The Rebellious Irrationality of the Arts
Welcome to ArtsEverywhere, the latest program of Musagetes, a Canadian philanthropic arts organization founded on a deep belief in the transformative power of the arts.
Musagetes’ office is located in Guelph, Ontario, which is situated on land that is steeped in rich Indigenous history and home to many First Nations, Métis and Inuit people today. We would like to acknowledge that we are guests on the ancestral and treaty lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation of the Aanishinaabek Peoples. Throughout history, this land and these waters have also been home to the Chonnonton Peoples (“People of the Deer”), as well as the Haudenosaunee from the south, and the Anishanaabe and Métis from the North. We offer respect as we strengthen our relationships with them. We express our gratitude for sharing these lands for our mutual benefit.
With the ArtsEverywhere online platform and its related projects, we offer a new forum concerned with the role the arts can play in addressing the faultlines of modern society and the deep and perplexing problems that beset contemporary life. As our 2007 Manifesto states, “we strive to help restore the power of imagination in individuals.” We do that by placing artistic thinking and inquiry in relation to everyday life and to the urgencies and struggles of our societies and communities.
Using the model of TheNatureofCities.com, each month ArtsEverywhere will invite ten contributors to respond to a roundtable question, encouraging commentary by the contributors and readers. Policy white papers, policy criticism, essays, book reviews, podcasts, and other content will be posted daily, weekly, and monthly.
Musagetes acts in three ways:
- through intellectual inquiry, documentation, and investigation;
- in fellowship and solidarity with communities of concern; and
- with transformative actions, combining unexpected combinations of people and ideas.
Our research and artistic projects over the past few years have given us greater clarity on the role of art in social evolution—the processes by which the arts evolve meaning for individuals and communities. Musagetes believes that the arts are transformative in their cumulative impact on our social and political institutions. At times these transformations can be rapid and easily documented. But most often, it’s the tiny shifts in our collective thinking that accumulate into new ways of imagining the world.
In January 2015, we published a text that declared Musagetes’ desire to be a greater contributor to a discourse on the arts’ relation to all aspects of human existence in the world—from the grand metaphors of language and mathematics by which we attempt to understand better our “home” to the grand ways by which we assert ourselves on that home (e.g. colonialism, agriculture, cities, global connectedness) to the urgent implications of these assertions (e.g. climate change, cultural genocide of Indigenous people, gross economic disparity, disenfranchisement, failed governance, undermined social justice).
Now, with ArtsEverywhere we position ourselves more fully within public discourse, situating our work and our principles in relation to others and to related conversations about contemporary urgencies. We do this through partnerships that maintain a nimbleness, which allows us to be responsive to multiple shifting contexts, keeping art and artists at the centre of the discourse, while focussing on the arts’ relation to a multi-faceted world.
At its core, ArtsEverywhere is about relationship-building. We ask, “How can we find new ways of being, knowing, and relating that can influence significantly more people––and their institutions––to imagine new possibilities?” This process of defining a set of relationships is linked to opening, to movement, and to emergence because it happens over time and space. ArtsEverywhere is a place for such emergence through the stories we tell and the ideas we share—stories and ideas that we hope will resonate broadly.
Lines of Inquiry
ArtsEverywhere is committed to two core principles:
- that the arts must be a central component of individual and collective experiences of the world; and
- the arts must be a vital part of all social and political processes (governance, justice, activism, economies, education, etc.).
Forms (i.e. institutions, networks, hierarchies) shape every aspect of our experience of the world in complex, interdependent ways. ArtsEverywhere is about experimentation with new, revived, and alternative forms, possibilities, and networks beyond the status quo. We believe if the arts are more central to the practices and discourses related to all aspects of our world, then we can bring new forms and possibilities into being that are more just, more resilient, and more beautiful.
