Today I want to mark a moment in the history of U.S. cultural policy. At the end of December, the Center for Arts and Culture, the largest and best-funded of the few cultural policy institutes in this country, folded, offering as explanation the unavailability of general operating support. Give me a minute to say why this is worth marking.
I’ve written quite a bit about cultural policy. The UN’s convention on cultural diversity is one recent example. Some of my essays have treated arts funding, others freedom of expression. Once you start listing the issues that come under the general heading of “cultural policy,” it’s hard to stop. Consider a few of the controversies of recent years: English-only versus bilingual education and public information such as voter’s pamphlets and driver’s license exams; labeling requirements for films, video games and rap lyrics; the loss of the FCC’s former “fairness doctrine” requiring equal time for opposing electoral candidates; politicization of public broadcasting under former CPB head Kenneth Tomlinson; public funding for controversial artistic expressions. Public cultural policy is the aggregate of public statements and actions that affect culture.
Policy is a magic word: it puts some people instantly to sleep and brings a spring to others’ steps. In the fantasy world inhabited by policy wonks, governments and agencies are guided by well-considered statements of noble yet practical intention enshrined in inspiring policy documents. (Full wonk disclosure: click here to read my “Confessions of a Premature Cultural Policy Wonk” from 1995.) In my personal cultural policy fantasy, our guiding values would be pluralism, participation and equity.
Yet public policy per se doesn’t have the force of law. Mostly, policies are something like yardsticks. Alert citizens can use them to measure performance against stated intentions, holding policymakers accountable. But in truth, the only tools to hand for that mission are persuasive: you can shame or embarrass transgressors, you can try to mobilize public opinion to oppose rogue actions, but if persuasion fails, too bad. Policy is one of those neither-fish-nor-fowl things: not the Ten Commandments, more like the Ten Suggestions.
So why am I so into public policy? Because I have the by-now quaint idea that governments ought to disclose to citizens the values and aims guiding public action. Without such articulation, governments’ loose-cannon tendencies tend to take over and all policies devolve to a single statement: Why did we do it? Because we could.
The U.S. has had arts and cultural agencies for generations now, but until fairly recently, few people paid much attention to the policies that guided them. The main reason was that (try not to get whiplash following this one) our official national policy was that we have no cultural policy! This is actually a bit of cold-war detritus: cultural policy was considered a dangerous foreign idea. Most pre-1990 references to the concept raise the specter of state art: if we had formal cultural policy, this thinking went, the state would be dictating artistic subjects and styles, resulting in the American equivalent of the happy factory worker political kitsch favored by strong-state societies. So we just said, “Phooey to that: we won’t have a policy!”
Only it’s impossible not to have a cultural policy. Taken together, public cultural actions and statements constitute policy, even if it’s nothing more than laissez-faire. The United States’ no-policy cultural policy is that public funding and action should follow the lead of the private sector. As a result, there is no promotion or protection of a public interest in the most robust cultural sectors. We have the most anemic public broadcasting system of any industrialized nation, and not only do the 800 pound gorillas of our commercial cultural industries do whatever they want, they are insulated by sweetheart legislation that protects their right to profit obscenely at public expense. Public cultural agencies ignore all that (i.e., they ignore most of the cultural products and experiences most people engage), focusing narrowly on nonprofit arts organizations, where they mainly channel modest amounts of money to the same things mainstream private sector funders are supporting.
The Center for Arts and Culture came into being in 1994, not long after Representative Newt Gingrich and his colleagues in the “New Right” delivered a wake-up call to the culture. Beginning in the late 80s, the right discovered that even though the federal government wasn’t doing much in the arts, the little bit of money spent on grants to artists could have a huge symbolic impact. The right could drum up enormous public outrage (and raise a ton of money) by disseminating Andres Serrano’s photographs of a crucifix immersed in urine or stills from Marlon Riggs’ films portraying gay African Americans. All they had to do is slap on a bright red banner reading, “This is where your tax dollars are going!” The mailings went out, the irate letters came pouring in and the National Endowment for the Arts trimmed its sails, dropping grants for individual artists, establishing “decency standards” and requiring loyalty oaths. “Duck and cover” pretty much sums up our current cultural policy. We don’t need a heavy-handed state to enforce its views on free expression; the cultural landscape is crowded with self-censors, who do the job gratis.
The Center for Arts and Culture’s official history somewhat understates the mood of the time: “A consortium of foundations founded the Center for Arts and Culture in 1994 as a way of moving beyond public debates over government funding for arts and culture to providing a broader context for cultural policies in the United States.” What I remember is having a drink with a foundation executive who was in a panic about the Gingrichites, who was impressed at how the right had devised its coordinated cultural strategy, catching everyone off-guard, and who was desperate to see free expression advocates get their act together in similar fashion. A bunch of major foundations were going to ante up and make it so.
Good idea? Unfortunately, it was impossible to execute. Why? Because unlike the wildly effective right-wing policy apparatus, this effort was not driven by passionate advocates. Rather the opposite. If you look in the O.E.D. under “cautious to a fault,” I’m certain one of the definitions will be “a consortium of foundations.” By the time the spanking-new think-tank opened its doors, its work was hedged around with enough explicit and unspoken constraints to ensure a (short) lifetime of irrelevancy. The Center couldn’t espouse anything controversial or advocate risky ideas; it couldn’t do anything that stepped on its funders’ toes; and it certainly couldn’t be critical of a public cultural apparatus always under pressure from the right. (No matter how far the National Endowments move to the right, it seems there’s always plenty of room to scoot further.)
What was needed—what has always been needed—is exciting, innovative and propositional: How can we think freshly about the big questions of cultural policy? What has kept the field so tired and clotted with old ideas? What can break it open? What needs saying that few have yet dared to say? Dared to try out? (You’ll find a few possible answers in this 1999 essay.) Here’s the thing, though: if you can’t risk upsetting anyone, all such questions are off-limits. In fact, there’s only one thing you can do, and that is what the Center for Arts and Culture (and the other U.S.-based cultural policy groups still hanging on) have done: study, describe and discuss what already exists. Like its counterparts, the Center held meetings and commissioned studies of the way things are, meanwhile compiling bibliographies, databases and resource lists.
Make no mistake: I have no brief against the good people of the Center for Arts and Culure. As far as I know, everyone associated with the late Center was capable and well-intentioned—and like their counterparts in other funder-driven cultural enterprises, non-controversial to the point of coma. I also admit there are useful reasons to study existing systems, to a point. But that point has been vastly exceeded. Estimating conservatively, I’d say a zillion dollars and a gazillion person-hours have been poured in these holding tanks (don’t even get me started on the Rand Corporation’s cultural policy fiascos), with the net result that an entire forest has been felled to tell us at appalling length and in stultifying detail exactly how things already are.
What a waste. I wish I had more confidence that the people who put up the bucks had learned something from it.