Recently by Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University
Late in my tenure as NEA chairman I awakened to the the truth that copyright extension, the DMCA, the demise of the USIA, and the 1996 Telecom Act had profoundly reshaped our cultural system, and no one from the "arts community" had been engaged in the runnup to these legislative, regulatory, and administrative transformations. What had passed for policy work in the arts during the Clinton administration had been about re-energizing the Arts Endowment, and while it was good to see the NEA budget grow again, the lack of interest in the system in which art gets created, distributed, consumed, and preserved was, to say the least, alarming.
Two reasons jump out at me: First, the policy arenas that define the US cultural system -- intellectual property, fair use, union contracts, media ownership, Internet opennesss and access, licensing agreements, mergers within the arts industries, the promotion of American entertainment products abroad, trademark, name-and-likeness rights -- are legalistic, technical, complex, and take both artists and nonprofit arts organizations into territory where few feel at ease. Also, I suspect that many fine arts nonprofits have viewed laws and regulations that determine the character of our cultural system as a slightly-distasteful necessity generated by the nasty "commercial" sector: thus hands off.
Second, when it comes to advocacy, there's no "there there" to push against. With copyright housed in the Library of Congress, trademark in its own department, mergers approved by Dept. of Justice and the FTC, movies and recordings promoted abroad by the Office of the US Trade Representative, nonprofit funding in the NEA, broadcasting with the FCC, the Internet with...Well, you get my point. We've evolved some very capable advocacy groups over the past decade (many represented in this blog), but at the end of the day, they can only nibble away at their designated issue. In the big picture no single entity in the arts has emerged to speak for the American people in addressing the big question of balancing market forces against the public's interest in a vibrant, open cultural life. Friends on this blog will not be surprised when they see me state again that we need a department of cultural affairs. Until we have a central hub that can engage the issues affecting America's expressive life the way the EPA centers environmental debate, we'll be punching pillows and the marketplace will rule.
Thanks to Marian for reminding us that the nonprofit sector remains a source of responsible adult leadership when it comes to questions of heritage, creativity, and the public interest.
Today arts managers, and just about everybody who cares about art, artists, and cultural vitality is talking about the need for a new approach and a new beginning. To me expressive life, with its suggestion of a more-inclusive cultural sector claiming a more-elemental role in democracy, offers a banner behind which smart, new arguments can proceed. I don't know when our Blogmeister will cut us off, but this is probably the time for final thoughts...
To paraphrase Marian: let's find an opportunity to keep this going...
And Nashville's snow is turning to freezing rain...
This has been an enjoyable, stimulating conversation over the past five days and I suspect it will take a while for each of us to untangle its many threads in order to extract maximum value.
Great fun for me!
I agree with Adrian that consideration of expressive life must be part and parcel rethinking in new ways about quality of life generally, and that Robert Lane's and Richard Layard's and other's work on happiness will be important companions as we re-value heritage and voice. Many observers of quality of life are critics of consumer values, and I suspect that to elevate expressive life as a destination for smart public policy we will have to help deflate consumerism. Back when I was working in the Obama transition the economic situation looked so dire that a number of us on that team felt that the U.S. would be forced to rethink core values, as was the case in the 1930s, and consumerism might be pushed off its throne. Although that big reset didn't happen it still looks like a modest one is in play -- our standard of living is unlikely to return to credit-driven excess, and I suspect market fundamentalism is properly and fatally wounded. Perhaps the immediate value in defining expressive life boldly and specifically is to allow a new view of culture in society to stand in the wings ready to bolt onstage when old values and assumptions exit?
The quotation provided by Andrew's dad is apt; if we want to rename the cultural sector we must also reshape it. My argument, of course, has been that the pieces of a new model of culture in society are lying about, and we can make great progress by simply scooping up things like media policy, intellectual property, trade in cultural goods, international cultural engagement, and regulation of mergers and acquisitions to flesh out the content of our new term, expressive life.
Throughout Andras has reminded us of the limitations of our existing portfolio. Each of us, in one way or another, is an "arts person," and it is reasonable to ask if voices steeped in the nonprofit arts can suddenly stand up and advocate for changes in language and substance that will reshape the character of our field. This is especially problematic because the payoff to be derived from an ambitious, expressive-life frame is off in the future, while present concerns about deficits, endowment shrinkage, etc. is with leaders in our field every day. We will certainly have to enlist the help of the legal crew -- Larry Lessig, et al -- who are working to humanize the IP regime, focusing on law and the courts, and there are also dynamic potential partners in public interest media. And we can certainly find passionate allies among the librarians, archivists, and documentary producers who are vexed by the cumbersome, permission-based system that stands between present-day creativity and heritage art. But despite the presence of quite a few relevant fellow-travelers, it still feels that those of us in what we have called "the cultural sector," though focused on nonprofits and the fine arts, are still best equipped to lead. I hope we can find a way to pick up the challenge.
