I suggested in a post this week that, based on the lack of any arts business before the 114th US Congress, that it appears that lobbying for the arts seems to be failing. Yes, the NEA/NEH budgets have stayed more or less stable for the past few years, but the almost complete lack of any action on policy related to the arts suggests the arts have no place in a national agenda. And I suggested that perhaps this is so because our priority seems to be more about getting funding than it is proposing a vision for the arts that would justify that funding.
Fellow AJ-blogger Michael Rushton disagrees and wrote in response to my post that perhaps that’s a good thing:
I am going to urge caution on the vision thing. Because aside from “art is good”, reasonable people can differ on what that vision ought to be. A much bigger role for the NEA? OK, but what would that do to support for state and local arts councils, or to philanthropic support? More funding for arts education? Maybe, but what do we mean by “arts education”, and what is it that would be sacrificed in otherwise highly pressed public schools to facilitate it? Copyright reform? Well, would that be to increase access to works, or to increase protections and compensation for copyright holders?
What problem do we want to solve that a larger vision would be of value?
Have you seen some of the decisions made in Congress over the past few years? Do you want it to take a bigger role in proclaiming a vision for the arts?
Arts policy in the US is pretty much a matter of “muddling through“. I’m not convinced that this is the worst thing in the world, in a big diverse country with a great variety of ideas for what to support in the arts. Let cities and states experiment with different initiatives in the arts and arts education, learn from what seems to have worked, and let the NEA try a few new things too (with some rigorous policy evaluation to check on the performance of the new programs). This isn’t a place where we need grand visions for the arts.
With all due respect, I think that Michael has articulated the problem exactly. And that’s the problem. Essentially he’s arguing that we should be intentionally vague with “art is good” so that we don’t get into debates. He suggests that even arguing for a bigger role for the NEA, expanded funding for arts education, or reform of copyright laws are slippery slopes that will founder the ship on trying to define details. And he adds a “let sleeping dogs lie” caution that it’s actually preferable to be under the radar of Congress because if their attention is aroused they’ll muck around in ways we might not like.
I get it. The last time Congress paid attention, Jesse Helms was stirring up all sorts of trouble and the NEA had to fight for its very existence.
But here’s the problem. If the arts want to have a meaningful place in American culture, they have to lead. It’s no longer obvious to most people – yes, most – that the “arts are good.” We don’t need government for the arts to succeed, but on a range of public policy and arts-specific issues, the arts need advocacy or policy will be set in ways that do not favor the arts.
Copyright for example. The DMCA is a disaster for artists. You know that non-arts lobbyists are arguing for copyright reform and that what they’re arguing for will likely not be in the interests of the arts (if recent experience is any guide). How about communications policy – cable regulation, social media platform censorship, net neutrality? Artists have a stake in all these issues. How about community development? That’s an arts issue. Diversity? Again arts. Why are the arts good? Why should we invest in them?
The problem with sticking to the “arts are good” argument is that it’s essentially an appeal to altruism and it’s a weak one. The “arts are good/arts education is good” argument is a conservation argument. That is – it tries to conserve what it has. The problem with it is that the best it can do is not lose too much. An entrepreneurial argument, on the other hand, sees possibility and opportunity. It attracts adherents and expands.
As long as the arts lay low hoping not to attract too much Congressional attention they’re never going to be anything bigger. As long as the argument for the arts is just about conserving NEA/NEH budgets, it’s not going to inspire anyone. As long as it doesn’t inspire anyone, the arts aren’t going to be central to American life. Or get more funding. Maybe that’s okay. But then why pretend to lobby? Why pretend the arts are important if you can’t articulate why?