This is my final installment in a weeklong blogfest on art and political power I’m cohosting with blogger Barry Hessenius. To readers who aren’t as obsessed with this subject as we are, thanks for hanging in! I promise my next blog will be about something completely different (reader’s choice, if you want to make a suggestion), and I am now returning to the usual pace of one or two essays a week.
The entire series can be accessed here, including a dialogue between Barry and myself, and posts by Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, Diane Ragsdale, creator of the “Jumper” blog, Ra Joy, Executive Director of Arts Alliance Illinois, and Dudley Cocke, Director of Roadside Theater. To each, we posed this question:
The way we’ve been doing arts advocacy for the past thirty years isn’t working: the real value of the NEA budget has dropped by well over half, for instance, and state funding has nosedived. We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right. With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it: why and how would artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and true political power? What would you do for the arts to develop real political clout—and what has to change for us to move down that path?
Please read, forward, and comment!
Clout: A Blogfest on Art & Political Power. Part 7: Wrap-up from Arlene.
I’m grateful to everyone who took part in this blogfest, here on my website and through their own blogs, and especially to my cohost, Barry Hessenius. It showed me that there is considerable energy and imagination to bring to questions of cultural policy and political power, and that this resource isn’t being tapped enough to support the ongoing, vibrant dialogue that should be front and center in public discourse.
It also surprised me to be charged with excessive pessimism by two of the participating bloggers—Roberto Bedoya and Diane Ragsdale—as I usually field the opposite charge, having to deny being a mindless optimist (or an optimist at all, since I prefer to think of myself as an agnostic with her eyes open to enormous potential).
The blogfest made me realize that for me, this is not one topic, but three, and my thoughts and feelings about each are very different: (1) Cultural development: What is happening? What does it all mean?; (2) Public cultural policy and funding; and (3) What’s needed now.
(1) Cultural development: What is happening? What does it all mean?
Every culture develops; the question is how. Many influences come to bear on the cultural landscape: technologies; changes in population; interventions by institutions and funders; and all of the forces that affect every social sector.
Here in the United States, we’ve seen remarkable changes in the past few decades, as digital technologies have expanded our capacities for artistic creation, dissemination, and interaction. Culture is now at the center of civil society to a much greater extent than at any time in our history. We conduct our national conversation about even the most crucial issues through music and media. Consider how much of our political discourse is now shared in video clips comprising performances of dialogue, music, and accompanying images. I get up to a dozen short movies every day via email from people who are trying to alert me to important issues and occurrences, or engage me in public campaigns. They are now our primary form of public discourse.
Nobody made this happen through the application of conscious strategy. But it is self-evidently the new cultural reality, and all indications are that it will grow and evolve for some time. I’ve written often about the ways scientific research is converging with what many of us know about art through lived experience: how artistic capabilities have been survival traits for the human species; how art can heal the mind and body; how culture can create the container for social healing; how movement, imagery, and music can help us access important cognitive functions and promote understanding far better than old-style dry data, by providing a human context for information and connecting ideas and emotions.
When a new reality emerges, not everyone perceives it. It takes some time to filter up and trickle down. The most important question is whether some of those who don’t yet get the new reality are in a position to impede it. Right now, among those who don’t yet understand the centrality of human creativity—especially artistic creativity—to life as it is now lived and to a sustainable future are many of the operators or our existing social institutions, including policymakers. They are still so strongly attached to an old mechanistic model of value that they simply cannot perceive what is otherwise evident everywhere.
Unfortunately, living as we are—camped out on the bridge between paradigms—those gatekeepers get in the way. But the signs are strong that it’s only a matter of time. The public and nonprofit sectors tend to be behind the curve when it comes to social innovations. So right now, foundations and government agencies are particularly enraptured with metrics and benchmarks, insisting that numbers are the best language in which to convey value, even social value.
But take a look at the most exciting thought leaders in the business sector, and you will see something very different: a growing recognition that the obsession with metrics distorts perspective, pushing people to serve the numbers (the business equivalent of pervasive “teaching to the tests” we see in education); and that success is all about relationship, which is subtle, fluid, human, and subjective. Business thinkers are urging businesses to tell stories; to hire people with the skills of improvisation and imagination; to learn how to listen and cultivate connection; to privilege meaning over metrics. It only a matter of time before nonprofits and government catch up.