There is good, helpful argument coming down the pike. Lewis Hyde's soon-to-be published book on 18th-century American thought and the real character of copyright will undermine many of the scandalous arguments advanced today by corporate copyright maximalists, and Matha Bayles' forthcoming volume will clarify the character of the relationship between American export culture and the rest of the world. Both of these works will help define the content and boundaries of expressive life, and I'm sure others on this blog have valuable projects underway.
Though narrowly constructed, our familiar formulation of "The Arts" has experienced remarkable growth. Lately Bob Lynch, of AFTA, has been reminding us that, between 2003 and 2008, a new cultural nonprofit was created every three hours (!). That said, all of this growth in organizations and dollars -- through foundations, the NEA, corporate giving, private contributions -- has been in service of something that is basically viewed as an amenity. Thus, The Arts, as we've defined them, grow flush in times of perceived surplus, only to be cut back sharply when fiscal restraint forces centers of power to focus on "real" issues -- health care, the environment, education (but not arts ed). Gates Foundation priorities, mirrored by government and engaged by business, end up setting the boundaries within which "legitimate" efforts to advance quality of life are carried out. But we know that quality of life depends on more than those crude markers of well-being that Gates will fund, but old words and and old definitions are insufficient. To spend more decades flogging away on behalf of "The Arts" at this point feels futile. On the other hand, advancing Expressive Life at least affords the possiblity of marking an important new path to a high quality of life in our democracy.
Thanks to Doug for putting this blog together, and to each of our participants for your many, many thoughtful contributions.
We're having a big snow in Music City...An excellent opportunity to link brandy with contemplation!
Andras asks what would be measured in determining the state of expressive life. I would make two points: First, this is not about selecting artists and art forms for special attention or support. My assumption is that in a more-coherent approach to the arts system we would still have agencies like the NEA that would gather expert opionion and dispatch checks (larger than those sent out these days, we would hope) to art making or preservation efforts deemed worthy. Government and philanthropic intervention in cultural vibrancy is important and, in an environment that honors expressive life as a public good, this part of the policy regime that deals with the arts should grow. But I don't think better coordination of policy affecting exprssive life should be about shaping content or picking winners and losers.
So the second, and to me more-critical point, is to bring some coordinated public-interest attention to the underlying structure, to the gatekeeping and pricing mechanisms that constitute the "rules of the cultural road" -- the laws, regulations, and practices that control access to heritage, to the tools of creativity, to the work of artists and arts organizations, and to bodies of shareable knowledge. Once we make the small leap of faith that believes an open system that enables access is "better" -- is a public good -- then there are plenty of things we can measure or count to see how different parts of the system are working.
So it's a bad thing if our copyright regime is so "heavy" that a classroom teacher is, for example, reluctant to produce a CD of classic African-American musical performances for student study because her school administration fears legal action. It's probably a good thing if a community features a number of neighborhood book stores. Likewise, it's probably good if there exists a mechanism to fund Internet connections for homes in poor neighborhoods, or that zoning restrictions are loose enough to make it easy for small Mexican restaurants to both sell beer and feature live music. It is probably good if the work of a symphony orchestra can be made widely available. If we take some time to list the many components that make up expressive life (and that process will be fascinating, fun, and not without argument), we will find many things that can be measured or counted, and many underlying policies or corporate practices that can be assessed and critiqued in relation to whether they open or clog the essential processes of creation, distribution, and consumption.
Now, the ultimate value -- the "big why" of all this -- requires another leap of faith. Andras quotes an arts leader: "Art makes better people." Artistic heritage and creativity are at the very center of expressive life, so this statement is not far off the mark. But how are we to justify or defend it?
A quick thought experiment:
Imagine a young man, reared in the Islamic faith in Nigeria. He's part of a well-to-do family, and with all best intentions, his father ships him off to a fine boarding school in England. He is devote, and struggles to fit in to an alien environment. Emails suggest he is lonely, without friends, and longs for a path to a meaningful life. He connects with an inspiring jihadist on the Internet, and leaves school on a path that leads to an attempted suicide bombing. Observers are stunned that a well-off, well educated youth make such choices. But imagine someone cut off from heritage and denied voice who finds a way to restore expressive life through devotion to a charismatic leader who offers a deep connection to heritage and an opportunity -- albeit a violent one -- to express his individual voice. Is the destruction, search for, and reconstruction of expressive life a useful lens in describing the terrorist impulse?
