” Like Jini, many of us aren’t ready to stop when we reach the “official” retirement age, and often we can’t afford to. We still want to participate, create, and contribute to the communities and world we live in. Simply by virtue of living as long as we have, we have perspectives that can be useful launching points for contemporary thinking.
In 2010, Artist Trust invited me to moderate a panel discussion, “Better with Time: Creativity and Aging,” where I met Jini for the first time. At the same event I met Sarah Cavanaugh, who stood by Jini’s side through Jini’s last years and has been a co-conspirator on this project from the start. The panelists that day also included choreographer Donald Byrd and sculptor Akio Takamori. The session announcement identified the panelists as “artists who have continued to create new work through the tides of personal and societal change,” and it posed a question that is among those I want to pursue: “Does society benefit from artists who create art throughout their lifetimes?”
So what will actually happen?
Beginning this September, project activities will include but won’t be limited to the following:
“Office hours.” Tea time, coffee breaks, office hours, happy hour – these conversations can take many forms and can involve artists and anyone else who wants to use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. One-to-one or in small groups, we can talk about anything. I’m reserving two afternoons a month for “office hours” at Artist Trust, and they’ll be available by signing up or, if the schedule’s empty, on a drop-in basis.1 Like so many other people my age, I seem increasingly to be asked for advice, for stories about the “olden days,” or simply for the chance to puzzle over a problem together. I think of these conversations as two-way exchanges because I always learn something in the process. By being a little more intentional about them, I expect to learn more about the value of having a long view and of offering that perspective to others.
Group discussions and public conversations. Group discussions play a big part in how I learn and how I share my experience and interests. I’ve hosted conversations in various formats for a long time, usually organized with others. Always informal and participatory, some will be single stand-alone events, others in series; some are public forums, others small and held in safe spaces that allow deeper exploration of ideas. Conversations already underway may continue, such as “Penny U” begun in the fall 2014 with Town Hall focused the changing nature of work, with its implications for both artists and people beyond retirement age. In hosting these, I expect to collaborate with others, from individual artists to Artist Trust, Town Hall, and the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design.
Personal and public writing. I will write. I’ll make time for it and use it to capture what I hear, connect it to what I already know, and make the ideas hold still long enough to see what they might mean. Themes won’t be limited to age and aging. My time as an editor and “translator” between fields convinces me that big ideas can be put in plain language so more of us can understand them, argue with them, or put them to use. And I’ll find ways to share what I write. I’ve laid groundwork with this website, but the effort may expand to other forms – such as broadsides and chapbooks, or as the focus of conversations and groundwork for a book.
History through today’s eyes. With assistance from students and others, I’ll sort, organize, and find homes for original materials that I’ve accumulated over the years. Currently in storage, these include documents and ephemera from and/or, Artist Trust, Artech, Arts Wire, early artist fellowship programs, Grantmakers in the Arts, and more. Much of the material comes from a period of change in the art world. It covers, for instance, a time when artists decided not to wait for others to offer them opportunities but to take an active role in creating the conditions they wanted. (Sounds a little like today, doesn’t it.) Along with simply bringing some order to it, we’ll consider the relevance of this history in today’s world. The results will be fodder for more writing and conversation.
Although we’ll start with these activities, the project will be malleable and we expect it to change in response to what we learn. We’ll design it as we go.
1 Beginning in September, my office hours will be 2-5 pm on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of the month. Sign up by sending an email to Artist Trust.
My ticket jacket expressed my ambition, even though I didn’t actually notice its message until a few days before leaving.
Too many years had passed since I’d visited good friends and family in California. It was time to go – I missed them. When I realized the trip could also include four rolling days of time away to write and read and daydream, the decision was made.
I splurged on my Amtrak ticket and got a “roomette” that comes with wide seats that make into a bed, a little table, meals, “room service” if desired, and a power outlet to keep my “devices” charged. It’s a quiet, private place with a constantly changing scene out the window.
From Seattle, my first stop was Oakland, the Bay area station, one full day and night on the train. My second stop was the Los Angeles area, another full day farther down the tracks. My assigned room wasn’t on the “scenic” west side of the train in either direction, though on the way down I talked my way into a spot on that side for the most classically beautiful stretch right along the California coast from Pismo Beach almost all the way into Los Angeles.
