© Arlene Goldbard 1999
This talk was originally delivered at a September 1999 symposium on “Cultural Policy in the West” convened by the Western States Arts Foundation.
When I was invited to speak at this symposium, I was asked to address “the cultural policy colonization of the West.” I admit I felt a little frisson of excitement at the prospect. Suddenly, my mental view-screen presented me with an image like one of those Saul Steinberg cartoon maps, only instead of seeing everything west of Riverside Drive as uncharted territory, I saw a huge colonial palace spring up east of the Rockies, streaming out occupying forces, plutocrats in the lead and bureaucrats bringing up the rear. Obviously, the kind of colonization we are talking about is a much more subtle thing. But whether the subject is colonization of the land or the mind, the essence of a colony is the same: its inhabitants are not the ultimate beneficiaries of its endeavors, although this reality may be masked by clever public relations and judicious dolings-out of perks. In the West, we have a saying that sums this up: fattening frogs for snakes.
From the vantage-point of the West, we can see that the development of public cultural policy has been shaped by three short-sighted mistakes, each of which fits Amilcar Cabral’s definition of colonialism when applied internally, to segments of a single society, rather than to a conquered nation and its conqueror:
[C]olonialism can be considered as the paralysis or deviation or even the halting of the history of one people in favour of the acceleration of the historical development of other peoples.
The first mistake was to look at culture in primarily economistic terms. If you look back at the formative documents leading to the creation of the NEA, for instance, you see a lot of talk about the “income gap” the gap between cultural institutions’ aspirations and their incomes and the wish to fill it as a driving force behind public cultural subvention. Similarly, if you look at the discussions that foregrounded the licensing of broadcast television, you see this most powerful tool for cultural transmission treated first and foremost as a business, with far more attention paid to issues such as competition than to cultural impact.
Along the same lines, during the Eighties a whole forest of trees bit the dust in the service of fatuous reports on the economic multiplier effects of cultural expenditure, as if prosperity sprang from every pair of theater tickets as Jack’s beanstalk shot up from a handful of magic beans. Looking at culture as a subset of money was a foolish mistake, because there is no correlation between what is profitable or what is lavishly funded and what contributes to cultural freedom, depth, and vitality. All the economistic mindset did was enrich the haves at the expense of the have-nots.
The second mistake was to focus on a lot of arguable distinctions and categories rather than see culture as a single, dynamic, protean whole. The silliest and most obvious manifestation of this error emerges whenever policy experts talk about “the arts.” The New York Times August 2nd piece announcing the Pew Charitable Trusts’ investment of mega-bucks in arts research makes reference to a Pew-funded study showing that “90% of those surveyed…participate in the arts at least once a year.” How absurd that must sound to someone who is not an initiate of our stunted arts-policy discourse! Almost everyone I know listens to music, most of them daily. A lot of them play instruments or sing. They go to the movies or rent videos. They take photographs or do needlework or write poetry in their spare time. The distinction between these activities and the ones the Pew Trusts consider “the arts” are economic:
either they register too low on the economic-activity scale singing in a church choir or drumming with your friends are “amateur” activities, beneath consideration; or they register too high popular music and feature films stink too much of commerce, evoking a fastidious revulsion in the nonprofit arts sector, so they are declared invisible. Looking at “the arts” as a specialist preserve of professional nonprofit institutions was a major blunder and a veritable frog-feast for the commercial cultural industries because it struck the most widespread and potent manifestations of culture from the agendas of cultural policy-makers, leaving them to fiddle with the residue, as if it was all that mattered.
The third mistake was to look at culture in social-science terms, seeking to rationalize arts subvention through its secondary impacts. Mozart is good for math scores; arts programs in prisons reduce recidivism; public art raises utilization rates of public plazas. It’s not that such things aren’t true I’m prepared to believe them all. It’s that embracing these arguments with such fervor exposed the weakness of their advocates. Decades of economistic and specialist discourse had led to the absolute impoverishment of any argument from the power of art to stun, to speak truth, to celebrate, to condemn, to refresh perception, to suggest what cannot be adequately expressed outright. Leaning so hard on art’s secondary effects implied that the argument from its primary purposes had been definitively lost, and this inadvertently lent aid and comfort to the opposition. If all we had to offer was this limp stuff about reading and math scores which could be raised just as high by so many other means wasn’t that tantamount to admitting defeat? Trying to justify cultural subvention through social-scientific quantification was a depressing misstep, like a tired poker player half-heartedly bluffing his way through the last hand of the game.
