It Can't Be Just About Artists
Lynne, Chris, and Nathanial mention "norms" and "cultural rights," which encourages me to shift the conversation away from the standing or condition of artists toward consideration of broad norms and how they might support a cultural rights argument as a way of advancing a vibrant expressive life as a public good. In my book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, I advance six citizen rights that can ground the cultural system in public purposes. The two most-important cultural rights, to me, are the Right to Heritage and the Right to a Creative Life. The first is about access and ownership (Who "owns" Louis Armstrong's classic "West End Blues," Sony Music or the American people?); the second about arts learning and access to the tools of personal creative practice.
Of course, as Chris would agree, there is currently no norm to support this set of rights. Cultural engagement is seen as an amenity, something to take up when all material needs have been addressed (we never get to that point!). Perhaps we can learn some things from the environmental movement that facilitated the creation of a norm back in the early 1960s? Obviously, "clean air" or "save the earth" are at first blush more compelling than "culture and a high quality of life," but I believe we can begin to talk about access to heritage and access to personal creative practice as essential elements of quality of life in a post-consumerist democracy. The environmental movement began a process that ended with legislation, an environmental council, and ultimately a government reorganization that gave us the EPA. With cards played patiently, we might just get to that department of cultural affairs.
However we proceed, toward a norm or as advocates for cultural rights, I think it's important to remember that our arguments must advance on behalf of citizens, not only artists. After all, good health policy is not just about the needs of doctors, nor is transportation policy only about structural engineers and roadbuilders. Ultimately the best system of media ownership, Internet openness and access, copyright, and public media is a good one because it serves all citizens, not just practitioners.
And, while I concur with Nathanial that "getting the policy right" won't automatically produce positive change, we already have plenty of accumulated evidence that getting the policy wrong can do real damage.
What do you think? How can we advance cultural vibrancy as a public good? (And I don't mean economic impact...)
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