To Outrageous Ambition

This post by Cal Performances Director of Artistic Literacy Sabrina Klein is the first in a series introducing the people and purposes that have inspired this website and spearheaded the development of our Artistic Literacy Institute. We hope you’ll join us as we explore the issues at the core of our work and invite ongoing conversation and collaboration!

Outrageous ambition.

I first heard this phrase—outrageous ambition—in 2012, as I was coordinating a music education symposium at Berkeley. Our keynote speaker was Eric Booth, an expert on the global movement embracing El Sistema, and he had chosen to speak on each of the ten elements he finds “fundamental” to El Sistema-style programs and impact. I remember appreciating, throughout, his focus and intelligence, but it was ultimately what he called out as “outrageous ambition” that reached out and knocked me upside the head.

In the written form of his presentation, Booth makes a powerful distinction between experiences that are “positive” and those that are “life transformative,” ultimately asserting that

the catalyst that makes for a life transformative impact is not just the aspiration for excellence, but the degree of hunger driving the aspiration for excellence; it always leans toward the highly-ambitious end of every opportunity, sometimes bordering on the outrageous to the norms of Western classical tradition.

The recognition I felt upon hearing these ideas clarified the value I place not merely in ambition, but in ambition that seems improbable, transgressive, outsized. These ideas excite and inspire me. They reflect my own desire to assert big vision, and they capture the experience of believing as I do about artistic literacy—of feeling absolutely driven to match ambition with belief and belief with action.

Yet, in the years since hearing Booth speak, “outrageous ambition” has also come to represent for me the degree to which improbability, transgression, and excess loom as obstacles for even the most receptive of audiences.

• • •

I’ve spent over three decades of my life working with government and not-for-profit entities dedicated to exploring arts-based social change. My drive to do this work runs deep and extends all the way back to my first professional job: running and creating educational theater programs for Kaiser Permanente.

Not only did Kaiser provide training for me in behavioral change theory and practice, it also offered then-groundbreaking “diversity training” [1] and a foundation in social change models, all of which encouraged me to continue exploring what I could do to improve the corner of the world I live in.

In each of my roles since then, I’ve taken my central charge to be one of discovering, sharing, and refining practices that leverage what the arts have to offer for teaching, learning, community-building, leadership, conflict management, creativity, empathy, spiritual development, and dozens of other experiences and outcomes that inspire individuals and make societies a better place.

And in the course of all this work, over and over again, I have run up against the limits and frustrations imposed by an insistence on small goals.

As a consultant, I’ve had many clients retreat from making public assertions about their beliefs in the power of the work they do. They are afraid, I suspect, of being called to account for not achieving world peace despite, say, believing that one important step toward achieving world peace is dealing with global hunger. I even watched a client—a city arts council—go from enthusiastically agreeing that the arts create joy in communities to refraining entirely from making the word “joy” a part of their public statement.

At one point, a member of an arts advocacy group I participated with helped me articulate my frustration. I’d facilitated a countywide alliance for the arts that had agreed, over an extended community dialogue, that they believed the arts belonged in “Every Classroom, Every School, Every Day.” It was a pretty good tagline (was even eventually and briefly picked up by the state department of education), but right away, people wanted to chip away at it; they wanted our public declarations to reflect a goal that was “achievable,” “realistic,” or, I don’t know, maybe humbler?

Observing this, my fellow advocacy group member, an experienced smoke-free-environment activist, pointed out to the group that “music once a week for every third grader” (both potentially achievable and conceivably realistic) was neither very inspirational nor particularly useful as a rallying cry. It wasn’t even a particularly valuable stand-alone goal in the large-world changes that needed to be made to create equitable classrooms and differentiated learning environments across our diverse county.

• • •

For any large goal to be achieved, many small steps must of course be articulated in between. In between is where achievable, bite-sized goals belong. But when it comes to rallying calls for action, I’ve always passionately embraced big vision.

In dedicating this blog post to Booth’s phrase, therefore, I invite us all not to be afraid of grand thinking, passionate words, sharing beliefs in public that we are okay sharing in private. I invite us to hold ourselves accountable for outrageous (at times even outraging) ambition.

We’ll have plenty of time to discuss artistic literacy as both a concept and a framework—to relate the many details of our work and thinking, and to tease out and refine each of our “fundamental elements.” Our “What Is Artistic Literacy?” page is a living document, destined to be improved through conversation and camaraderie.

I also want to declare, however, that it seems exactly ambitious enough to me to cite Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a statement that equates arts access with a fundamental experience of humanity—and strive to transform that declaration into reality.

It seems exactly ambitious enough to ask that artistic literacy be recognized, alongside linguistic and numerical literacy, as crucial to our ability to express and make meaning of our lives.

It seems exactly ambitious enough to hold as our goal “Artistic Literacy for All.”

These ambitions are commensurate with the beliefs that precede them. By stating them out loud, we acknowledge, celebrate, and make room for our degree of hunger.

[1] Diversity training is in quotes because this was early days for the field and most of the training aimed to help us women and people of color understand straight white male culture so that we could play nice. To be fair, this very soon shifted toward mutual development of an inclusionary work culture. I was fortunate to be present both in genuinely awful trainings by extremely enthusiastic (albeit poorly trained themselves) “expert” facilitators and in trainings that provided life-changing clarity that still runs deep in me.