The work of George Lakoff has made the power of the framing of an issue clear and public.
For years Lakoff’s work has focused on the use of metaphor, and more recently he has written widely about the ways that embedded metaphors do more to shape people’s opinions and understandings than the factual content. He has focused on public perceptions in politics particularly.
For example, if the public accepts the words “death tax” as the basis for any discussion of inheritance taxes—the “pro” side of that argument has already lost. The embedded metaphor is so potently negative, that unless you change the frame, you can’t win the argument even with strong points and facts.
I once encountered this clearly in arts education.
At an event a conservative candidate for Senate lit into me (identified as the arts guy) as being against testing to find out if students are really learning anything. I got him to pause. I asked him, “Do you think every student deserves a highly engaging school day to help her learn?”
He paused, uncertain, and fearing a trap. But he finally admitted that he agreed with that statement.
I followed up, “Do you know what research says about the things that are known to be effective in engaging students?” He didn’t. I began to share about it, and we had a very different discussion about the value of the arts in schooling. Because I had changed the frame of the discussion.
I raise this issue during the blog salon about “careers” in connection with the arts because I think we are stuck in a framework problem. We blather about 21st century skills, and art and design thinking. We quote Daniel Pink that the MFA is the new MBA. Yet, most people in the arts, particularly those most responsible for training artists, are carrying around a different definition of success.
It is an outmoded view of an artist’s career success as an ascending ladder of ever more prestigious jobs making art and working with arts organizations. Fewer than ten percent of the best arts students are going to have careers that look anything like that kind of 19th and 20th century arts career, yet that definition of success is informing the teaching and much of the leadership of arts training.
Most students arrive at conservatories and training programs with far more open definitions of success, much more in tune with reality and the emerging range of possibilities of a life in the arts. And they get narrowed or confused about what success is. They feel less successful than they are once launched into their careers because they don’t win a top competition, even as they are living a number of highly successful aspects of a 21st century life in the arts.
There is a small but growing number of artists who not only shape careers that are successful in a variety of contemporary ways, but their voice and example is still not a mainstream vision, and not the vision of those who are training the next generation of artists. Some teachers are “getting it” but not enough and not fast enough to stay close to reality.
We have to clarify, embrace, and teach from a different framework of what success as a 21st century artist means. Personally, I value the etymological definition of art—which means “to have a follow-through,” as in the succession of queens and kings.
I believe you are a successful artist if you are ever more excited and passionate about making things you care about. We need to teach young artists to balance both the etymological and the traditional definitions of success if they are going to sustain, be joyful, and be as creatively broad and entrepreneurial as they can be.