By Dudley Cocke

Walter Capps Memorial Lecture

2003 National Humanities Conference

Savannah, GA - November 8, 2003

I want to commend the Federation for its intention to serve cocktails before something ominously billed as a lecture. As your speaker now standing before a dry crowd, I am truly sorry that the drinks did not arrive in time. As an indigenous touch, the cocktail hour would have added credibility to the contention of many that whiskey, beer, wine, and gin have made an incalculable contribution to what they value as the loose and impressionable character of the southern mind.

On the other hand, if you were to ask a southern preacher how to go about this lecture, he, or she, might say something like this: Son, first tell the people what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.

Tonight, I’ll be going for some of both the preacher and the imbiber. What I’ve got for you is a prologue and an epilogue, with two questions sandwiched in-between.

The first question: Why are the not-for-profit arts and humanities presently not valued more by the general population?

The second question: Why have the not-for-profit arts and humanities been under sustained political attack for the past 20 years?

I should let you know that I didn’t set out to become an arts and humanities person. It was my modest political activism in the 1960’s and 1970’s, first in the civil rights movement and then the anti-war movement, that brings me before you tonight. Often people ask me about this connection between political activism and cultural activism, hence the title of my talk: The Arts and Humanities in a Democracy.


My prologue begins in 1969 with the War on Poverty. As a part of this war, command and control – the old federal Office of Economic Opportunity – started a dozen pilot film and video training centers for youth in communities with extreme poverty. Appalshop, where I have worked since 1975, was the only rural site of the dozen selected from around the country.

The idea was that high school students would get job training in film and video making and thereby a head start on a profitable media career. For kids in central Appalachia, there was a hitch: there were no film or video jobs to be found in the region. Compounding their problem was a remarkable phenomenon: film and video makers were rushing in from the big urban U.S. and European media capitals to tell the Appalachian poverty story for the people who were the object of the war. If you were, say, a ten-year old rural Appalachian kid back then, a reporter with his cameraman might tip you several bucks to pose for a picture – and would you mind taking off your shoes and looking like your dog just died? Given all this excitement, instead of following the prescribed government course of instruction the Appalachian kids took the government’s equipment and began taking their own pictures.

Two years later, when the feds pulled the plug on the pilot program, the Appalachian Film Workshop didn’t go down the drain like the training centers. By-passing the government’s tedious curriculum, the kids had made something. And on the strength of these first films – films like the mock-ghoulishly titled, “Letcher County Butcher,” about a neighbor butchering his hog for winter meat to feed his family and “Nature’s Way,” about a granny-woman delivering, to everyone’s surprise, twins – the Film Workshop was able to get a toe-hold.

I expect that you can easily imagine how exciting this moment of Appalachian discovery must have been: for the first time, there was the way and the means for the Appalachian story to be told from the inside to a regional and even national television and film audience. Young talent from across the region – from West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, upper east Tennessee, Ohio, southwest Virginia – converged on Whitesburg, Kentucky, population 1,500, to proclaim an Appalachian identity, not only in the electronic mediums of film and video, but by establishing a professional theater company, a record company, a literary magazine, and, eventually, a radio station.

But there was a moment in 1971 when it looked like all would be lost. [Here the speaker relates the story of Washington canceling its pilot training program; its asking and then demanding that all equipment be sent back to Washington; sending their man down to retrieve the equipment; his encounter with the Appalachian culture and moonshine; and his delayed return to Washington empty-handed but happy. The story is preserved in the oral tradition.]

The First Question

Alas, not everyone has had the conversion experience of our erstwhile bureaucrat, which brings me to tonight’s first question: millions of people want to know: why their hard-earned tax dollars should go to support artists and humanists? A national poll conducted in 2002 by the Washington-based Urban Institute found that 96% of respondents said they were “greatly inspired and moved by art;” however, only 27% of those same respondents said that artists contribute ‘a lot’ to the good of society. What accounts for this disconnection? Or to put it another way: what do artists and humanists contribute to the good of society? In recent years, all of us here have been jumping all over that question:

  • Artists and humanists are essential to a quality of life that enables communities to attract business, woo tourists, redevelop downtowns, and teach creative skill sets that sustain economic enterprise.
  • The arts and humanities are known to engender a civic culture and promote understanding across social divides.
  • The arts and humanities improve academic performance by fortifying cognitive skills, increasing self esteem, improving attendance, rescuing at-risk youth.
  • The arts and humanities are important to our health, because they sustain brain development and heal.

Perhaps I’ve missed your favorite, but my point is with such a comprehensive list that includes economics, sociology, education, and health, for goodness sakes, why haven’t we been winning the argument with the public?! Why, for example, have the NEA and the NEH and their state counterparts not been wildly championed by the people? After all, each of us believes in the importance of the arts and humanities with just such fervor.