It’s what Roberto Unger calls the “adjacent possible”—the potential that exists when we experiment with what is, to imagine what can be. Imaginative thinking is key to this. For example, Jack Halberstam, writing on queerness, states that: “The social worlds we inhabit, after all, as so many thinkers have reminded us, are not inevitable; they were not always bound to turn out this way, and what’s more, in the process of producing this reality, many other realities, fields of knowledge, and ways of being have been discarded.” We recognize that possibilities abound in the fields of knowledge and ways of being that have been discarded. Processes of colonization and marginalization have narrowed the field of possibility in the contemporary malaise. We believe that in (re)establishing relations based on respect, responsibility, and reciprocity—protocols from ways of being that have been suppressed by dominant, colonial worldviews—will have valuable implications both in finding a new social justice and in discovering alternatives to the ineffective social and political modes that are dominating our culture today. We believe that Indigenous protocols and principles have much to teach us.
At a 2010 meeting of the Musagetes board and advisors, we stated that “to truly demonstrate the transformative power of art, we must relate our experimental projects explicitly, radically, and explosively to social complexities and societal pressure points such as environmental degradation and its impact on habitats and homes, on culture, on employment, and subsistence.” Now, especially in light of the revelations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), Musagetes is committed to new relationships with Indigenous peoples and nations and to finding commonalities, like rungs on a ladder, across worldviews. These common spaces have the potential to enlarge, becoming the places where reconciliation begins. Not all people desire reconciliation, but it takes humility and generosity to begin. ArtsEverywhere is a space for the exploration of this.
ArtsEverywhere and its related research, cafés, residencies, and publications consider art in relation to public space, economic dignity, community-building, urbanism, and rural dynamics. And it considers art in relation to complex forms of oppression, celebrations of difference, and the possibilities that are present in a deep engagement with complexity. Several lines of inquiry that emerge frequently within ArtsEverywhere include:
- Improvisation: As a way of being, thinking, and relating, improvisation is a form of social obligation valuable to justice, health, digital platforms, urban planning, and so on.
- Relationality: Building new relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers, we can begin to understand how the 5 Rs of Indigenous protocols (respect, relevance, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationality) can begin processes of reconciliation and, hopefully, decolonization.
- Queerness: Most of contemporary society’s forms—institutional, spatial, relational—are based on moralistic, heteronormative views of the world. These forms are assumed to be absolute and timeless, but we know that many western economic and social forms are flawed, temporal, and tend toward inequity and subjugation. Queerness offers us forms based on desire, love, deep freedom, and self-determination that reject moralistic parameters.
- Feminism: “Because it’s 2015.” These now-famous words by Canada’s Prime Minister were his response to questions about his appointment of a Cabinet composed of an equal number of women and men. How close are we to making a feminist position mainstream?
- Ecological Literacy: Perhaps the most vital formal rethink is in our relationship to nature. Ecological degradation and climate change are the greatest threat to the planet and our species.
- Radical Pedagogy and Artistic Inquiry: The world urgently requires a new way of thinking about education. We believe that artistic inquiry must be at the heart of new pedagogical approaches in order to shift perceptions of the world around us. The Free Home University asks “how do we want to live”?
- Imaginative Thinking: We imagine the world into being. The evolution of homo sapiens from other homo species is marked by our development of language—not a singular language, but many languages as we see expressed in the form of cultural diversity. Language, which evolved from our capability to interpret our environment through reason, is synonymous with imagination. Metaphorical thinking is thinking that construes the world and lies at the heart of why the arts have value. It is about social evolution; it is about our capacity to understand and reshape the forms of the world.
- Economic Dignity: Musagetes’ Manifesto refers to “the deep and perplexing problems that beset contemporary life, including the significance we ascribe to instrumental reasoning, which can calculate the costs, but not the value, of everything; and our reliance on the economy as the most important measure of meaning.” We see the need for new economies that replace high finance algorithms with dignity as the determinant.
ArtsEverywhere extends invitations to leaders, innovators, and critical thinkers in diverse fields and sectors. We wish to create open spaces for dialogue about the value that the arts bring to all aspects of our communities and societies—not only from the points of view of artists, cultural workers, and arts institutions, but also from the perspectives of policy makers, ecologists, mathematicians, children, city builders, social justice leaders, farmers, educators, activists, and so on.