The train was full. I liked being able to move back and forth between my own quiet little cubbyhole and lively spaces shared with others – the “parlour” car, dining car, observation car.
I spread out my papers and books and computer in my roomette or took my computer and a few papers to a table in the parlour car or propped my notebook on my knees in the observation car. I didn’t write as much as I’d fantasized I would, but that’s almost always true of my “times away.” The reading and especially the daydreaming filled hours.
I woke early on the last morning of my trip and intended to roll over for a few extra minutes of sleep, but thought I’d take a quick peak out the curtains first. And there was Mt. Shasta, high above us just before sunrise. Sleep vanished as an option.
Against today’s backdrop of one tragic news story after another, I constantly ask myself what we can learn from events around us and how we can find ways to move forward to something better. Several speakers at Town Hall Seattle recently offered both specific and distressing insights into the state of our economy and our democracy, but the same speakers also expressed hope for the future, hopes that lie in similar places.
Robert Reich believes that with knowledge, people could ally themselves to form a new “countervailing power” — “The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.” He also places hope, he said, in young people who surround him in his teaching and who are interested in public service, to which the young African American woman standing next to me responded by smiling widely and nodding vigorously.
In their talk, Robert McChesney and John Nichols told us that what’s needed to make the necessary structural change in our political economy is “an army of aroused and informed citizens.” The “power supply” for change, they said, is “the great mass of Americans, many of them already active, many more ready to be engaged.” “There is only us,” they say in the introduction to their book, People Get Ready. “We the people are the only force that can make a future worthy of our hopes and our humanity.”
As a first step in sharing my own response, I offer the following piece, written a few years ago. Its connection to the challenges identified by Reich, Nichols, and McChesney may seem like a stretch, but in part it’s about breaking down an impression I hear again and again, the sense that everyone, especially young people, are just holed up, wearing head phones, staring at their screens, unconnected to other, live, breathing human beings. In the piece I ask whether an active culture of conversations with a purpose and a new sense of the commons can play a role in creating this “countervailing power” and “army of aroused and informed citizens.”
Written in 2013, the piece was part of “Get up!” – my contribution to “Chamber Music,” an exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. “Get up!” had several parts: a wall piece, historical documents for “the living library,” and a series of conversations and new writings. This was one of the writings and a theme of a conversation.
Conversation, gossip, and the commons
Positioned in the middle of the Chamber Musicexhibition* is a three-armed, specially designed and built piece of museum furniture. The inspiration for it is the pinwheel-shaped, antique “gossip chair” long found at the Frye that suggests the gallery was meant for talking, not just solitary contemplation. Similarly this contemporary, extra-large version of a “gossip chair” proposes conversation as an integral part of the show. With this inclusion, the show itself reflects a trait curator Scott Lawrimore sought in the artists included: it both celebrates “individual mark making” and offers an opportunity to strengthen community ties among all who show up – artists and others. Built into the big chair’s arms are benches for sitting and cubbies for artists’ materials designed to spark ideas, conversation, and maybe even gossip.
Lately I’ve been intrigued by how often I hear or read about yet another conversation, and more than that, about another series of conversations or gatherings with some intention or focus. I know that this observation could be affected by the phenomenon that causes us to start seeing red cars everywhere once a red car is called to our attention. But the sense of being surrounded by the desire for conversation feels bigger than that.
Names of specific gatherings come to mind, some more formal than others and all in Seattle: Art Klatch, What’s Up?, John Boylan’s Conversations (which recently took “conversation” itself as a topic), Thirsty Thursday, Poetry Potluck, Civic Cocktails, Think & Drink, Canoe Social Club, Penny U, Melting Seattle, Transpartisan Salon on Art & Creativity, Geeks Who Drink, Thought Shop, Cheap Wine & Poetry, Conversations on Creative Aging, Soup Salon, City Table, Table Talk, One Pot, Aging Your Way Gatherings, Conversations that Matter, and more. We’ve also recently seen the rise here of “co-working spaces” and the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance – seventeen co-working spaces including the Hub Seattle, Makers, and Office Nomads. All this is set against a backdrop of book and movie clubs, all kinds of meet-ups, “communities of practice,” and civic and business breakfast clubs. While not discounting the role of digital forums or the possibilities of interaction between digital and live exchange, my interest here is in-person, face-to-face exchange, gatherings with focus and intention. And, of course, it doesn’t even begin to include all the Seattle activist groups organized with specific causes in mind.