For the West, what is the sum total of these mistakes? This region is home to heritage values that are entirely alien to the thinking behind the cultural policy blunders I have described. It is a commonplace that the indigenous cultures of the West value spirit above the material and harmony over the imbalance attendant to unfettered acquisition. It is a commonplace that the beauty and grandeur of the natural world is uniquely made manifest in our region, inspiring awe and an ineffable sense of mystery. I like the phrase coined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “radical amazement” to sum up the fundamental condition of human life, expressed so richly in the cultures of this region. Heschel makes the point that it is the human condition never to know the most fundamental things about the world or our
place in it. We can know we are standing on a very large and round rock, hurtling through space. We can know the most minute information about the composition and character of that rock, but we can never know why we are here, why it inspires awe in us to contemplate that question, indeed, why we possess the gift of consciousness that enables us to ask it.
Radical amazement is at the root of all art-making, all creation of culture. As Heschel put it,
It is the sense of the sublime that we have to regard as the root of…creative activities in art….
Just as no flora has ever fully displayed the hidden vitality of the earth, so has no work of art ever brought to expression the depth of the unutterable, in the sight of which the souls of saints, poets, and philosophers live. The attempt to convey what we see and cannot say is the everlasting theme of mankind’s unfinished symphony….
Yet here we are, having allowed ourselves to succumb to a cultural policy that does not even give lip service to the truths we know about our place in the world and in our cultures. The bloated commercial
cultural industries symbolized by Hollywood sit squarely in our midst, the sum total of human ingenuity in the creation of images and spectacles, churning out a never-ending stream of garbage that almost overwhelms the thin trickle of fresh, interesting work that manages to survive. Our laissez-faire cultural policy has left these giant corporations free to conquer the world, like the robber barons of an earlier time. If the story of consolidation of media control is featured at all in the mainstream press, it receives gee-whiz treatment: the recent acquisition of CBS by Viacom was covered in the awestruck cadences of a report on the discovery of the world’s biggest diamond or a new record for most consecutive strikeouts in a baseball career. Hollywood’s image-factory has assembled the iconography the rest of the world associates with the word “West” dusty trails and six-guns, campfires and war cries, the whore with a heart of gold and the hero with a tin star. There is no way actually existing stories of life in the West the real history of conquest and domination, of resilience and liberation can match the weight of these dream-images. The inexorable appetites of the cultural industries have, like Jabba the Hutt, demanded a steady supply of fresh meat, chewing up cultures as they are actually lived and spitting out their media
Our cultural policy-makers, struggling to construct something worthy with the flimsy broken tools of economism and pseudo-social-science, have failed even in their self-limited task of securing adequate support for professional nonprofit arts work. In the last two years, Don Adams and I have conducted two major studies for the Rockefeller Foundation, examining the state of the nonprofit independent media and performing arts fields in this country. As part of our research, we conducted confidential interviews with more than a hundred and fifty artists in these fields. Many of them may be familiar names to you people like Bill T. Jones, Steve Reich, Julie Dash, Yvonne Rainer, the late Henry Hampton, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Jon Jang, Liz Lerman. What they told us was remarkably consistent: that even established artists such as themselves find it impossible to attract stable subsidy; that the locus of financing for U.S. artists is moving to Europe and Asia, and those who are able are already earning most of their income from foreign sources; that young artists, who are not receiving a leg up from funders and cannot cobble together a living as their elders did from bits of CETA (federal public service employment subsidy) funding, National Endowment for the Arts Regional Fellowships, small state and local grants, are finding
the going exceedingly hard.
It chills my blood to hear the social Darwinist response to this that issues from so many policy experts, for example, the individual who directs Pew’s initiative was quoted in the aforementioned Times article as saying: “It may be that we discover the arts simply need reliable, more consistent support or consolidation in some areas where there is oversupply.” The speaker is conflating human expressions of the creative impulse and human desire to make meaning with fast-food restaurants and shoe stores, miniaturizing cultures into commodities.
