January 28, 2010 Archives

If a culture czar or czarina, and those under their management, represent a diverse, eclectic group of Americans, I don't see the mark of elitism as being much of a problem. Well, let me rephrase, anymore then it already is.

I do think our current President has enough czars for the time being, and more will just be written of as big government liberalism. A centrist Republican, a Bloomberg type, is the ideal champion if we're talking about the federal government.

The worry is no central authority will make a habit of defending or funding work that some will find offensive. Maybe the right to express it will be defended, but the work itself wont be embraced. Which really gives this authority no real currency with artists. Perhaps this central authority functions more like the MPAA, a lobbying group with industry, not government funding. Though even with the MPAA, that relationship between public and private is too cozy for some filmmakers.

What if this central authority's main purpose is simply to seed this notion of an expressive life into the soil of America. That seems like a more realistic goal. Education first, not oversight, evaluation, or management. That may mean no grants, no awards, just outreach and communication. Can you imagine the Ad Council producing posters and TV commercials promoting a concept like the expressive life? Maybe they already do, but it's just not as funded as anti-smoking campaigns.

I guess the question is, what are the goals here, and what's priority one? To convince millions of Americans that arts and culture, learning to express yourself creatively, are worthwhile pursuits? Are we seeing the current landscape dominated by corporate interests and new technological realities, and we're struggling to make sense of it all? Or are we fighting to make arts a priority in American education in the same way athletics is, hoping the next generation will pick up the baton for us? Ok, enough, Doug and Bill get to ask the questions.
January 28, 2010 6:16 PM | | Comments (2) |

Like Marian, I'm going to do some digesting overnight and weigh back in tomorrow after some thinking and a few glasses of wine.  But I am pleased that Marian doesn't feel that expressive life automatically tilts away from heritage.  Artistic heritage attached to ethnicity and nationality has certainly been an area of growth within expressive life.  My guess is that much of the at-home music making and dance that have been tracked in recent participation surveys are grounded in community folk traditions, and certainly making this kind of art making part of the big picture is a good thing.

Martha has raised an important question.  I'm not at all certain that the U.S. needs a central cultural authority -- certainly not right now.  But I believe the nation's expressive life has drifted without regard to public purposes in large part because authority in cultural matters is split up and assigned to dozens of government departments and agencies.  Copyright is attached to LC, which also is involved in heritage preservation, as is the Smithsonian Institution.  The FCC attempts to influence the content of broadcasting, and also weighs in on media mergers and acquistions, but it also handles telecommunications.  Trade in cultural goods is aggressively promoted by both the Dept. of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and support for cultural nonprofits falls to the NEA, and to a certain extent NEH and IMLS.  Although the FCC may comment on a merger, it is really both the FTC and the Department of Justice who have the final say, and it is the Broadcasting Board of Governors that manages the Voice of America and a number of Arabic-language stations.  The Department of Defense is very involved in community cultural work and in broadcasting, although much of this activity is secret, and the Department of State has an Office of Public Diplomacy managed at the undersecretary level, while the USAID program supports traditional (folk) arts as a vehicle of community development in a number of countries.  The White House Social Office and the Office of the First Lady generate arts-oriented events in the White House, and the Administration's Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs mounts White House conferences.  The Department of Transportation spends money on the arts to beautify highways, and Interior -- through the Park Service -- produces arts events in national parks.  There is a National Council on the Arts, a Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, an IMLS board (they actually have 2), the National Council on the Humanities, and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.  Cultural issues hit Congress through the Judiciary, Commerce, and Interior Committees. The movement of art and artists across borders is controlled by the Dept. of Homeland Security.  And this is by no means a comprehensive list.  The result of course is that policy is made in tiny pieces, without reference to the way one small step in one agency might have significant unintended consequences in the province of another.  Congressional staffers that I know have become very uncomfortable crafting legislation in tiny snippets when they only hear from contending interested parties (record companies vs. radio, for example) and never get to think broadly about whether a proposed action is really in the public interest.

So I don't know if we need a central authority, but we at least need some real communication and coordination among the major players whose individual actions cumulatively shape the character of expressive life.  It would be fascinating and helpful just to get the key policy actors in a room.  Some of these characters, like Homeland Security or Social Security don't see themselves as cultural actors at all, so any coordination would have to start out with some remedial education.

What do others think?  My informal assessment is that this scattershot approach to policy affecting art has made it easy for commercial interests to control broadcasting spectrum, extend the footprint of IP, and generally hand over gobs of authority in cultural matters to self-interested market forces.  If Sony, BMI,Google, NBC, Apple, and Verizon would all object to central authority or coordination, we're probably onto something.

January 28, 2010 1:35 PM | | Comments (1) |
I won't have time today to think about, much less respond to, yesterday's rich series of posts.  Will catch up tomorrow.  But just a quick thought about something that has been bothering me about voice and heritage.

Yesterday Bill reiterated his concern that "It feels as if "creativity" in all its permutations pushes us toward "voice" and "awakening the imagination."  It's difficult to bring heritage into creativity, I think..."  I don't agree with this and I think Bill's concern may have embedded in it a kind of cultural bias.  It is often true that within the institutions that purvey and sustain a mainstream European (forgive the reductive terms) culture and heritage, the notion of "creativity" privileges voice over heritage and as such an emphasis on creativity seems to pose a threat to the sustainability or equal weight of heritage.