When they do, my guess is the first thing they’ll see is that culture can no longer be neatly divided into for-profit/non-profit, nor into the traditional disciplines (this is dance, that is theater; this is painting, that is sculpture)—or rather, there is no point in insisting on all these boundaries unless you’re a resource-provider who wants a convenient set of gates to keep. Culture is an ecology, as I perpetually insist, in which each element interacts with, supports, and influences the others. The sooner the guardians of our official policymaking see this, the better. It exhausts arts advocates to keep coming up with even halfway plausible arguments to rope off the subsidized arts from the commerical ones, and in their exhausted state, absurdities abound. You get advocates bemoaning the state of music, for instance, when music—considered as whole sphere, from community choirs to elementary music lessons to symphony orchestras to Broadway musicals to salsa dances to jazz clubs to the top of the hip-hop charts and beyond—permeates practically every waking moment of almost every life. (Several guest bloggers alluded to this, including Diane Ragsdale, taking off from a framework proposed by Bill Ivey.)
(2) Public cultural policy and funding
But I don’t want to wait around for that to happen in its own good time. Bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace, resisting anything that might disturb its well-worn rut. And the nonprofit and public sectors belong to the public, both literally and figuratively. We pay the taxes, grant the tax exemptions, elect the decisionmakers who employ the regulators. In return, we get institutions and agencies charged with responsibilities that the marketplace can never effectively perform: ensuring human rights; investing in social well-being through education, health, housing, conservation, culture, and other social goods; providing a buffer zone between the marketplace and the citizenry, so that those who lack power and privilege do not succumb to the war of each against all that is unbridled capitalism.
I applaud the DIY energy that Diane Ragsdale described in her blog, grounded in nonprofit sector resilience:
Is it a stretch to think that such resilience might very well go hand-in-hand with our decentralized, indirect subsidy system? When government closes a door, quite often some wealthy individual opens a window (and doesn’t attach strings to funding like expectations of ‘access’ or ‘education’). And should no benefactor open a window? Well, there’s always the market (after all, it’s in the DNA of many in the sector).
But I can’t just say, “Oh, well, that’s going great, so let’s leave government to the people who are now calling the tune and focus our attention elsewhere.” Those window-opening wealthy individuals are a lot less thick on the ground for arts work in rural communities, low-income communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, for one thing—and I don’t want to live in a public culture shaped by a sort of social Darwinism that privileges the taste and clings to the comfort zone of wealthy donors. Of course, many artists and groups are resilient and resourceful in finding ways to stay afloat. But I can’t help wanting to see what they could do if subsistence didn’t take so much time from creative thinking and practice. Watch out, world!
Even more than that, it appalls and nauseates me that we have let this country become a wholly owned subsidary of Corporation Nation. I can’t just sit blithely by while politicians fund the planet’s largest prison system, subsidies for Big Oil, a war industry that every day makes living more dangerous and deadly, and tax breaks for the wealthiest, then stand with straight faces to say we can’t afford decent education, healthcare, or the kind of cultural development investment that even the poorest nations typically make. The surrealism of that big lie, and evident ease with which so many people swallow it, indicate a cultural crisis of epic proportions. I know mine is a minority voice in holding the public sector to a full measure of public responsibility, but so what? On this, I know I am right, and some guest bloggers see it similarly, including Dudley Cocke:
This raises the question of how, in our democracy, the majority of us have become subjugated to a wealthy minority of us. When we talk about the arts gaining political power, I think this is the bigger problem we need to address, and I’m worried that we’ve lost the democratic infrastructure to pursue a solution.
Roberto Bedoya said it well in his blog: “So advocacy for me is not about arts advocacy, it advocating for and defending the very meaning of public—of the public good embedded in civil society.”
Just so, Ra Joy and others advocate artists’ involvement with civil society in its entirety:
My second recommendation for building political power for the arts is to position cultural organizations as centers of democracy. I believe deeply that democracy is a verb—it’s not something we have, it’s something we do. And I think more artists and cultural organizations should “do” democracy.
With artists and cultural organizations involved—as good cultural citizens—in the full range of public discourse and deliberation affecting their communities, support for cultural development also spreads across the public and non-profit sectors, rather than being sequestered to a few small arts agencies. Under Rocco Landesman, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been moving this way, creating pilot partnerships with other agencies of federal government. This is a good beginning, but too often gets sidetracked by the arts agency being the weak partner, which ends up distorting democratic cultural values in favor of conforming to the language, values, and bureaucratic structures of the larger, stronger partner agencies. Ultimately, the public interest in cultural development has to be encompassed by a comprehensive cultural policy that mandates across-the-board involvement and cooperation. If and when that happens, it will be both top-down (a policy directive from some future White House) and bottom-up (the public sector finally integrating what has long been evident to many of its citizens).
(3) What’s needed now
In my writing and public speaking, I’ve mentioned the NEA more in the last couple of years than during the two previous decades. Why?
