Citizen planners, unite!
Posted: 10.15.12 BY: Philip Barash
I do not envy cultural planners their jobs.
Capturing the whole of culture was less of a methodological obstacle three decades ago, when the city's previous Cultural Plan was drafted. Then, it might still have been possible to say just what constitutes culture, to delineate "culture" from everything else -- from "not culture". It might have been possible to define culture as a finite set of institutions and products that, collectively, represented the totality of the city's scene. And so it might have still been possible to take a full inventory of culture, accounting for all of its known species, the way Borges's fictitious taxonomists did.
Today's planners have a far more daunting task. After the aptly-named culture wars of the 60s and 70s, the category of "culture" got really elastic really quickly. Despite objections of scholars like Alan Bloom, who hoped to bulwark "high" culture against the tides of colloquial, ethnic, ritual, improvisational, and (gasp!) popular culture, we now tend to think of culture as all-encompasing, something that takes place in and around our daily lives. Watching a YouTube video? Going to a neighborhood festival? Checking out a new restaurant? Trying on clothes? Reading this blog? Congratulations: you are participating in culture.
For today's planners, then, taking a full inventory isn't feasible. And even if it were, such an inventory would be obsolete from the moment it was published.
If it serves one overarching purpose, the new Chicago Cultural Plan reminds us that we produce and consume culture in a dizzying variety of modes. One distinction that the Plan removes, for example, is between the nonprofit sector and the commercial production of arts and culture. That's a good move: from the point of view of cultural consumers, nonprofit arts centers and for-profit fashion designers, say, are really more alike than not.
Another important feature of the Cultural Plan is that it views itself as an aspirational document. Rather than capturing a snapshot of all cultural production, the Plan seeks trends and patterns that ought to be encouraged. It identifies areas that can be strengthened by easing or expediting the permitting process, for instance, and suggests ways to integrate arts and culture more organically into other areas under the City's purview, such as infrastructure, economic development, and housing. In other words, the Plan suggests a trajectory that will get Chicago to a future state.
The planners' task may be unenviable, but, in a way, the burden of planning was spread among the dozens of us -- consumers, producers, and curators of culture -- who contributed an opinion, voiced a desire, took up a position. Me, I'm glad to have shouldered some of that burden. And proud to be a Citizen Planner.