Or imagine American society reset to a persistantly-lower standard of living by the current recession. What is the pathway to quality of life in a post-consumerist democracy? A deeper connection with heritage and personal creativity -- a vibrant expressive life -- may not be the only alternative to materialism but it is a good one.
I've gone on too long. But art is at the center of expressive life, and it seems that expressive life, framed properly, does have an opportunity to aggressively claim a defining role in the lives of indivduals and communities: the kind of role meaningful to mainstream policy leaders. To state it simply, maybe art does make "better people?"
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.
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?"
Yes, yes, the air is thin up here. At the conclusion of a meeting I chaired here at the Curb Center a few years ago, the participants, at meeting's end, presented me with a sweatshirt embazoned with "Captain Macro." Alan has correctly nailed me as hopelessly addicted to the Big Picture.
A few quick bullets about points from Alan, Marian, Adrian, and Andras:
* 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, and the awakening the imagination stuff, through important, is also pretty easy for mainstream power to trivialize.
* Alan is right about "culture;" in policy conversation it's mostly used to invoke identity politics and that starting point is often unhelpful.
* Andras indicates that expressive life will (or does) produce "blank stares." To me this might be a good thing as we are afforded an opportunity to fill in those blanks. The problem with "art" and "culture" is that too many people think they already know exactly what the terms mean and that pre-sets the limits of any conversation.
* Adrian's question about who or what can actually carry a new policy frame forward identifies a huge problem. It's quite astonishing that in a society with such a vigorous and varied expressive life there's no single voice speaking for the public interest in relation to the whole. There are some scattered allies -- advocacy groups dealing with Internet access, and similar groups advancing fairness in media, localism in broadcasting, and so on. Also there are several organizations that advocate on behalf of a more-nuanced copyright/IP regime, and they would also be natural partners. But there exists no single entity that can walk into the office of a governor, member of congress, or FCC commission and say "We are the group that works to insure that America's expressive life is aligned with public purposes." I keep pressing our friends at Americans for the Arts to inch toward this role, and their National Arts Index certainly is based on many indicators that imply a broadening of their policy lens, but AFTA hasn't yet stepped out to claim this broader territory. Just as advocacy on behalf of nonprofit and artist funding would benefit if we were part of a larger policy sector, I think media and IP advocacy would also benefit through a connection with the nonprofit arts.
A quick anecdote to suggest the small ways in which public interest policies affecting expressive need to advance in the current environment. The Curb Center runs the Arts Industries Policy Forum in DC; it's funded by Ford, has 66 members, and brings together career staff from Commerce, Judiciary Committee, FCC, NEA, State -- many, many of the entities that work with legislation or regulation that shapes the US cultural system -- for bipartisan, policy neutral seminars on cultural topics. One Forum member, an FTC attorney, co-authored a paper arguing that, in the case of "three-to-two-mergers" in industries like health care and media, the effect of the merger on "consumer choice" should be as important as assessing the impact on "price." Now, this is a very specific recommendation and a bit arcane, but such a new policy would target mergers of, say, record companies, and would also help inflence big issues like access to heritage. If consumer choice had been taken into account by the Dept. of Justice and the FTC, would the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger been approved? Some day, a la the environmental movement, there might be one grooup that would make the case for expressive life and the public interest within our democracy. In the short run, we need to find ways to cobble together a network of interested parties who focus on media, art, IP, trade, and international engagement.
I'm so pleased Ellen Lovell brought up the recent Supreme Court decision. Let's talk about it!
Doug worries that if we take on any policy issues other than those that directly affect our core constituency -- nonprofit arts organizations and artists who work mostly in that world -- we'll be out of our depth and get things wrong, unable to choose sides responsibly.
True, there are some ambiguous situations that arise, but many issues are pretty clear, especially if we always ask, "Will policy x enhance the expressive lives of individuals and communities by making heritage and the tools of creativity more available, or will the policy increase costs, erect barriers, or limit access?" After all, we are as smart as leaders in any field, and little of this is rocket science: create low-power FM outlets in urban areas, almost certainly a good thing; allow one company to own 10% of all radio stations; probably bad (as the Clear Channel experiment demonstrated); abandon Net Neutrality to allow advertisers to steer online searches; almost certainly bad. Yes, there are some really thorny issues (Google Books is one) but I absolutely believe that the conversation around these issues will be better if the smart folks who have mostly thought about museum attendance and foundation funding turn their attention to a wider set of issues. If we don't, the part of the arts scene that we know best will end up as roadkill smashed flat as public policy speeds along the highway to market hegemony.
Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist (really; I'm not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries. They give the NEA an extra ten million some years, and it's all "high-fives;" the next year they take it away, and we spend thousands on seminars to help us cope with the funding crisis. All the while, bigger forces are quietly tying up the Internet, expanding the footprint of IP, while allowing heritage assets to be locked up in the vaults of a few merged media giants. The nonprofit scene can be viewed as a medium-sized sandbox in which arts people are asked to play for a pittance while mainstream policy actors use legislation, legal interpretation, and regulation to expand controlled revenue streams.
But I'm not, just not, a conspiracy theorist...
I appreciate Marian Godfrey's concern about our current crop of cultural nonprofits; they're in trouble and, quite apart from any talk about expressive life, they seem to be getting pushed to the margins. While I've never viewed the idea of broadening our frame of reference as a strategy to increase support for any part of the arts spectrum, it does seem that, if there's a bigger discussion about the importance of all of expressive life to quality of life, all boats should rise.
Think about the environment. Let's say thirty years ago a smart cluster of advocates began to gather support for wetlands preservation. They would have had some success over the decades; duck hunters would have weighed in, and probably some birdwatchers, but my guess is that the wetlands preservation movement would have hit the upper limits of financial support and policy engagement pretty quickly. On the other hand, wetlands as a part of a larger environmental-movement frame has much greater standing and can get its share of a very big whole. You get my point; I don't think our traditional fine-arts organizations can advance in the current economy and policy frame unless they're part of a big idea that is powerful enough to stand beside health care, education, and even the environment. But it will be challenging for a sector that has claimed most of the conversation "on the way up and down" (to paraphrase Adrian Ellis), to step back and be part of something bigger in order to advance expressive life as a marker of a healthy democracy.
We need to test Nihar Patel's idea that "expressive life" is too close to "free expression" for comfort. I know the phrase tilts us away from heritage, but if the very term "expression" is too hot for policy leaders to handle, we need to keep thinking...
I think Steven Tepper is correct about the way expressive life can be the umbrella for different policy realms. To me things like IP law, media regulation, corporate archival preservation policies, revenue streams that flow to the arts industries and other elements are the "system" that defines the character of expressive life. We can ask questions like "Will an extended copyright term enhance the expressive life of consumers and/or artists? Does local newspaper ownership enhance the expressive life of a community? Will the approval of a merger between two major motion picture studios improve or inhibit access to heritage film? And expressive life can be home to a number of advocacy efforts that are now disconnected -- arts funding, fairness in media, Internet access, free speech, the Creative Commons, etc., etc. The new whole might be greater than the current sum of these parts.
Adrian Ellis is right to ask about what's in and what's out. His list -- hair dressing, mud-wrestling, chess, would to me mostly be out. But frying an egg might fit if it were part of serious chefing, and home design or fashion would fit even if pursued by amateurs, and certainly things like social dancing would be in. More problematic for me is political speech -- probably has to be in -- and religion...Can we accept music and visual art and great sermons but leave the dogma itself to that other realm, religious life? It will be challenging and fun to figure out the contents of expressive life; there will probably never be agreement as to what fits along the margins but we can probably end with agreement on a solid core.
Andras asks what a vibrant expressive life would look like. Good question. Part of the solution is just access; everybody must have access to the materials of cultural heritage and to the tools of personal creativity. That formulation means that a record company that won't reissue an old disc is inhibiting expressive life, as is the fact of limited penetration of the Internet and related hardware and software in poor communities. The woman with a vibrant expressive life would be engaged with art and art making from the past, and would possess the skill set required to sustain her own creative practice. Much of the work of securing a vibrant expressive life will be the process of eliminating barriers, many of which are secured by powerful market forces, while critiquing policy in relation to access. Eliminate barriers so the system makes connecting and doing easy.
This is about community as well as individuals, and while much of this is pretty abstract, the creation of new, low-power FM broadcast licenses in urban areas is the kind of policy that could be discussed in relation to its impact on expressive life.
Lewis Hyde's question about timing has me wondering. Hmmmm. Americans for the Arts did launch their new National Arts Index last week, and it uses 76 indicators (such as the number of bookstores and movie screens) that go far beyond the uses counting of nonprofits. Maybe the arts sector itself is ready to engage a new idea and be part of a bigger frame. Interesting question
Adrian Ellis; Alan Brown; Andras Szanto; Andrew Taylor; Bau Graves; Douglas McLennan; Ellen Lovell; Bill Ivey, William James; James Early; Jim Smith; Lewis Hyde; Marian Godfrey; Martha Bayles; Nihar Patel; Russell Taylor; Sam Jones; Steven Tepper
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