In the fifties, Heschel warned against what my cultural tradition calls idolatry — investing your own creations with ultimate meaning and worshipping them; what the ancient Greeks called hubris; what the Marxists called commodity fetishism: “Forfeit your sense of awe,” said Heschel, “let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you.”
A decade later, the social critic Paul Goodman foretold our predicament so exactly I am almost glad he did not live to see it:
The chief danger to American society at present, and to the world from American society, is our mindlessness, induced by empty institutions. It is a kind of trance, a self-delusion of formal rightness, that affects both leaders and people. We have all the talking points but less and less content.
A few weeks ago I read a review of a book about Maxwell House Coffee. It quoted Bill Benton, principal of the coffee company’s advertising agency, as follows: “Every businessman,” he said, “wants a product that is habit-forming. That’s why cigarettes, Coca-Cola and coffee do so well.” To which list we can surely add television, video games, and once commercial interests figure out how to effectively exploit its profit potential, the World Wide Web. It is easy to discount this state of affairs. We cannot blame snakes for behaving like snakes; there will always be greedy and unscrupulous people; people are more resilient than such analyses give them credit for. But I say our complacency in the face of this obvious truth is an irrefutable symptom of the trance Paul Goodman described more than thirty years
So what should we do about it? This is not the sort of situation that can be ameliorated by little adjustments and modest reforms. Instead, we need to completely reconceive our relationship to cultural policy, in three stages.
First, and absolutely necessary, is to make a realistic, honest assessment of the cultural conditions in our region. Here again, Heschel is an invaluable guide:
The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches.
Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for authentic awareness…
Drop all the conventional pieties and received wisdom, and what are the cultural conditions of our region? They are schizophrenic, to say the least: An unprecedented number of children live in conditions of poverty that make it very difficult to see themselves as creators of culture, while the consolidation of wealth in the hands of a minority is proceeding at an unprecedented pace. This creates a stratified society, multiplying opportunity for some and shrinking it for others. We are both the belly of the beast and its favorite snack, overwhelmed with commercial cultural product, and in the face of that deluge, still managing to generate the unrestrained cultural vitality that is our salient characteristic.
Beneath the vast migrations typical of our region, we are the future named by Carlos Fuentes in his masterful Massey Lectures of 1985:
[T]he emergence of cultures as protagonists of history proposes a re-elaboration of our civilizations in agreement with our deeper, not our more ephemeral, traditions. Dreams and nightmares, different songs, different laws, different rhythms, long-deferred hopes, different shapes of beauty, ethnicity and diversity, a different sense of time, multiple identities rising from the depths of the poly-cultural and multi-racial worlds of Africa, Asia, and Latin America….
This new reality, this new totality of humankind, presents enormous new problems, vast challenges to our imaginations. They open up the two-way avenue of all cultural reality: giving and receiving, selecting, refusing, recognizing, acting in the world: not being merely subjected to the world.
Ours is the challenge he presents, of creating a cultural policy than can honor this diversity, honor the central place in our time of cultures as the protagonists of history, and create and nourish ample opportunity for individuals and communities to enter into this awesome task of creating a truly egalitarian, multi-directional, poly-cultural cultural infrastructure, a re-elaboration of our civilizations in agreement with our deeper traditions not ephemera such as cost-benefit analyses or standardized test scores.
Therefore, our second step should be to propose a bill of cultural values based on the real conditions of our region, to inform future policy-making and cultural development activities. I don’t want to take your time now to propose my full roster of personal favorites, but let me suggest just a few of these values:
- Cultural policies should be based on a comprehensive understanding of culture as a vast, dynamic, interactive whole, with shifting boundaries between sectors, disciplines, activities, and all the categories that have circumscribed our understanding thus far. The entire landscape of instrumentalities, from taxation and regulation to education and preservation should be used to cultivate a vibrant, diverse ecology of organizations, institutions, and opportunities for individuals.