Although I have no definitive answer, I wish to propose an approach to the answer that I think we have neglected. It is this: in our eagerness to show the “instrumental” value of the arts and humanities, we have not laid sufficient claim to their intrinsic value. This intrinsic value, I posit, is what people do not understand, causing the foundation of the arts and humanities to appear shaky. We could pose the question this way: what is the essence of the arts and humanities that make them so serviceable to such a variety of public interests?

The stock answer to this question of intrinsic value is truth and beauty. As poet Keats memorably put it, beauty is truth, truth beauty. We might take him to mean that if beauty is present, we need not worry about truth’s presence. It is there, ipso facto. On some far-flung metaphysical plane, beauty may always contain truth and truth beauty, but it’s not so easy for the earth-bound. Think of the exquisitely beautiful pictures made by Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker.

I want to propose that we conceive of the essence of the arts and humanities in a way that is less ethereal than truth and beauty. Let me set-up my argument with an example.

It’s January 16, 1936 in Des Moines, Iowa. At the Shrine Temple Auditorium the curtain is about to rise on the encore performance of the opera, The Bohemian Girl. Regina Steele, 11 years old, dressed in a blue uniform, steps from the wings and in a clear voice which carries to the last person in the audience of 4,000 reads the lines of the prologue which presents the principal characters and brings the story of the opera to the second act. The cast of 150 represents 50 of Iowa’s 100 counties. And they are all farm girls and boys, farm men and women. Eleven year-old Regina Steele is wearing her blue 4H uniform.

“Who can measure the rewards of such an event?” wrote Marjorie Patten at the time. “Perhaps the greatest value lies in the rich experience of each person who took part in it, the growth through good training, the joy of having had a part in producing a lovely thing and the freeing of some craving for expression.” As one cast member put it, “We have no new linoleum on the kitchen floor, but we have sung opera!”

My argument is this: we, Homo sapiens, are the storytelling animal. As a species, language is our chief selective advantage, and the stories that we tell ourselves and others, those that we can understand and imagine, define what is possible in our individual and collective lives. I ask you to think about this: without our stories, how would we even know that it is us? And without experiencing the stories of others, how could we possibly know who they are?

Language, in the most inclusive sense (for example, music, architecture, and mathematics as forms of language), and its consequence, story, are how we make meaning, and it’s this meaning-making upon which our survival as a species depends. (It is only we humans who fret that we might outsmart ourselves and become extinct.)

One could say that our search for meaning contains the search for both truth and beauty. And just as we do not want to be put in the position of arguing that what the world needs now is less truth or less beauty, so we do not need to dispute the importance of transcendent meaning versus rational meaning. If our search is for meaning, our battle against the corruption of consciousness, our way language and story, then we need both the mystical and the empirical – and in the largest doses possible, please!

If the arts and humanities (and I would argue the sciences, as well) are essentially about creating the meaning upon which our survival as a species depends, then I contend that many heads are better than one. Notice that Marjorie Patten highlights the value of participation, the rich experience of each person contributing to the whole. Have you observed, like I have, that when an auditorium is filled with participants who are diverse by, say, race, place, and class, how the emotional and intellectual quotient rises? Conveniently for my talk tonight, this idea of the many as opposed to the few is one of the pillars upon which our democracy is built.

Significantly, Roadside Theater’s national audience looks like the American people: according to tracking over six years (1991-1996) by an independent research organization, 73% of our national audience earns less than $50,000 a year, and 30% earn $20,000 or less annually.

Roadside’s determination to connect with this broad audience influences every choice that we make: form, content, with whom we choose to work, and the public spaces that we insist upon. To achieve this demographic, which is a stark anomaly in the contemporary professional performing arts, we have pursued an array of intercultural collaborations and along the way developed a story-based methodology that emboldens a community to create its own public plays through listening to itself.

Here is one example of how our practice has developed. A long-standing Roadside collaborator is the African American theater, Junebug Productions, based in New Orleans, and one of our co-creations, Junebug/Jack, is about the historical and present-day relationships between black and white working class southerners. As we toured the United States, naturally we wanted black and white working-class people to attend the play. The problem is that black and white working-class people do not typically go out together (or separately, for that matter) to the professional theater on Saturday night.

Our solution was to ask the sponsors of Junebug/Jack, which is a musical, to pull together a group of singers from different parts of their community – for example, from their white Methodist church, from their black AME Zion church, from their integrated public high school, and from their women’s chorus. With their designated musical director, this new community choir would rehearse the show’s music over the course of several months, and then in final rehearsals, I, as the play’s director, would stage them into the production Junebug/Jack would swell from a professional cast of our six to say twenty-two. And let me assure you that the quality of the production was raised! How much community talent goes unrealized and unappreciated for lack of a meaningful book and score.

