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Are the Arts Essential?

A Convening on the Arts and Aspiration in Our Time

April 25-27, 2018

The John Brademas Center of New York University asked an international group of scholars, artists, and cultural practitioners to deliberate a question: “Are the Arts Essential?”

From April 25 to April 28, 2018, at NYU’s campus in Florence, Italy, these specialists took the customary deliberations about arts and culture into new, substantive, and shaping discussion. Beyond “leisure” or “entertainment,” beyond art’s personal impacts, beyond contributions to tourism, community building, or the classroom, do the arts and culture power progress? This convening asked if (and how) the arts provide structures and strategies for social change, how they help define peoples and nations, how they deal with actual matters of life and death. Are the arts essential in ways that economics and medicine and politics are? If so, how is this manifest? What are the theoretical bases that ground the arts and govern our expectations of them? 

We have asked our deeply experienced participants some starting questions. What values, purposes and aspirations are conveyed by the arts and culture as we experience them? What insights, pressures, emotions are illuminated by cultural production? Is there a connective function to the arts? Are opportunities for comprehension and illumination inherent in the arts? What is the relationship between art and empathy? Art and experience? Art and change? Are the arts essentially emblematic and emotive, or are their contributions to self and society more significant, more enduring in their impact? In pursuit of theory, participants have been asked to address the import of the arts to human understanding, advancement, and interaction.  

In a decade of international convenings and research, the John Brademas Center has been engaging artists, cultural practitioners and academics in exploring international arts activity in today’s geo-cultural circumstances. We know that art and aesthetics are engaged in an ever-expanding range of social and political concerns. Now we need to better understand and evaluate their consequence in providing critique and knowledge, in generating ethical insight and in designing change. In this convening, specialists are invited to help posit the ways that the arts and culture can deepen ideals and strengthen goals in global conversation.

The Florence convening aimed to investigate the principles and purposes of the arts, a framing of ideas for action in our time. We expect the conversations to continue after the Florence convening, both formally and informally. We have begun discussion with the NYU Press about the likelihood of publishing a book of essays aimed at policymakers, international agencies, artistic and academic specialists, and the concerned public.  


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