Is Bad Framing Killing the Arts?

In fine arts, a good frame can help us appreciate why an artist chose to focus on a particular vision or give us an appropriate context for approaching a work of art. Imagine an elaborately carved gilt frame on a Fragonard or a simple rustic frame on Grant Wood and you get the picture.

In language, a good frame can help us understand a particular idea or view that idea in a more favorable context. You’ve heard the phrase “climate change” a million times, for example, but you might not know that the expression was “framed” by the Bush administration as a value-neutral alternative to the more ominous sounding “global warming.”

Framing is a practice that’s employed by persuasion experts in politics, religion, business and public policy to sway opinion. Listen closely to the debate on same-sex marriage and you’ll hear one side using a “marriage equality” frame while the other uses a “redefining marriage” frame. If you’re hearing more discussions of “intelligent design” than “creationism” these days it’s because evangelical Christians made a calculated choice to frame their perspective with more positive words. Yesterday there was a story on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” about the mining industry’s efforts to replace the word “fracking” with a less aggressive sounding alternative. And there’s no denying that an “emerging nation” is a more positive sounding place than a “third world country.”

Language experts like Frank Luntz and George Lakoff have taught us that if we want to persuade people to do what we want them to do (vote, worship, buy, support, etc.) we have to take control of the language we use and select strategic frames that will sway opinion in our direction. Those who heed their advice stand a far greater chance of succeeding than those who employ passive language and allow the marketplace or competitors to choose which frames will be used to view their products or ideas.

Unfortunately, the only place you’re likely to find strategic framing in the arts is on gallery walls. As an industry we mistake cutesy sloganeering (Ya Gotta Have Arts!) for strategic policy frames, and as organizations we speak a goofy, self-centered nonsense language (Celebrate Live Performance!) that has no credible strategic underpinnings. We do possess the power to seize control of our persuasive communications, and we have the ability to make our language do our bidding, but we squander that power every time we release a message that isn’t part of an overarching, audience-centered strategic messaging plan.

At some point we have to decide if we’re an elite, marginal, diminishing, frivolous, academic, pompous, out-of-touch, narcissistic, old-fashioned, needy, condescending, clichéd, stuffy, whining, artsy-fartsy, [insert existing public frame here] industry, or if we’re a strong, healthy, worthy, relevant, humble, generous, audience-oriented provider of rewarding, uplifting, indispensable, valuable, artful entertainment. The day we decide to choose the frames and use them with deliberate forethought to shape public perception is the day we begin taking control of our destiny. And it’s probably also the day we stop losing and start gaining audiences.

It’s hard to imagine a museum curator allowing the public to choose which frames go on the paintings, yet when we fail to shape audience perceptions with strategic language, we surrender our ability to frame our art in the most attractive manner.

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I’m going to write more about how arts organizations can begin the framing process in subsequent posts, but right now I want to thank my Twitter buddy Dustin Nay for mentioning framing yesterday and helping me stay even more on message.

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