Out of support for their family and friends, as well as curiosity about this new thing happening in their community, large numbers of people showed up for the performances who would not otherwise have attended. And not only did the broader community’s presence onstage and in the audience make the play’s story more vibrant, the rehearsals brought seemingly unlike people together around their common passion for singing. That prompted some real artistic exchange! And in the process relationships naturally formed, bringing with them insights into the universals that we share, and the social differences that divide us.

From this beginning, we have a way, a specific story-based methodology, to help this new community choir and its audience develop their own productions that tell their own stories. And it is our experience that when an individual or group of individuals has confidence in their own story, then they are pre-disposed to experience the stories of others.

The Second Question

Why have the arts and humanities been under such prolonged political attack?

One might mark our present troubles as beginning with the U.S. withdrawal in 1984 from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This action sent a clear signal to the international community that we would no longer consider cultural exchange useful to our understanding of others in the world. Concurrent to quitting UNESCO, there were persistent efforts to re-focus our domestic arts policy to support a relatively few western European traditions to the exclusion of the many other excellent artistic traditions that comprise the vibrant American cultural mosaic.

Our nation’s diversity is its renewable source of energy, lighting the beacon of freedom that the rest of the world strains to see. It holds the promise that one day we will come to believe deep in our hearts that all people everywhere are created equal. It is now clearly in our national interest for the Bush administration to end cultural isolationism and replace it with a policy that secures the role of the not-for-profit arts and humanities in international exchange – and links that exchange to a domestic arts and humanities that values our own national diversity. In this way, we can create the framework for the arts and humanities at home and abroad to develop common goals. These goals should include broadening public participation, telling the stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell, creating understanding among and between different peoples, and supporting the efforts of communities to solve their problems in just ways.

In opposition to the idea of inclusion, beginning with the Reagan administration through the Clinton presidency, federal leadership tolerated relentless attacks on the leading agencies supporting cultural pluralism in the not-for-profit sector – beginning with their own National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. (With some irony, we now recall that those attacks were led by our own homegrown religious fundamentalists.) One effect of the attacks has been to elevate the U.S. commercial arts at the expense of the not-for-profit arts.

The distinction between the two sectors is significant, because devoid of its not-for-profit competition, the impact of U.S. commercial culture in this moment of globalization has become overwhelming. Imagine how the U.S. looks to hundreds of millions of people around the world whose only sources of information about us are television, Hollywood movies, and pop music. Equally troubling, at home this commercial preference has corrupted our own not-for-profit sector’s core values.

Witness the recent reports of excessive compensation for some private foundation presidents and trustees. With not-for-profit boards often drawn exclusively from the for-profit corporate sector, directors probably thought nothing of a $750,000 annual compensation package for their foundation CEO. (After all, we recently learned that the New York Stock Exchange’s CEO was paid 30.5 million in 2001!) Supposedly wholly subject neither to market nor to re-election pressures, the independent sector’s sole purpose is to act nimbly to benefit society. In our recent gilded age, too much of our sector has lost sight of its raison d’être, its very reason for existing, with the result, I contend, that the independent sector now runs the risk of losing its independence.


Several months before the 2000 presidential election – it could be next summer – a reporter in Florida was sent out to interview citizens about why they thought the upcoming presidential election was important. She approached two retirees relaxing by the pool and popped her question, “Why is the upcoming presidential election important to you?”

Without hesitation, the first retiree responded, “The Supreme Court.” The second quickly added, “The economy.” And then almost in unison they said, “The culture.”

The reporter blinked, “The economy I expected, and the Supreme Court I understand, but the culture? What do you mean?”

The first retiree looked square at her, said, “Who controls the culture . . .

And the second retiree finished his sentence, “ . . . controls the story the nation tells itself.”

“Who controls the culture, controls the story the nation tells itself.” What is the story our nation is presently telling itself? Who is telling the story?

With all the day-to-day demands of our jobs, it is easy, I think, for any one of us to lose sight of the fact that what each one of us does in the arts and humanities is at the center of democratic action and that our program choices and their design, seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, have real consequences for the future. But they do. And I expect that it was this realization about the power of the arts and humanities that gave Walter Capps the drive to go into politics. I like to think that many of us here tonight, myself included, are in the spirit of Walter Capps, and it has been an honor to present to you the 2003 lecture dedicated to his memory and to the democratic ideals that he practiced.

Cite This

Dudley Cocke. “The Arts and Humanities in a Democracy.” May 1, 2014.

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