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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” (Lewis G. Carroll, Through The Looking Glass)

Certain words seem to be evergreen in artworlds: quality, excellence, innovation. We use them so often, it’s natural to assume that we know what they mean. But whenever I hear them, the first thing I want to know is this: who’s talking? Each of these words can only be understood as a comparison: This is an excellent work of art; that isn’t. And comparisons can only be made by a specific judging intelligence: In my opinion, this is an excellent work of art; and that isn’t. Without considering the source of judgment—and the purpose for which it has been made—we can’t have more than a vague idea of what is being said.

I want to look at the word innovation in this artworld context. I will tell you a few stories, show you a few facets, and ask a few questions that I hope you will want to ask too.

I do a lot of speaking at university arts departments. Sometimes I am asked to do critique sessions with individual students; they get to check off a requirement, and the department gets full value from its investment in my fees and expenses. The experience that sticks most firmly in my mind was a sequence of encounters with graduate students in painting and sculpture. All three were young women, and all three greeted me at the doors to their studios with the don’t hit me expression I associate with those who’ve been abused. They showed me work, I asked questions and shared my responses, and at the end of the session, all three volunteered that the experience had been nothing like prior critiques. Two of them cried as they said this.

Naturally, I asked how a typical critique session had gone. What questions were asked? What observations were made? I’m betting you can guess the most popular questions: What are your influences here? With which artists or movements to you feel an affinity? How would you situate your work in art history?  One young woman, who made lightly surreal etchings of human-animal hybrids, beautifully executed, told me that her professor said she seemed to be interested in “mere beauty,” and was she truly serious about her art?

You know what the most popular response was? I find your work derivative. Evidently this was said without irony, even when preceded by a raft of questions about the influences from which the work derived.

I thought four things in response: first, I wondered how many arts professors saw their work as an opportunity to enact on their students the cynical discouragement that had been meted out to themselves (perhaps in the name of toughening them up)—and in the case of the last professor, to punish a student for his own inability to draw beautifully. Second, I wondered at the aggregate impact on young artists of this pressure to see one’s work as a dialogue with art history rather than with the world. In any discipline or medium, when artists are encouraged to understand that their primary creative relationship is with other artists, dead or alive, the field of possibility narrows, the discourse becomes cramped, and the whole enterprise shrinks to a game of inside-baseball. Third, I felt the sadness of an arts education in which the most important educational aim—to help a student most fully realize his or her own essence and potential, without comparison with others—had been so entirely forgotten. And fourth, I wondered how and why derivativeness (the opposite of innovation) had become both a virtue and a flaw.

So when the word innovation surfaces I want to know: who’s asking?

Critics often approach work with a grid of influences in their heads, silently ticking off those boxes as they go: that reminds me of X, this of Y, and so on. If a play offers a fresh frisson to someone who has previously seen everything—well, that’s a high recommendation, but not necessarily an ultimate or even general value for those who don’t carry this history of theater in their heads.

Funders constantly search for a knife that will allow them to pare the worthy few away from the great mass of perfectly valid requests they receive. Excellence is always a great tool for that purpose because its subjectivity renders it immune to invalidation. Innovation is almost as good, since it too is in the eye of the beholder.

I have two quarrels with each of these knives: first, they are almost always allowed to stand without interrogation. What do you mean by that? ought to be the first question after a verdict on either excellence or innovation is offered. But some people find it hard to challenge the pronouncements of those who can affect their funding or reputation. Second, the way they are deployed is often so constrained by a conventional framework that the critics and funders wielding these knife-words fail to see how their own prejudices and blind-spots have annealed into judgments.

I am often asked to speak about socially engaged art: projects that emerge from a collaboration between a theater and other community members, for instance; or that aim to awaken empathy and imagination concerning a pressing social issue; or that embody and express voices that aren’t often heard on main-stages, and in that intention, enlarge the very notion of art. Almost always, in the Q&A that follows, someone in the audience says, “I just don’t feel that excellence is the aim, because some of that art isn’t very good.”

Well, yes. Some of that art isn’t very good, and no matter who is judging—audience members, critics, other artists—some of the art displayed in marble halls between red-velvet curtains isn’t very good either. It’s just that the sight of all that velvet tends to suppress judgment. My rough guess is that when work is considered in light of its own aims and criteria, the range of judges would turn up roughly the same proportion of excellent to not regardless of venue and framing.

Just so with innovation. There, two questions are needed: What do you mean by that, and why do you care? If something is creative, powerful, moving, engaging, thought-providing, activating, or touches our hearts or minds in other ways, what value is added if an authority deems it innovative? Other than its utility as a knife, serving the felt need to pare away some work so as to give attention and resources to a gatekeeper’s manageable number of other works, what independent value does innovation have? I’m not asserting that there’s no answer; but if we sever the concept of innovation from its utility for critics and funders, a convincing answer has yet to be offered.

By now, I imagine most artists interested in this theme are familiar with Jonathan Lethem’s tour-de-force 2007 essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which makes the undeniable point that everything is derivative, even when the artist is unaware of borrowing, and ends with an acknowledgement of all the phrases he “stole, warped, and cobbled together” to make his essay.

Given all that, if we are to accept a pronouncement that’s as ultimately indefensible as a thumbs up or down on innovation, we should at least enlarge the category. Way too often, those deeply aligned with a received idea of innovation fail to see that making theater in new places, or with very different people, or for different purposes entails just as much innovation as making it with new technologies, time-shifts, or other formal experiments. And when something that matters is really riding on the verdict—a grant, access to a venue, a critic’s impact on audiences—a narrow definition of innovation does active harm.

Every field has words that function as knives. I’ve just written two books devoted in large part to deconstructing the edifices of assumption and narrow-mindedness that litter our art worlds: The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future and The Wave. If you’re in New York on May 23rd or Berkeley on June 2nd, please come to my book launches. I think I’ve got something new to say, but it’s the soundness of my ideas and observations and not their newness that will make them worth considering.

Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. Her blog and other writings may be downloaded from her Web site: She was born in New York and grew up near San Francisco. Her two newest books on art’s public purpose—The Wave and The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future were published in spring 2013. Prior books include New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, Community, Culture and Globalization, an international anthology published by the Rockefeller Foundation, Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, and Clarity, a novel. Her essays have been published in In Motion Magazine, Art in America, Theatre, Tikkun, and many other journals. She has addressed many academic and community audiences in the U.S. and Europe on topics ranging from the ethics of community arts practice to the development of integral organizations. She has provided advice and counsel to hundreds of community-based organizations, independent media groups, and public and private funders and policymakers including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Independent Television Service, Appalshop and dozens of others. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center.