The art world is all abuzz about the Museum of Modern Art’s plans to charge $20 for admission when it reopens this weekend after a multi-zillion dollar renovation. In response to defenders of art for the people, Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s director, said this: “If you think that museums should be free, campaign for a government that will support that. We’re in a country where there is a cost for culture.”
Having just attempted to do that, I feel qualified to comment. As readers of this blog know, I was one of the originators of the Artists Call for Cultural Policy, a platform addressed to candidates in the recent presidential election. (It’s not too late to sign; we expect it to have a life beyond the election.) Here was our problem: when campaigns are merely contests of code-words and 30-second TV spots, only the coarsest grain of issues may be sifted. Iraq War, yes or no. Legal abortion, yes or no. Gay marriage, yes or no. In consequence, most of the things people care about between elections don’t even enter the campaign. In fact, the only way to get campaigns to pay attention is to wield big bucks or big blocs of votes. Suffice it to say that despite our best efforts, we were never sure the Artists Call was even read by anyone in a position to influence either candidate.
Mostly, it appears people go along with this division of issues into the significant few and the dispensible others. You can argue that this makes sense in terms of elections: after all, how many people will cast their votes for president entirely on the basis of a candidate’s views on government’s role in arts funding? But what about between elections? Sadly, cultural policy is seen as a specialist concern, the province of professional groups with direct financial interests — performers’ unions, alliances of theaters or museums or arts councils, and so on. Their policy proposals can usually be summarized with one timid request: Please, sir, can I have some more (of the same)? Having lost so much ground already, they are fearful of saying too much and antagonizing those who hold the pursestrings, so they say little and accept losses.
What’s so disheartening about this is that most people care a lot about cultural policy questions, although they may not know what the term “cultural policy” means. Many people I meet hate the idea that their children no longer learn about music or art in school, due to budget cuts. They are upset that community centers are being closed while new prisons spring up like mushrooms. They are appalled at the extent to which the common culture is manufactured in Hollywood. They worry about the gross stereotyping that the commercial cultural industries promote, at the pervasive brutality and the contempt for women they purvey. They fear the polarization of their communities as social classes and ethnic groups “know” each other only through these centrally manufactured images. Feeling these fears, the fundamentalists prescribe censorship, but who is to judge what you and I may be permitted to see? The common sense solution is to balance the distortions of market culture with support for the other images, the first-person stories, the buried histories that won’t be turned into mass-marketed products to enrich mega-corporations. Who can balance the market, you ask? Only the public sector.
Most people I know are concerned about efforts to restrict free expression. They read in the papers about writers, filmmakers, performers from other countries being turned away at our borders because their art has been critical of the Bush administration, or because they come from countries that oppose Bush’s foreign policy. They worry about where we will turn for friends when we have alienated the rest of the world. We may not be able to stop Bush from making enemies over the next four years, but one way to mitigate the damage is to allow artists and scholars to freely meet, exchange, and learn from each other, reminding the world that a nation is more than its leaders. Who can permit and encourage this, you ask? The public sector.
Between elections, I think there is a lot of work to be done in surfacing these key cultural questions — issues people talk about all the time but that somehow never make it onto our national electoral agenda. We can’t expect the 2008 election to turn on such fine-grained issues, but there are many local decisions that can be affected. Who knows? It’s not impossible that the special interests who now constitute “the arts lobby” will grow a spine. If a real buzz gets going, perhaps the sound will carry even to our nation’s capital.