Culture and Process

It is always a challenge to talk about culture, but in particular to offer by way of discourse something new on a subject that is as old as civilization itself. This latter point came to mind when I was viewing Werner Herzog’s new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams which is shot in 3D and takes place in the Chauvet Caves in France. The images in the cave are at least 30,000 years old. They reflect an extraordinary desire to picture the world since they were created under very difficult circumstances, most likely with very little available light but by artists with exceptional talent. The images reflect a deep desire to connect aesthetics with form. They are all closely linked to each other inadvertently creating a narrative that may well have been repeated in many other caves and in many other more distant locations. This suggests that not only is the creation of art fundamental to the human psyche, but also that humans could not survive without it.

As Brian Boyd recently suggested: “A work of art acts like a playground for the mind, a swing or a slide or a merry-go-round of visual or aural or social pattern.” (On the Origin of Stories, 2009: 15)

The integration of play with creativity and curiosity seems transparently clear to those of us who have devoted our lives to the arts, but for reasons that I will discuss today, as much as we recognize the importance of art, we also devalue its role, contribution and voice. This could be one of the great golden ages for the arts. My hope is that it will be. But, there are storm clouds on the horizon that we all need to be watchful about.

Over the last fifteen years, the cultural sector along with the small number of institutions devoted to learning in and for the arts in Canada have been involved in a difficult and challenging debate.

On the one side, some argue that culture is essential to the fabric and nature of Canadian society and that culture defines not only who we are, but also how we live and in some instances how we should live. On the other side, are advocates for what I will describe as the economic argument for the arts using the term Cultural Industries as a catch all for culture’s contribution to the GDP and to the economic well being of our society.

I want to talk to you today about why both positions need revision and rethinking and why we have reached a crucial phase in the broad based discussions that our communities are having about culture and its importance.

First, we need to understand that there are many definitions of culture, so many in fact that the term itself has lost much of its power. This is not a minor issue because in its present usage culture encapsulates nearly everything we do, which means that we have no clear definition for it and no way of distilling what is special about creative engagement and the creative life. This has implications for the role and importance of artistic engagement, because we end up replacing the uniqueness of creativity with assembly line notions of production and consumption.   

Second, it is proving to be very difficult to sustain the argument that creative cultures are essential to our everyday lives. As our economic crisis deepens, various elements of our culture appear superfluous even as people seek out alternative venues to relax, learn and be entertained. Although not a given and very dependent on context, creative work is also meant to challenge, sometimes caustically.

What we are seeing today is a separation among various creative forms with some like interactive gaming appropriating the history of aesthetic expression for popular purposes while others in the fine arts continue to rely on an exclusive gallery system for validation. This separation has its own challenges, not the least of which is the decline of serious art criticism in our newspapers and the almost complete absence of art among mainstream broadcasters.     

At the same time, we are undergoing a massive conversion to digital technologies and it FEELS as if artists are leading the way. I say feels because if you take a close look at what is happening you will notice that cultural creators are still for the most part ensconced in the same fragile relationships that they have always had with the state, the business community and the population at large. Despite all of the discussion of DIY cultures and social media and despite the societal recognition that creativity is at the heart of what we do, the gap between artists and their communities has not changed all that much in the last fifty years.


Digital cultures are hugely democratizing because they encourage many different forms of creative output, but this does not mean that the works being produced will find a significant place in our society. In fact, we now need more and more sophisticated curatorial strategies to even understand the range of what is being produced. So much is being created that we are inverting and dissolving conventional notions of high and low culture and this is leading to what I will describe as a series of micro-cultures. Micro cultures are both an exciting development and also full of pitfalls. They reflect the increasing fragmentation of cultural activity into interest groups often driven by very narrow concerns. At the same time, they represent a profound change in the conditions which drive the production of creative work.   

How is that the creation of cultural artifacts that are so essential to our sense of community and nation exist in such a fragile relationship with the population and government? If there is a consensus that the arts are important why do most cultural organizations struggle and in many instances rely on government funding and public philanthropy for their survival? The only conclusion that can be drawn from these contradictions is that cultural creativity is not that essential, which is why cultural organizations are always the first to feel the sting of government cutbacks. I will return to this point in a moment.

Third, the move to identify the arts in particular as functional parts of a cultural economy carries with it many dangers. One of the most serious is that we conflate the deeply felt desire on the part of a significant number of people in our communities to satisfy their yearning to create with the outcomes of that creativity. It is so important to understand that creativity does not necessarily mean that there will be identifiable and valuable outcomes to the process. The key word here is process. It is the same with learning. If all we are aiming for are outcomes, then we will end up with a linear process, one that is predetermined by what we anticipate from it. Part of the joy of creativity and learning how to be creative particularly in the arts is that we don’t know exactly where we will end up nor do we often know why we even began.

The joy here comes from the quest. And if the final object, process or event reflects our deepest sense of what we want to say and why, then that should be enough. As we know, in the present context, it is not.

We need to sharpen our understanding of this contradiction. In the 18th century culture meant something very specific, usually related to crafts and to guilds. Although many of the arts were practiced in elite contexts and produced for the elite, the distinctions between creativity and everyday life were neither sharp nor seen as necessary. In other words, the boundaries between the arts and other activities were permeable.

Over the last fifty years or so that permeability has decreased to the point where creative practices are now classified as one of many professions. In fact, from a policy perspective the systems of classification that we have in place are very convenient. However, and quite ironically, if creators are engaged with their work, they are likely to make a mockery of the classifications largely because the voyage of creative engagement often has no clear purpose. This is in fact the opposite of what traditional professions are designed to accomplish which is why the most current word used to explain how people enter various professions is training. Purpose of course has many meanings as well as outcomes. The same issue haunts research. If it is too directed towards outcomes then there will be few surprises and innovation will be stifled.



STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) has been in the news for the last two years. The STEM initiative grew from concerns in the United States and elsewhere about the decline in student interest in what are perceived to be key areas of study for 21st century economies. Underlying these policy discussions are concerns about the effectiveness of K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions and their ability to meet the needs of contemporary society. Here is how the California Department of Education explains the initiative:

STEM education is a sequence of courses or program of study that prepares students, including underrepresented groups:

•       for successful employment, post-secondary education, or both that require different and more technically sophisticated skills including the application of mathematics and science skills and concepts, and

•       to be competent, capable citizens in our technology-dependent, democratic society. 

These goals have been fundamental to most forms of education and most stages of learning in western countries for over fifty years. There is nothing new here other than the acronym. It is not an accident that most schools in the K-12 and post-secondary system, have well developed science, technology and mathematics departments or faculties. These areas have always been strongly supported. In contrast, teachers and learners in the humanities and creative areas like the visual arts and music have always struggled with less dollars and even less public concern.

In response, an important and strategically well thought out campaign has been developed to shift STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics).

Initially, I was a supporter of the initiative. After all, government policy in education in Western democracies purposely leaves out the creative process, art, music and the humanities in general. STEAM was developed to sensitize policymakers to the diversity and complexity of learning, and to the variety of ways in which students learn.

Stephen Beal, the President of the California College of the Arts in San Francisco summarizes the discussion in the following way:

But if you dig a little deeper you will realize that art and science are not polar opposites. That there are far more commonalities than there are differences. Art and science are, in the words of astronaut Mae Jamison, "manifestations of the same thing. They are avatars of human creativity."

Creativity. Just one thing the disciplines share. Here are some other words that resonate for both fields: research, observation, experimentation, discovery, collaboration, and innovation.

Then why does this art-science dichotomy persist? Human history shows us that artistic and cultural upheavals have always gone hand-in-hand with scientific and technological advances. (Turn STEM to STEAM: Why Science Needs the Arts Huffington Post, June 11, 2013 )

Beal is right and to varying degrees parents in particular know that their children need the diversity that cross-disciplinary approaches encourage. Intuitively all of these divisions between the sciences and the arts just don’t feel right since for the most part culture in all its manifestations and institutional forms is an integral part of the life of communities. “There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million in 2011).” The figures for online attendance at museums are also in the hundreds of millions.

However, something about the STEM to STEAM discussion feels stale. In the first place, it is not a new debate but one that has been raging for decades. Secondly, the new technologies now transforming commerce, science and the arts are by their very nature integrated and integrative. The umbilical cord linking all of these practices and disciplines is design, which is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

In other words, our culture, economy and daily practices have moved on and are now far beyond the divisions that STEM and STEAM suggest and promote. In fact, both acronyms suggest disagreements that would have made it impossible for companies like Amazon and Apple to survive. Videogames by their very nature utilize not only the sciences but also mathematics and engineering and art. Policymakers may be about twenty years behind in this debate, but daily life in the digital and Internet age long ago surpassed the simple divisions built into these acronyms.  

Rather and in my opinion more importantly, how can educational institutions and teaching practices catch up to learners who will just as easily make a YouTube instructional video about STEM, as they will a fictional video about vampires? Or, combining the computer sciences, technological knowhow and culture produce games, hybrid experiments in virtual worlds and invent new ways of using 3D printing in manufacturing?

It is an irony that most of the technologies developed in Silicon Valley and in fact, even the term start-up, grew from ideas that sometimes intuitively and other times quite deliberately understood and anticipated cultural needs and trends. Behind the debate about STEM and STEAM, there remains a 19th century notion that what we teach needs to reflect where we think our society is going both culturally and economically. It would be better if we examined how we got to this stage and even better if we would recognize that there is no clear formula to producing the contexts within which creativity and learning experiences can flourish in any discipline.

Acronyms like STEM or STEAM suggest formulas and simple ways of arriving at mutually agreed upon destinations. Schools then become funnels for preconceived ideas and programs that supposedly will solve issues of employment, economics and citizenship. These things can happen but only if we recognize that learning is now dominated by multi-modal forms of communications and interaction. More happens informally than formally. We finally have permeable spaces and disciplines will have a much harder time hiding away from the mainstream.

Learning has always been about relationships and at present those relationships extend far beyond the halls of academe or a high school. In a sense, and from a cultural point of view, we have arrived at a point of convergence between the general culture and the culture of learning. In this new environment, we need new models and new ways of prototyping different approaches to learning. STEM to STEAM, while not unimportant is a debate from another era.