It’s because the agency’s funding is such a rich and handy symbol for everything that’s wrong with our current cultural policy and national advocacy. First, there’s the absurdity of spending only 50 cents per capita on the public interest in art: 50 cents to balance the excesses of the marketplace, make space for marginalized voices, water the roots of creativity!?! Second, there’s the fact that though the FY 2012 NEA appropriation is only $8 million less than FY 1980’s $154 million (68 cents per capita), the real value of the appropriation has dropped by over 60 percent. In the same period, our spending on prisons and associated costs increased by 500 percent in constant dollars, more than a doubling of real value! (This chart only covers 1982-2007, but is still worth a glance.) Do you need the numbers to know that the story has been the same with respect to war (if you do, we’re still spending more than two annual NEA budgets a day, seven days a week, on war), and on subsidies to Big Energy, Big Pharma, and Big Guns?
Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered? Most advocates never mention our egregiously distorted national priorities when they drum up support for the NEA’s appropriation. Most never mention that if they succeed in helping another $10 million to be restored to that appropriation, they will still be far less than halfway to securing even the paltry value of 1980’s appropriation. I suspect that my feeling about these realities is the reason why a couple of bloggers felt I was too pessimistic.
That’s why I talk about the NEA: I have the idea—perhaps mistaken—that the starkness of the contrast between conventional discourse and hard reality will help to awaken the urgent sense of cultural citizenship we need. Otherwise, sure: the agency is still minuscule compared either to its counterparts abroad or to the landscape of need and opportunity here in the U.S. Diane Ragsdale is ready to consider letting it go: “What if the NEA were disintegrated and its components set free to be recombined (with other components) into an agency to fund the realization of Ivey’s Cultural Bill of Rights?” Politically, I don’t see much wisdom in jettisoning the NEA at a point when our national cultural policy dialogue is so anemic that its replacement is likely to be nothing. But neither is it the centerpiece of my vision for the future, as you will see below.
It isn’t a lack of good ideas that keeps things stuck. Instead, I think it’s three factors:
- First, pervasive resignation to the status quo. This still allows for creativity in wiring around it, finding pathways to success that bypass a stultified system, as Diane Ragsdale pointed out, instead of trying to change it. But it keeps this conversation from enlarging to engage a much broader group of those who are affected (which is to say, everyone). I’d like to see a lot more people pointing out what our current spending says about public priorities, for instance, contrasting culture to incarceration, and demanding that change.
- Second, too many artists and arts organization reps are hanging onto old barriers and boundaries within the cultural landscape. What do they get out of pretending there’s some guarded frontier between not-for-profit land and Hollywood? A sense of specialness, often, that is some kind of compensation for feeling marginalized. The public has to be the main beneficiary for any good public policy. Stand down the border patrol and invite the public in.
- Third, there’s a puzzling resistance to articulating cultural goals that serve the entire body politic. We should adopt the overarching cultural policy goal of an active, engaged citizenry, participating in a rich public cultural life.
There are many private actors whose funding choices influence the cultural landscape: foundations, corporations, collectors, investors, and so on. They have no obligation to adopt public goals, or indeed, any conscious goals at all. Some are interested in publicity, some in beauty or innovation or prestige or the expression of personality or a hundred other things that can be pursued through art, and all of this is part of the landscape.
But the public sector should and must be shaped by the principle that there is a public interest in cultural development, that should be guided by democratic values of pluralism, participation, and equity (often summarized with the rubric “cultural democracy”). As distinct from private actors, our overarching public purpose should be to balance other forces, the ones that tend to consolidate cultural privilege, power, and wealth. It is an essential and uniquely public role, and most of the deficiencies on our own cultural landscape can be traced to the fact that we have abandoned it.
Instead, I propose four governing ideas that can sweep across the cultural landscape, sending ripples in all directions.
Encompass the whole landscape: If you look at the entire cultural landscape as an ecology, you see some parts that are very richly fed and others that need nourishment. The instant we begin to consider how they can be conjoined (the way everything in the forest, dead or alive, supports something else), ideas spring up for new revenue streams to underwrite cultural development. Some commenters on the blogfest proposed ways of doing this, such as a small tax on commercial events to subsidize noncommercial ones. My favorite is a tax on advertising to support new creation.
We have an excess of passive, capital-intensive entertainment, and limited exposure and accessibility to diverse voices: it should be a public goal to pursue balance; let’s tax video games to support youth arts learning and participation.
We should adopt the goal of a vibrant, multi-directional media landscape. We have an excess of authoritative voices broadcasting from the center to the margins, and limited exposure and accessibility to other views of the world, other ways to tell the story; let’s require commercial news and public affairs providers to tithe to a fund for independent media and community broadcasting. We should adopt the goal of full cultural citizenship. We have an excess of museums and public monuments enshrining a white-father view of U.S. history; let’s support a much fuller story that acknowledges everyone’s contributions to our common culture, not as an add-on during Black History Month, but all year round.
To implement this policy of cultural ecology and cultural democracy, we need a nuanced, decentralized system that stresses relationship over metrics, where multiple, diverse actors can collaborate or act independently, in a fluid dance of development that mirrors the process of art-making: skillful, experimental, story-based, humane, aware.
Total arts integration: We should push for artists and arts work to be an integral part of every public- and nonprofit-sector agency and activity. This is already beginning to happen organically in the private sector, with a few inroads into government and nonprofits. Education is better with teaching artists in every classroom; communications are better when artists are devising creative ways to place data in human contexts; health care is better when storytellers are part of every clinic and hospital intake process, helping patients to discover the roots of their own resilience and healing; and so on. Similarly, artists are functioning more and more as citizens, bringing their gifts to public forums, to organizing projects, and to street-level campaigns.
This is a snowballing phenomenon: everyone can work on it in any local, state, or national context, and the aggregate of all our efforts will shift the weight toward culture as the container for our national conversation about values, identity, democracy, and community. Right now, at the agency level, existing allocations for public information that no one reads and public hearing processes no one trusts can be repurposed for artists’ work in community engagement. In future, a new public service employment program can create jobs for artists and creative organizers, helping to address our epidemic unemployment through investment in cultural development.
Give culture standing: In the first installment of this blogfest and elsewhere, I proposed a cultural impact report:
We need to institute something like a “cultural impact report,” analogous to an environmental impact report, assessing the cultural impact of public actions such as leveling historic neighborhoods to build sports stadiums. If a community’s cultural fabric has no legal standing, we’ll just keep on making those same inhumane and short-sighted “urban removal” decisions over and over again. The environmental impact report was one of the first innovations of the environmental movement to infuse daily public decisions with environmental awareness. I’m not saying it would be easy to institute a cultural counterpart, but campaigning for it would do a lot to raise cultural awareness.
Maybe that’s the right device and maybe something else would be better, but however it is implemented, the goal is essential: to give culture standing in our public and private deliberations. Right now, there are grounds to stop a freeway or sports stadium from decimating a well-established community and shredding its cultural fabric: officials and regulators may discover an endangered species habitat, or run a cost-benefit analysis that calls the allocation into question. But there’s no basis for taking cultural life per se into consideration. We’ve seen the results of ignoring it, such as neutron-bomb urban removal that creates downtown wastelands no one visits unless there’s a stellar attraction at the shiny new peforming arts complex. Virtually every public and private action has cultural impact. Just imagine what would change for the better if we started taking it seriously.
Achieve cultural equity: This is a public-sector responsibility, to regard all members of our national community with the same respect, and to take action to remedy the structural racism and embedded privilege that have skewed cultural funding toward the haves. Everyone has the right to full cultural citizenship, the sense of belonging in one’s own community, the sense that one’s cultural contributions count, the unequivocal invitation to be an equal contributor in shaping cultural life. As I wrote in the first blog in this fest:
We need cultural equity, in which access, funding, and other social goods are distributed fairly among all groups and categories. There’s always been a contradiction that funding is skewed toward the haves—mostly white, urban institutions—but when advocacy time comes around, the have-nots are expected to be good sports and rally to the cause. In my dream, the most powerful spokespeople for the subsidized arts—the heads of the major institutions and agencies—stand up to advocate in no uncertain terms for equity for communities of color and others without the same access to capital. That would attract some attention!
Contending ideas are out there, but they don’t get much play. Bill Ivey’s Cultural Bill of Rights seems unobjectionable, but weak, in that it makes no reference to impediments to the right to culture: what about the right to a fair share of resources, and the right to remedial action to balance the embedded racism and sexism of past allocations? What about the right for communities’ cultural fabric to be considered in policy decisions and allocations affecting it? In 2009, I was part of a group that suggested an alternate framework, which still seems sound to me, although it does not encompass a complete range of policy issues. At her Creative Infrastructure blog, Linda Essig proposes four priorities for public funding.
These are not special pleading for artists, but broad public-benefit policies that incorporate acknowledgement and support for the public interest in art and artists. Culture precedes politics, as my friend Jeff Chang is fond of saying. By the time new laws and appropriations happen, innovations are embedded across the cultural landscape. The next step to real political clout? Democratic ideas of culture need to be in much, much wider circulation: written about, debated, blogged about, filmed, sung, danced, and staged, feeding the rich soil in which cultural democracy can take root.
Thanks to everyone who took part in this iteration of the needed conversation, Clout: A Blogfest on Art & Political Power.” Can’t wait to see what’s next!
Gregory Porter, an almost a capella version of “Feeling Good.” “You know what I mean.”