But in other communities, for example the newcomer communities in Philadelphia that include Cambodian and Hmong groups, the enterprise of young artists is specifically to synthesize voice and heritage, or at least to negotiate a balanced relationship between the two.  These artists start from a stance of exploring their own creative expression but do so overtly within the context of the cultural heritage from which they come.  Russell's example of the graffiti artist's encounter with conservators is another example of a more nuanced relationship between voice and heritage. 

I keep returning to Jim Early's previous post and comment because one of the things he is talking about also seems to connect to this subject--that we have yet to give equal privilege and value to cultural expressions from all quarters in our consideration of the cultural landscape and our current, limited and flawed, cultural policies.
January 28, 2010 7:42 AM | |
This blogathon is in danger of getting bogged down in a contradiction of its own making.

By contradiction I don't mean disagreement.  On the contrary, the level of agreement is thoroughgoing.  The problem is, the two propositions that everyone seems to agree about are contradictory.

First, there is a general sense that "we" need some sort of centralized cultural authority to deal in a coherent and coordinated fashion with the array of issues raised by Bill Ivey.

Second, the prevailing mantra is that cultural authority is bad, especially when it is centralized.

Bill has done an admirable job of raising a set of interrelated issues and tracing the connections among them.  But while no one is proposing a U.S. minister of culture (or to use the more likely term, culture czar), many of the arguments posted here point to a desire for some national entity powerful enough to direct resources in a more fruitful direction, maximize the amount of expressive life flowing in all directions, and (most important) re-order the perverse priorities of an irresponsible private sector.

I am in sympathy with all of these aims, and I will leave aside for the moment the question of whether the government has either the power or the will to impose any sort of curbs on the entertainment industry.

The point is, you can't want a culture czar and at the same time decry any exercise of evaluative judgment as "elitism."  (In arts circles, I find that  "elitism" is like "racism," an epithet that effectively paralyzes thought.)

Resources aren't infinite, and the unspoken goal of every human being's self-expression being appreciatively received by every other human being is absurd.  So choices must be made, and unless the cultural marketplace is to become even more of a lottery than it is now, those choices must be based on some sort of evaluative judgment.

So elitism -- i.e. cultural authority -- is required if "we" are going to achieve any of the goals presented here.
January 28, 2010 7:29 AM | |

I believe Adrian, Alan, and Andras are all raising the right questions.  Andras makes the point that we've tried a research agenda, and it didn't take.  It didn't feel this way in the late '90s but my sense today is that our timing was off by about a decade.  Right now everybody seems at least open to fresh look at the sector, and I bet if money were available, we'd be working with an arts field much more open to authentic new knowledge (as opposed to advocacy arguments) than was the case ten or fifteen years ago.

I've been thinking about our big, fine arts organizations while this blog has progressed.  I get the sense that the nonprofit sector -- especially the "big dog fields" like museums, orchestras, dance companies, opera companies -- are today in something of a defensive crouch.  There are many reasons for this, burt it shouldn't be; the fine arts remain a huge and critical part of America's expressive life.  I think we need to ask a new question, "What is the unique role of our Europe-derived fine arts in heritage, voice, and quality of life?"  That is actually a very hard question; in the past a high value has pretty much been assumed.  I think, however, that the nonprofit fine arts have a unique and irreplaceable function in society, but smart people need to really dig in and figure out how to talk about say, classical music or ballet in relation to other kinds of music making, music consumption, and dance.  Alan makes the point that we simply haven't connected with the tradition of homegrown social dancing that he uncovered in California.  The question is, "If you dance at home, why should you connect with modern dance or ballet downtown, and how can you do it?  You dance within your community and family tradition; why should your make the dance tradition of others your own?"  If the fine arts have maxed out working to engage policy leaders as the "be-all and end-all of all art," what is a truer and more-effective way of assigning the value that is certainly there?

But I agree with Adrian that we can measure expressive life.  We have the ability to not only count orchestra attendance and the other usual markers, but we can count the number of locally-written stories on the front page of the paper, the number of music students with private teachers, and the number studying at places like Guitar Center.  We can count independent book stores and nightclubs with live music, Internet and cable penetration, and count the classical players who teach on the side.  Measuring a long list of indicators (and the National Arts Index is a start) will enable us to assess health of community expressive life and open the door to a new generation of cultural plans that may be more compelling than those of the past.

But, as Andras reminds us: "Who will pay to acquire this new knowledge?"

January 28, 2010 7:25 AM | |
The previous two posts, in particular, serve as a reminder that we lack broad, independent research and think-tank infrastructure to deliver the kind of informed, disinterested, inclusive measures--and the debates surrounding them--that are key to the sort of enlightened arts policy that Bill is challenging us to imagine. 

We tried. The money ran out. The same funding mindset that has a hard time going beyond direct subsidies to nonprofits and attacking system-wide concerns also has a really hard time devoting money to this kind of research and thinking capacity. As a result, it is left to advocacy groups and market-research and consulting firms. Their efforts are well intentioned, but they will not provide a credible long-term basis for objectively-rooted policy to get us to the next step. 
January 28, 2010 5:53 AM | | Comments (2) |

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