Hey, Wild Bill, Wait for Me!

By Jim Smith

     Running to catch up on this week's conversation, I feel like the old, raspy-voiced character actor Andy Devine shouting out to Wild Bill Hickok (those of a certain age, that is to say most of you, will remember him). Like Andy, I need a faster pony to catch up.  Or maybe I just need to think like all the other under-horsed side kicks of yore -- find a short cut or head back to the ranch.

     I want to address two topics. First, we've been discussing the fragmented state of our cultural policy-making for at least twenty years. Quite often that conversation has deviated from the rather straightforward question of policy coordination to the historically weighty subject of cultural czars and cultural authority. There have been several proposals for coordinating mechanisms, including those laid out in a decade old briefing paper from the Center for Arts and Culture. This is simply to say that the problem of policy fragmentation has been identified (and nicely summarized and updated in one of Bill's recent posts). There are ideas for how coordinating mechanisms might work and where they might be lodged. Sadly, we've not acted on them.

      When I've wondered why we've taken no action, I've always looked back (way back since, like Andy, I ride a slow nag) and asked what other policy domains have struggled to find structures to coordinate and integrate their policy making.  Federal budget policy was always a mess (still is, for that matter) and efforts to coordinate it have been a long, slow slog since the 1910s and the creation of the Bureau of the Budget (with the out-sourcing of some of its analytic work to Brookings in the late 1910s and 1920s); it continued with the creation of the Congressional Budget Office in the 1970s and the reforms of BOB that gave us OMB; a cluster of independent think tanks and analytic groups also sprang up to operate outside the formal boundaries of the policy process. Other policy domains -- think of the establishment of the NSC and the 70-year struggle to coordinate national security policy or the creation of the Council of Economic Advisers in 1946 -- have dealt with their particular problems of policy fragmentation. Is it any surprise that cultural policy coordination is a challenge? Is it worth looking at these other mechanisms more carefully? 

      I said I had two topics, this is a seque to the second, if anyone is counting. I'm now heading back to the ranch and to the value of thinking in terms of "expressive life." 

      I would argue that when other policy domains have ultimately succeeded, they have been shaped less by a cluster of related problems and plaintive cries about perceived needs than by the emergence of analytic insights and tools and by the cadres of professionals who embrace those tools. 

      The story of budget policy coordination begins with the invention of new corporate accounting methods in the late 19th century, the emergence of training in public administration early in the 20th century, the embrace of Keynesian economics in the 1930s...quick sand ahead if this saga were to continue. Similarly, the beginnings of social security and other social welfare programs can be traced to the work of actuaries and demographers who had devised new ways of thinking about sharing collective risks. The field of national security owed much to the systems analysis and operations research that flowed out of World War II.

     I've only mentioned the intellectual beginnings in these fields, not traced their evolution or acknowledged the contrarian intellectual strains that often have pushed back against these analytic methods. The anti-Scientific Revolution of the late twentieth century, the critique of the expert class, is another story (cup of tea, anyone?).  

     I think the promise of "expressive life" for our artistic and cultural realm resides not so much in its rhetorical promise or its re-framing potential but in its analytic heft. We are learning more about what makes us human from new research in evolutionary psychology, animal behavior, neuroscience, behavorial economics and the other disciplines (the old fields of archaeology and anthropology are also contributing). We are peering more deeply into the brain and looking back at our evolving primate selves to better understand our essentially social nature.  (Bill has reminded us on several occasions about developments in the new field of "happiness" research).  

     Over the past decade or so, many of us came to understand that we were not on solid policy ground (or on the most defensible cultural terrain) in making economic arguments for the value of the arts. The RAND studies helped us think about the "intrinsic" values of the arts, drawing on diverse disciplines. "Expressive life" opens up an even more robust way of pursuing those questions. There's obviously much more to say about what we are learning about the place of the arts in human evolution, both inside the brain and in our social interactions. But my last word in the post is simply "Whoa!" [Does anyone know the name of Andy Devine's horse?]


   P.S. to Marian -- If our creativity begins with utterances that become language that assume narrative form (and are perhaps accompanied by other narrative embellisments, song and dance), is there a tension between voice and heritage?


January 29, 2010 7:09 AM | |


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

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