GUEST ARTICLE: The Esthetic of Sustainability

A report on Peter Senge’s message concerning the role of the arts, artists and the creative orientation in creating a good life

By Gigi Yellen

Conventions are like massages: they feel great, while somebody skilled goes to work on you, but you have to follow up with your own work, or the energizing effects soon wear off. So here’s hoping that there’s good work getting underway now by the recently-energized eleven hundred plus conventioneers who came to Seattle for the Americans for the Arts convention in June.

Funny name, “Americans for the Arts.” Sounds a little contrarian, if you think about it, as though you had to put it on a placard and carry it in a street demonstration  to counter, say, “Americans against the arts.” Well, nobody’s going to carry that sign, but clearly, in the struggle about how to spend America’s money, the arts need every supporter they can get.

Or do they? What exactly ARE “the arts”? Ironically, the keynote speaker for the Seattle convention challenged this gathering of arts managers and executive directors to imagine their work in terms of not “the arts” but “the creative orientation.”

Yes, it’s not just a product that you can play at a concert or display at a museum or a bus stop; not just the created thing that matters, but the manner of thinking that brings it about, that lives—or should live—within people who declare themselves to be “for the arts.”

This keynote speaker was Dr. Peter Senge. He’s not an arts administrator. He’s an organization analyzer. Understanding change is what he is all about, from his post as senior lecturer at MIT, to the Society for Organizational Learning, which he founded.

Have you read The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization? Or his more recent The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working together to create a sustainable world?  That’s him.

Here in Seattle, Dr. Senge challenged those who fund and manage artists and their work to be aware of the wider world situation. “We—meaning human beings—don’t have much of a future if we keep living the way we’re living,” he said.

He was on here his way back from China, where he was studying a society that’s poised to develop, either in a way that will pour more fuel on the fire of a planet-threatening way of life, or that will help begin the process of healing the earth. And that process would be based on the kind of thinking that doesn’t even have a word for “the arts.”

Memorizing one’s values through chant or dance or visual patterns is the original, ancient human creative orientation.  Comfortably settled in our western-civilization chairs, we at the convention center needed reminding that native cultures don’t have words for “art.” Or “nature” for that matter. And did Peter Senge remind us.

To a roomful of people who spend their days answering questions like “how can we fund this art?” and “how can we afford art when we have people who need food and housing?” he threw down a challenge: stop. Stop participating in a thought process that brings about those survival–of-the-creative-questions in the first place.
The challenge is to start thinking about what it is we’re trying to create.

In front of a convention whose theme was “Arts in Sustainable Communities,” Peter Senge crumpled up the word “sustainable” and threw it in the garbage can—ok, the recycle bin—The clean and quotable way he said it was,” Sustainable is not much of an aspiration!”  Is your mission just to keep your organization alive?
“In some ways,” said the change expert, “climate change is a kind of gift.” “The problem is not climate change but how we live.” Here’s his question for us lovers of the esthetic: What is the esthetic of sustainability?

How should we live that esthetic? The answer is not in the appreciation of the products of creativity, but in the attitude that brings about those products. That attitude is none other than…play. Peter Senge calls it “the creative orientation.”
Like the artists for whom these Americans for the Arts campaign, we are, in this historic time, being called on to live in the question “what are we trying to create?”

“Maybe we’re at the end of the period of marginalization,” said the keynote speaker. “The end of objectifying of that thing we call “the arts.”

So here’s what I conclude: as we support and enjoy the work of people who refine their skills at making what we call art — we can recognize that the reason we support them is because we all need this support. It’s the little human child in each of us that recognizes what they do as what we know we need: not desperate problem-solving but simply play. The way humans work things out before we learn about problems and work.

Children play. And parents, wise parents, encourage that play, guided by a mission statement that asks the question “what are we trying to create?” and answers it simply: It’s — a good life.

If we arts-lovers ask ourselves “How did this mission guide our actions today?” every day, we’re on our way. We have not just had our energies massaged by convention talk about Renewable Resources, but we’ve gone to work on creating, renewing and sustaining a good life.

You can check out the whole report on the Seattle convention of Americans for the Arts at their website  Seattle looked good, with awards to a number of local artists, and a moving tribute to ArtsFund’s founder, the late Peter Donnelly, whose presence was not only missed there but continues to be missed here at king fm.


KING FM‘s weeknight host since 2004, Gigi Yellen represents a barrier-breaking generation of women: one of America’s first female classical music announcers, she has introduced listeners to great music at stations in New York, Houston, and Washington, DC, at Seattle’s KUOW, and at National Public Radio. This essay was originally broadcast on KING FM’s Arts Channel.

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