Policy of reality versus reality of policy

By Douglas McLennan
In the UK people in the streets are battling with police who want to prevent them from taking photos in public. Everyone's got cameras, so banning pictures is futile. The recording industry has tried (futilely) for years to stop file-sharing by suing downloaders. Hasn't worked. Attempts to control access to any kind of digital product are thwarted within hours (sometimes even minutes) of their release. Almost always, what technology makes possible can be overcome by other technology.

The point is, in the long run, rules don't ultimately mean much in the face of crushing contrary reality. But in the meantime rules can wreak ugliness in protection of outmatched systems.

If we had policy rules all worked out that could have imagined an internet world before it happened, I wonder if the internet world would have happened at all? Or if it would have looked anything like it is now. Could anyone 20 year ago have foreseen what the culture of the internet with all its democratization of access ooks like and actually planned for it? 

I guess my point is that in the great democratization of access and production of culture, we may be looking at "policy" and "rules" in ways that are too traditional; in ways that - just like the collapsing structures themselves - are not suited (or workable) for the new landscape. A big problem with many of the attempts so far to "save journalism" is that they're not aimed at saving journalism at all, but at saving the structures that supported journalism. Journalism itself will do fine; I have confidence that the enduring values of journalism will continue to assert and reassert themselves. 

I suspect this is true for the arts too. In the 90s we had the largest expansion of cultural infrastructure in the history of America. Now we're left invested in supporting this infrastructure along with funding structures and distribution structures and rights structures that are outdated because of changed audience expectations brought about by technology.

I wonder if we even have the skill yet to imagine workable policy that understands these changes well enough to keep up, let alone be visionary? I'm not arguing we should abandon advocacy (Hi Chris!) or attempts to organize or educate. But as Ian suggested earlier this week, perhaps we need to reimagine what it means to organize or advocate or represent. 

The other day I got an email asking me to join a campaign to "Save the Arts". Save the arts? Do the arts really need to be saved? I guess I'd be more worried if I saw the quality of music or movies or TV or books or theatre going down. But from where I sit, this isn't the case. 

One could even make an argument that the diversity and overall quality of our collective creative output is higher now than it has been. Is anyone willing to argue that they have less access to the cultural stew today than they did ten, 20, 30 years ago? Hardly. The complaint usually is that there's too much and it's too difficult to sort through it all. 

Now maybe we're a runaway train careening out of control and in a few years there will be a battlefield of cultural wreckage to sort through as our arts organizations and artists collapse. But I don't think so. It's truly humbling to move around the country and see the breadth of amazing artists and creativity at work.

I believe in net neutrality, in Creative Commons and sharing and transparency and giving away things not because they seem like cool concepts, but because they seem like good common sense business strategy. Good business strategy, by the way, that puts more control in the hands of the individual.
July 22, 2010 9:41 AM | | Comments (4) |


Brain, please check this table from “The Council of Europe/ERICarts, Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe, 10th edition, 2009” entitled “Total government expenditure on culture per capita (2000-2008).” It is prepared by agencies of the European Union under scientific standards. As the title suggests, they surveyed 36 European countries and give the numbers for yearly public arts funding from 2000 to 2008.


The table shows that government expenditure for the arts went down in only 2 of the 36 countries. This is conclusive proof of my claims.

And please remember that the UK is far outside European norms. It is the only country that combines the American and European system.

And BTW, you contradict your main point when you note that European film still receives healthy subsidies. Some film-makers do, but it has still not allowed Europe to counteract the effects of Hollywood's hegemony.

It might be clarifying to make the distinction between regulating how end-users (i.e. individual consumers/creators/citizens) interface with culture and regulating how large media and telecom companies are allowed to control the conduits.

The former category is, as you note, often futile, a technical impossibility. The latter is only a matter of education and political will.

87% of Americans think big companies have too much power, according to the Harris Poll. I can't even think of another issue that 87% of Americans agree about!

I should say, despite this post, that I tend to be in favor of regulation. Unquestionably, as Kevin points out, deregulation has had disastrous results on this country, from pointless wars, our financial markets and oil in the gulf. I'd concede media deregulation as well. Steve Tepper and Bill Ivey have also argued the growing privileged culture/fast food culture divide, and I don't disagree. And I too am suspicious of the "let's toss everything out and it will all work out" school. All conceded. So it's a little odd to find myself so pessimistic about the course of regulation of culture. But the whole process seems so weighted in favor of traditional Big Media interests, I wonder about the utility/futility of even walking onto the field. It seems time for some subversive action. Where I see small victories, they seem to be of the subversive sort.

While no one would argue that the supply and quality of art is plummeting, I am certainly willing to argue that whatever increased access we're enjoying now is still largely mediated by class position, geographic location, broadband access, etc, and that the media deregulation of the 90s has had absolutely disastrous impacts on the diversity of voices--artistic and otherwise, that people can access. People like Douglas and I, educated guys who live in big cities with many cultural amenities might not see it. But people I work with across the country, especially in small towns and rural communities generally feel crushed by the way Wal-Mart culture has steamrolled their local civic life & cultural heritage.

I'm thrilled that more people have access to the tools of creativity, and I love projects like Creative Commons, but I've learned to be extremely suspicious about optimistic rhetoric about empowering individuals that's tied to "regulation is an old way of thinking" messages. It's the same stuff we heard during the deregulation era of Clinton. It obscures the ways shallow forms of participation through interactive media can often be tools to increase people's investment in the products of a handful of major entertainment companies and other brands and business interests.

Thomas Frank's 1995 essay "The New Gilded Age" seems oddly on point fifteen years later.

Leave a comment


This Blog Arts and culture are a cornerstone of American society. But arts and culture workers are often left out of important policy conversations concerning technology and creative rights even though the outcomes will have a profound impact on our world. Is it benign neglect? Or did we... more

This blog is a project of... the Future of Music Coalition, the National Alliance for Art Media + Culture, Fractured Atlas, and ArtsJournal.com. more

Our Bloggers We have 22 bloggers taking part in this week's conversation. They are... more

Contact us: Click here to send us an email... more

Recent Comments

William Osborne commented on Policy of reality versus reality of policy: Brain, please check this table from “The Council of Europe/ERICarts, Compen...

Kevin Erickson commented on Policy of reality versus reality of policy: It might be clarifying to make the distinction between regulating how end-u...

Douglas McLennan commented on Policy of reality versus reality of policy: I should say, despite this post, that I tend to be in favor of regulation. ...

Kevin Erickson commented on Policy of reality versus reality of policy: While no one would argue that the supply and quality of art is plummeting, ...

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary