I’m not known for the brevity of my blogposts, but if I had the power to command, this one would consist of three short sentences:
Go here and read the Framework.
Go here and sign on as an endorser.
Go here and share your stories of culture and community.
You can do all those things now, then come back and read the rest, okay? But in case you want to be persuaded first, let me try.
Art & The Public Purpose: A New Framework is a just-launched campaign endorsed by a stellar group of the artists I went to Washington with back in May for White House Briefing on Art, Community, Social Justice, National Recovery.
The cultural policy working group that formed there challenged ourselves to find a better way to make the case for the public interest in culture. For too long, U.S. arts advocacy had amounted to beneficiaries lobbying for their own grants, which is probably one reason why the real value of federal cultural funding keeps declining. We knew that there was a much larger public interest at stake. We have been working since May to state our case concisely and powerfully, and this Framework is the result. Here’s an excerpt:
Culture matters. As Wynton Marsalis said, “Songs, dances, writings allow us to speak to one another across generations. They gave us an understanding of our commonality long before the DNA told us we are all part of one glorious procession.” Culture can be a powerful economic driver, the catalyst to transform failed schools, a means to restore faith in America’s world role. Art enriches, beautifies, expresses and entertains, all good reasons to invest in artistic creativity. But the crises we face demand new capacities for creativity, understanding, innovation, and mutual responsibility. Artists’ work offers a proven way to cultivate imagination and empathy, essential to national recovery and sustainable community.
Just about every nation on the planet has something called a cultural policy, exactly as they have health policies, energy policies and environmental policies. Each policy is a statement of values and aims, summing up the public interest in that area of collective responsibility. Each policy spells out the instruments, interventions and actions the public sector will take to express its values and implement its aims.
As is so often true in matters of policy, the United States is the big, glaring exception. Search all you want, and you will never find a document stating U.S. cultural policy. Instead, if you want to figure out what it is, you have to scrutinize our public actions in a slew of related areas, and more or less deduce and distill some sort of coherence from that.
In relation to culture, we do many of the things other nations do: we regulate broadcasting, give grants to artists and organizations, support various types of training in the arts, offer some protection to freedom of expression, and so on. But the reason we don’t state our policy outright is rooted in 20th century politics.
In the post-war period, when most other nations were beginning to articulate their cultural policies, the United States developed an allergic reaction to the whole subject. This is the result of a painful rash on our body politic contracted from Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Cold War, the legacy of over-exposure to the idea that the state is an evil force that should be kept out of culture. Our policy-makers bent over backwards to avoid the specter of “state art,” deciding that our only official policy should be no policy: let private initiative take the lead, let government follow.
Sadly, that has shaped the story ever since, with the result that our public cultural agencies behave exactly like second-tier private patrons. The biggest private donors set the course, then the public sector matches their grants, which is why the lion’s share of public cultural support has always gone to red-carpet organizations already funded with private dollars. The cultural development of rural communities, low-income communities, communities of color—in short, everyone else—has to make do with the leftovers. Following the same pattern, when television was regulated, the federal government let private interests swallow up as much of the spectrum as they wanted, leaving only a tiny segment for the public interest, which is why most markets have only one or two public broadcast channels while all the advertising you can eat occupies the rest of them.
Almost everywhere else, the public interest comes first, and increasingly, other nations’ cultural goals are framed in terms of social inclusion and sustainable community, democratic values the U.S. claims to support without actually doing so. Many international cultural policy documents are inspiring (especially if you’re a policy wonk like me), but even the best read like what they are, bulky compromises between urgent truth and bureaucratic reality. (Fellow wonks, if you want to read an interesting new iteration from Barcelona, scroll down to Report 4 on the Agenda 21 for Culture site.)
Instead of following this model and producing a policy document as big as a dictionary and covering all eventualities, my colleagues on the Art & The Public Purpose project decided to take the opposite approach, in which less is more. What are the core concepts, we asked, that could form the boundaries for a new, democratic cultural policy? Could they be stated in plain language, in a few paragraphs that anyone—even the least wonky among us—could understand and endorse?
Getting to this was largely a process of removing everything extraneous until we arrived at the essence that needed saying. This is pretty much the same sculptural act that Michelangelo famously described—”I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it”—except that I imagine we felt more attachment to the words we chipped away than the sculptor does to discarded fragments of stone. I don’t know if we achieved a masterpiece, but I am sure it is a worthy attempt.
Right now, most people feel there is little chance the U.S. government will adopt the type of cultural policy we seek, supporting a new WPA putting artists to work for public purpose, considering the cultural cost of actions taken in the interest of economic development, protecting public space in culture the way we sometimes protect public lands. But if we endorse this Framework, circulate it, starting bringing essential cultural issues to the forefront of public dialogue, that can change. No one can predict what will initiate the chain-reaction that ends in a tipping point. Why not start here?