- One aim of cultural policies should be to correct the imbalances of the marketplace, rather than following or reinforcing the market’s dominance. Markets are wonderful, powerful things, but they can no more function as the primary generator and protector of cultural resources than they can create other social goods such as education, health care, and public safety. With the overwhelming social trend toward privatization and commercialization, an underlying principle of cultural policies should be to create protected public space in culture, analogous to nature preserves as protected public land.
- In an era when mass-produced and passive entertainments overwhelm other manifestations of culture, cultural policies should have an explicit aim of stimulating and enabling direct, active participation in community life and artistic creation. Since the commercial cultural industries are so good at manufacturing and distributing passive entertainments, they should be taxed to provide subsidy for live cultural offerings, living artists, and participatory activities.
- Cultural policies ought to be based in part on providing the means of cultural creation and participation, rather than only rewarding certain designated end-products in imitation of private patronage. Just as public libraries can function as part of our cultural commonwealth, every community should have the cultural infrastructure to sustain a lively, multi-directional, creative climate, featuring amenities such as accessible classes, darkrooms, studios, performing and exhibition spaces, recording and editing facilities, and non-commercial distribution systems.
- Cultural policies should acknowledge deep spiritual values, recognizing the condition of radical amazement which underlies the creation of culture and its purest expressions in art. Honoring the impulse to create in the face of mystery, recognizing the grandeur of creation and the moral grandeur of which humans are capable should be acknowledged as social goods worthy of pursuit and should not be supplanted by unrelated aims such as expanding wealth or quantifying social progress.
- In a time characterized by the emergence of cultures as the protagonists of history, one aim of cultural policies should be to nurture the richness of diversity, expanding opportunities for interaction and appreciation between cultural communities. The aim of forging truly poly-cultural policies should be a yardstick against which all cultural action should be measured.
Having heard this, perhaps some of you will want to charge me with one of the most grievous flaws it is possible to own in our cynical times, being an idealist. As an inoculation against that prospect, I want to declare that indeed, I am not an idealist. We live in a time of amazing reversals in history the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Compared to ending apartheid, everything I have laid before you would be downright easy to accomplish. In truth, everything I have advocated is feasible if only a few responsible and influential leaders in the field give up fattening frogs for snakes, free themselves of “conventional notions and mental cliches,” and begin to act in the true interests of our region’s cultures. Of course, the bigger and fatter those snakes grow, the more difficult it will be to bring them under control. Along those lines, I want to share with you a few words that were written 500 years ago by the great political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli in his masterwork, The Prince.
[I]f evils are anticipated they can easily by remedied but if you wait till they come to you the remedy is too late and the sickness is past cure, such things being like the hectic fever which, as the doctors tell us, at first is easy to cure though hard to recognize, but in time, if it has not been diagnosed and treated, becomes easy to recognize and hard to cure. This is true of affairs of state, for if the ills that are shaping up in the present are recognized in advance (and this is an art possessed only by the prudent) they can be quickly remedied, but if, not being recognized, they are allowed to grow until they are evident to all, there is no longer any remedy.
The final step I want to suggest, which I am sure you see for yourselves, is elaborating the apparatus and instrumentalities, the forms of expression that reconceived cultural policies would take. In Machiavelli’s terms, this means devising the remedy before things are past curing. I have more ideas, but no time left to describe them. Perhaps they’ll emerge from our discussion, or the future discussions I hope it will stimulate.
 Amilcar Cabral, Revolution in Guinea, New York: Monthly Review
Press, 1969 (return to quote)
 R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, New York: The Noonday Press, 1951 (return to quote)
 R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, New York: The Noonday Press, 1955 (return to quote)
 Paul Goodman, Like a Conquered Province, New York: Vintage Books, 1968 (return to quote)
 Bill Benton of advertising firm Benton & Bowles, quoted in The New York Times Book Review, September 5, 1999 (return to quote)
 R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, New York: The Noonday Press 1951 (return to quote)
 Carlos Fuentes, Latin America: At War With The Past, Toronto: CBC Massey Lectures, 1985 (return to quote)
 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, written 1513, translated by Thomas G. Bergin, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts Educational Division, 1947 (return to quote)