As the web platform becomes a valuable connective device and inspiring resource on the arts, there are many possibilities for where it can go in the future. The platform can be a leader in connecting the arts broadly to other fields and sectors while centralizing the arts for their role in social evolution. To do this, we are developing agreements with “amplification partners” that will bring their networks into the readership and contributor cohorts and offer their content expertise. The first such partnership is with the World Policy Institute, specifically its Arts-Policy Nexus. Each month, four new artist op-eds are published jointly on the WPI and ArtsEverywhere websites. Further partnerships are in development with a number of other organizations including the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, the Slought Foundation, and Contemporary & magazine, among others. Partners share content, convene online roundtables and Artist Roundtables (A.RTs), organize gatherings, and develop publications.
Generative Spaces for Potential
At the core of ArtsEverywhere and its component programs, such as Free Home University and Queer City, are a number of inquiries into the connections and embodiments of alternative ways of seeing, being, knowing, and relating that allow us to create and experience the world differently. We know that it is crucial not only to have an intellectual inquiry, but also to experience it so we can enact the changes we wish to see. Musagetes’ Manifesto concludes with a call for transformative action with unexpected combinations of people and ideas. The temporal and spatial projects and gatherings of the broader ArtsEverywhere program are manifestations of this.
Free Home University (FHU) is a pedagogical and artistic experiment that began as a collaboration between Loop House, the Ammirato Culture House, and Musagetes along with several international artists and philosophers interested in experimenting with radical pedagogies during 2013 in Southern Italy. FHU focuses on generating new ways of sharing and creating knowledge by experiencing life in common. In FHU, self-directed, collaborative, and open-ended inquiry is shaped by the desires and interactions of those present in relation to local and global issues.
The name Free Home University refers to a horizontal, inviting, energy-liberating environment (free) within a protected and intimate space (home) that shapes a community of learning (university). The lines of inquiry are open and includes alternative forms of research, artistic processes, and practices with no predetermined boundaries.
Central to FHU and its pedagogical intentions are experiential forms of learning, processes of reflection and dialogue, and accessing different ways of knowing, including the wisdom of the body and intuitive forms of co-creation, community cooking, peer-to-peer learning, explorative dérives, collective reading, performance, and film screenings.
The initial experiences of Free Home University have us asking many questions and we invite readers to engage with us as we experiment further and strive to articulate the complex, tacit experiences of radical pedagogies into explicit language and documentation. ArtsEverywhere provides continuity from one class to the next, from one participant to another, among our lines of inquiry and from a line of inquiry to a world of people engaged in it.
Queer City São Paulo is a deep inquiry into queerness in relation to sexuality, and by extension, queerness in relation to thinking beyond the status quo—the eccentric, the unusual, that which unseats or shakes the normative. When the normative is shaken, what new possibilities are revealed? A series of neighbourhood research projects, interventions, and convenings embody these ideas in partnership with the long-term, locally-led lanchonete.org project.
At the end of his book, Sex of the Oppressed (2013, 2016), Nikolay Oleynikov gives us a provocative literary demonstration of how evocative the imagination can be:
The last thing the female sniper from the elite Internal Forces Division saw in the scope of her nano-rifle was my demonic erection. And the last thing I remember was torment, the gnawing anguish of rebellious irrationality that went unrealized in the last uprising and remains impossible to overcome.
With those few words, Oleynikov concludes his profound ruminations on the revolutionary and cultural battles that are being waged today in the war of values, principles, and ideologies around the world. His artistic and literary imagination shows us the urgencies of and possibilities for transforming the world despite clashes between imaginative thinking and reductive, often perverse, rationalism.
The last insight before the sniper’s bullet strikes is of the inevitability of rebellious irrationality—of the revolutionary power of imaginative thinking—in the face of oppression and struggle. Oleynikov’s text—part of the launch of ArtsEverywhere—is a call to action, to emerge out of apathy, out of the cold monotony of sameness, out of the easy comforts of ignorance, into the places where imagination cracks open reductive thinking and shows us a space of generative potential, a place where ideas intersect and actions emerge.
There’s a war going on out there. It’s a war being fought in three dimensions — rhetoric, capital, and power — creating holograms of societies shaped by fear, oppression, consumption, and individualism or, if we rebel enough, by love, difference, potential, and collectivism.
The snipers are everywhere. But where are the arts with their rebellious irrationality?