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In Defense of Disorder: Topple the “Culture Czar,” Part I (UPDATED)

Quincy Jones

I’ve got nothing against better coordination among government programs involving the arts and humanities. Regular meetings of representatives from the relevant offices and agencies could foment creative synergies. Perhaps a White House official with advisory, not managerial, responsibilities could help facilitate this without inserting what we emphatically DON’T need—an extra layer of bureaucratic control over our nation’s cultural activity.

The notion of a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture, advocated in a petition (167,533 signatories, at this writing) promoted by Quincy Jones, music producer and Friend of Barack, runs contrary to the pluralistic, appropriately disorderly nature of creative life in this country. As we saw during the culture wars of the 1990s, which imposed decency standards on federal arts grants, anything that potentially makes the arts into more of a political football is fraught with peril.

It’s time for the artistic community—artists, museums, performing arts groups—to counter the push by Jones and other Secretary of Culture advocates—including William Ferris, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors (see pages 4-5)—who think like the bureaucratic class, not the creative class. More government oversight will inevitably lead to more government interference and control.

For more on this issue, see the Washington Post‘s Quincy Jones Leads Chorus Urging a Cabinet-Level Arts Czar by Jacqueline Trescott, and listen to National Public Radio‘s Does U.S. Need a Culture Czar? by Elizabeth Blair. Jones told Blair that he “doesn’t know” whether he’d like the arts cabinet post himself.

UPDATE: I just looked again at the petition site, and the number of signatories is surging by leaps and bounds. Can anyone stand in front of this runaway train? Support of the arts shouldn’t be equated with supporting a Secretary of Culture. I fear that, in many people’s minds, it is.

Part II is here.

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