A few names given to conversations in other places or at other times include the Back Room (Portland), Creative Mornings (Vancouver), Philosophers’ Café (Vancouver), Zócalo Public Square (Los Angeles), and the Long Table of artist Lois Weaver, as well as more structured versions like National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, Fierce Conversation (a kind of career counseling), and a real favorite of mine, the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans.
This country’s history is full of gatherings with a purpose, from town hall meetings, quilting bees, camp meetings, and barn raisings to the voluntary associations and free expression that Alexis de Toqueville identified as being at the root of American democracy when he visited in the 1830s. Longer ago, Scottish coffeehouse culture in the 1600s is credited with establishing key foundations of civil society, and, farther back still, the Lyceum in ancient Greece was a place for philosophers such as Aristotle, who engaged students in cooperative research and walked as he taught.
Over the years, I’ve wanted to understand the concept of “the commons” as part of searching for whether and where we can find common ground today. I’m interested both by what the concept of the commons has meant historically and where we find versions of it in our lives today. One of the best short descriptions I’ve found is from Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess. “Commons,” they write, “is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people.” They say:
Historically, in Europe, “commons” were shared agricultural fields, grazing lands, and forests that were, over a period of 500 years, enclosed with communal rights being withdrawn by landowners and the state.
Historically, in the United States, “commons” has most often referred to shared spaces that allow for free speech and the democratic process…The U.S.-type commons underscores the importance of shared spaces and shared knowledge in fostering viable democratic societies.
A friend and colleague, Peter Pennekamp, has been actively involved with communities in northern California for over twenty years learning how people in the region come together in what he has called “living, breathing, on-the-street democracy.” Among the underlying principles of this “community democracy” is an essential requirement for community commons. “Space is necessary for a rich public life,” he writes, “space where people come together to build and experience civil society in an environment that assertively values community knowledge and where the playing field is level.” And he says:
In an era focused on private ownership and rights, such space is declining as is recognition of its value. When people speak with passion about community it is often the value of the commons that they are referring to. Community “commons” is where innovation and community change happen. It is the place where the individuals, groups, and networks that make up a community come together to spark ideas, develop agreements, and build trust for common action.
These places are essential, he says, to “countering hierarchies, static power structures, nonproductive decision-making processes, and official sources of knowledge that suppress improvement.”
So with thoughts of Scottish coffeehouses, de Toqueville’s observations about associations and free expression, community democracy, and the commons in mind, I wonder whether all the conversations going on around us now might in some way be laying groundwork for a new or revitalized sense of the commons in our lives, or of civil society and democracy. And I don’t mean “democracy” as it’s played out through all the layers of our representative democracy, as important as those are, but rather something closer to Peter’s “living, breathing, on-the-street” democracy.
All this leads to a few comments and questions:
A good conversation goes beyond where you thought it would, said someone at John Boylan’s Conversation about conversation. It is an improvisation or a collaboration in which one is changed by the exchange, by listening. There’s a moment when the questions stop and the real conversation begins.
At the same time, John’s conversation considered almost exclusively the exchange between two, with some in the room feeling that real conversation among three or more is very difficult. So how do we come together in creative or community commons, in a group larger than two? Do some of our conversations create the “shared spaces and shared knowledge” that Ostrom and Hess claim are needed to “foster viable democratic societies”?
To be a “community commons” that encourages the innovation and change Peter mentions, people with different experiences and perspectives from one another must be in the mix. And differences often cause tension, something I consciously or unconsciously avoided most of my life, perhaps as a learned response in childhood. We need conversations among people with whom we share values and experience, but how well or how often do we move beyond a fairly homogeneous group? Where are opportunities for conversations in groups that are heterogeneous and prone to tension?
While I’m interested in conversation that isn’t monotone, I’m not convinced that the only way to avoid simply talking to ourselves is to bring in the most extreme, opposing view, though that can be invigorating. Despite today’s polarized public dialogue, things are often – or even usually – more complex and multi-faceted than can be explored through black-or-white, either/or positions and point/counterpoint debates.
