David Smith, teacher, author and overthrower of culture czars
As you might have expected, CultureGrrl readers are engaged by the question of whether there should be a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture in the Obama administration. (My thumbs-down is here and here.)
At the end of this post, you can read what Bill Ivey, who was appointed by President Obama to
lead the national transition team for the three federal cultural
agencies (National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the
Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services) has said on this topic.
But first, let’s go to some reader responses:
—From David Smith, senior lecturer in history at Baylor University and author of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy:
I was the guy Elizabeth Blair [NPR‘s cultural correspondent] put up against Quincy Jones on Morning Edition last week. I also was interviewed Wednesday [along with Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post‘s art critic] on WAMU [American University Radio] in D.C., on the same thing.
You’re right about its being a difficult position to support government spending on the arts but to oppose this notion of a Department of Culture, Cultural Czar, or whatever they’re calling it today.
In the past couple of days, I’ve received a few e-mails from people who oppose the idea, including one from a guy who works with a major symphony orchestra. So despite those exploding petition numbers, there are at least a few of us out here.
David, who seems to be the news media’s go-to person on this topic, also had an anti-culture czar piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal—An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts.
—From Julia Gleich, an American dancer, choreographer and teacher, who works in London:
I was relieved to see your article about the culture minister. I agree that chaos is important and that those wishing for a Secretary of the Arts are neglecting to see the drawbacks. My Facebook status recently said, “Julia remembers that both Stalin and Hitler had national cultural policies.”
I live in England and dance here is very confused, Ballet was considered the honored national dance form for most of the 20th century, a time when modern dance was thriving in other parts of Europe, but most especially in the U.S. Modern dance was a reaction against tradition. As a result there is little history of modern dance here.
Now this is a small example. But the bigger example comes from my own experiences. ALL of my students want to dance in New York, to work in the U.S., because it is more open to a range of arts.
—From William Osborne, an American composer who has lived in Europe for the last 30 years:
The U.S. is the only industrial country in the world without a
comprehensive system of public arts funding. The negative effects on
our society are obvious, though unpublicized. On a per capita basis, Germany has over 20 times more full-time, year-round professional orchestras than
the U.S. Similar embarrassing ratios are found when comparing the U.S.
to almost all other European countries. Why does this remain unmentioned?
Are Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway,
Finland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria really that
bad? Do they suppress the arts? Are they Czarist societies? Can you
really generalize that the cultural lives of these countries are less
“nimble” than in America?
Why not discuss the liveliness and innovation of the arts in Europe and their relationships to adequate and consistent funding?
Why not note how Finland’s generous public funding system has essentially made it a world power in classical music, even though it has a population of only 5.5 million? Why not discuss the cultural richness that Europe’s system of state radio orchestras,
theaters, and opera houses brings to their societies?
In reality, I think it might be our own plutocratic system of arts
funding by the wealthy that leads to suppression. Only a few financial
centers like New York City end up with adequate cultural lives. Why
can’t we Americans have public arts funding like everyone else, without people using terms like “Culture Czar”?
So what’s Bill Ivey’s take on all this?
Let’s go to the Publishers Weekly review (scroll down) of Ivey’s May 2008 book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights:
Ivey’s answer is an official U.S. Department of Cultural Affairs…committed to the idea that the
arts are “key to a high quality of life for all Americans.”
Gee, I thought this was Quincy Jones’ idea!
UPDATE: More on Bill Ivey and various hopes and predictions about the new administration’s arts policy in Robin Pogrebin‘s article in today’s NY Times.