I also doubt that many of us, on whatever side of an issue, are converted in public by a single event. Rather, understanding and change more often come over time I think, through listening and gradually letting trust grow. I’d love to know of conversations where that happens, or to work with others to establish conditions where it could.
Another good point made at John’s conversation is that meaningful conversation takes many forms besides talk and that, for one, the physical side of an exchange is really important. One of the best ways to build common understanding is to work together, to cook or garden together, to move or sing together – those barn raisings and quilting bees. The World Dance Party that started a few years ago in the south end of town seems much to the point, with 100-250 people of many cultures and ages coming together for an evening of “just food, dancing, and community.”
These thoughts have drifted a long way from the art show that prompted them. Considering the context – that is, an arts exhibition – makes me wonder whether my perspective on the commons and conversation and gossip is affected by a life spent at least partly immersed in the arts and also by some understanding of myself as an artist, an identity this show has encouraged me to consider again. Artists certainly know something of gossip, and conversations are all around us. But how are we, or could we be, part of establishing living, breathing community commons as vital, collaborative forms?
And referring back to the 2016 introduction to this writing, what kind of role can we play in creating an “army of aroused and informed citizens”? How do we add to the power supply for change?
* More information about the exhibition Chamber Music is here. And elsewhere on this site I’ve posted another essay I wrote as part of the exhibition, “Am I an artist?” where I give a little more background on the show.
I look and look. Looking’s a way of being: one becomes, sometimes, a pair of eyes walking. Walking wherever looking takes one.1
excerpt from “Looking, Walking, Being,” by Denise Levertov
Long, meandering walks are one of the great joys of time away. Time for exploring with my eyes and ears, letting thoughts drift and ricochet against what I see, losing myself in the weather and the sounds of whatever’s around.
When the itch to escape for a week struck this spring, Kathy and Mark offered their home in Port Townsend at a time they’d be away. My daily walks began there.
Fort Worden2 is an easy walk from their home, and the park’s proximity was irresistible.
In a recent New York Times piece, Teddy Wayne worries that we’re losing opportunities to be alone with our thoughts, both physically and mentally.3 We’re so distractible, and electronic devices that provide immediate gratification are so often close at hand. He provided data about our increasing use of these devices and brain science suggesting that they interfere with our capacity for introspection. He quoted Nicholas Carr contrasting a state of mind that values speed and quick answers with an “open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you.”
As I head out to walk, with my phone safely in my pocket, I leave my questions behind for a while and settle into simply looking and walking and being.
1 Excerpt from “Looking, Walking, Being,” by Denise Levertov, published in 1996 by New Directions Books. I return to the whole poem frequently, and the book itself is a well-worn volume in my library.
2 I introduced Fort Worden in an earlier post, “Home – a confabulation.” 3 Teddy Wayne, “The End of Reflection,”The New York Times, June 11, 2016.
In answering the friendly barista facing me with a smile, I stumbled a bit to find the best way to answer. You’d think, being well past traditional retirement age, I’d have a ready answer to such a straightforward question. My hesitation, though, had little to do with my age – I’m happy to be 71, lucky to be healthy in body and spirit, and always ready to acknowledge how old I am. The challenge was the meaning of the word “retire” and the assumptions it makes about work and jobs.
Am I working now? Well . . . “yes and no” or “on and off” or “it depends.”
Yes, I still need to make money beyond what I get from social security and modest savings. But even if I didn’t have to, I’m not sure I’d want to stop working, at least not as long as I can define “work” in the large, loose, multi-faceted way I’ve defined it over the years. Lines that might help me define my work have always been fuzzy – lines between my work and my social life, between work that pays my bills and work that I’m driven to do, lines between when I’m working and when I’m having fun.
The meaning of “work” as I’ve experienced it in my life doesn’t fit the conventions for it that typically surround us. In general usage the word is most often restricted to effort where money changes hands, and for many too many people that work is nasty and unsatisfying, especially if they’re at the bottom of the pay scale. But a whole world of real work is left out when it’s defined this way.
travail trabajo arbeit
John Budd, a university professor who studies and teaches about work, employment, and labor1, claims that the way we define work, the way we think about it, is deeply important to how work is structured in practice. A short piece on his blog “Whither Work?” considers the roots of our words for work and described the long history of negative associations with these words in our language.2 “Words indicating labor in most European languages,” he wrote, “originate in an imagery of compulsion, torment, affliction, and persecution.” The French word travail and Spanish trabajo are derived from the Latin, trepaliare, to torture, to inflict suffering or agony. “The German arbeit suggests effort, hardship, and suffering; it is cognate with the Slavonic rabota (from which English derives “robot”), a word meaning corvée, that is, forced or serf labor.”
oeuvre opus werg
But the meanings aren’t always negative. “While travail is rooted in torture, another French word for work, oeuvre, comes from the Latin opus relating to accomplishment and creativity. The word work itself is rooted in the ancient Indo-European word werg meaning, simply, “to do.” Budd concludes that words for work can be negative (to torture), neutral (to do), or positive (a work of art).
I was introduced to Budd’s ideas about work a few months ago at the first Chat Room, a quarterly forum on art in the age of the internet.3 Subtitled, “Value and Labor,” this event also posed a more specific question: “What are the trade-offs for artists, creative freelance workers, and other independent contractors in an economy altered by the internet?” As an introduction to these more specific questions, Minh Nguyen, the forum organizer, began by presenting John Budd’s “ten key conceptions of work.” Many other strands of the evening’s discussion were also fascinating, but the range of his ideas definitely got my attention.
a curse freedom a commodity identity service
In his 2011 book, The Thought of Work,4 Budd elaborates on these ten views of work and in the process explodes the narrow definitions we commonly use, narrow definitions that reduce work “to a curse or to a commodified, instrumental activity that supports consumption.” Being a fan of lists, I include his list of ten ideas.
A curse. An unquestioned burden necessary for human survival or maintenance of the social order. Freedom. A source of independence from the dictates of the natural world, a way to express creativity and build culture. A commodity. An abstract quantity of productive effort that has tradable economic value. Occupational citizenship. An activity pursued by human community members entitled to certain rights. Disutility. A lousy activity tolerated to obtain goods and services that provide pleasure. Personal fulfillment. Physical and psychological well-being that provides more than extrinsic, monetary rewards. A social relation. Human interaction embedded in social norms, institutions, and power structure. Caring for others. The physical, cognitive, and emotional effort required to attend to and maintain others. Identity. A method for understanding who you are and where you stand in the social structure. Service. The devotion of effort to others, such as God, household, community, or country.
a job work as commerce as a calling
Budd differentiated kinds of work in a much more fine-toothed way than I did in “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value.”5 I made one main distinction, and it was bigger and more diffuse than any of his. Having learned from artists, I distinguished between a “job” and “work,” between work as commerce and work for the common good, between jobs that pay the bills and work that could be called a calling. And by calling, I mean work we’re compelled to do by something other than money – writing poems, composing songs, and making photographs, or teaching, neighborhood clean-ups, and caring for children. I’m grateful for the reinforcement I get from Budd’s multiple views.
Beyond simply identifying the various root definitions of work and his ten conceptions of it, Budd strongly believes that the way we think about work matters. “This should be more than an esoteric, intellectual exercise.” Our unstated views of work affect public policies and laws. When the unpaid work of artists, parents, and neighborhood volunteers is not viewed as “real work,” policies around compensation and benefits, for instance, don’t include them, and without money changing hands, the work and often the person doing it are less valued than wage-earners, not only by the world at large but too often by the people themselves. Budd writes:
“The linguistic features of work reflect the realities of human work… As a society, we need to re-connect with the deep meanings of work not only for individuals but also for democracy. We need to develop new norms that value work that is not rewarded by the labor market and create institutions for improving how work is experienced.”
I’ve thought about multiple meanings of work as I’ve gone from one sort of work to another, and I’ve done so right through my 60s without much of a pause at “mile marker 65.” While I’m sure our specific understandings of what we mean by work will keep changing, I suspect I won’t stop doing it any time soon.
It was ideas like these, bouncing around in my head as I stood in front of my barista friend, that made it hard to give a quick and coherent answer to her question about retirement.