One thing we’ve been hearing a lot about since the quadruple pandemic hit is the hope that instead of trying to restore our civic and market systems to their former flawed and inequitable state, we should see this enforced pause as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make essential change. People see the opportunity to strengthen democracy, social inclusion, racial equity, economic security, environmental healing, and much more.
Amidst all the time-release news about President-Elect Biden’s Cabinet-secretary and department-head choices, there’s been barely a peep about culture. But sooner or later, Biden will make the appointments that put his stamp on federal cultural agencies. What could he accomplish with his appointment of a Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts?
Way back when Ronald Reagan was elected president, I was working in Washington as an organizer for the now-defunct Alliance for Cultural Democracy, a national organization of artists and groups dedicated to community-based work. When Reagan appointed Frank Hodsoll (who had exactly zero cultural policy experience) to chair the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), I contacted NPR and some print journals to offer a critical take on his choice. I remember NPR’s answer most clearly, because it was the same one they offered every time anyone exhorted them to investigate and cover an issue in cultural policy: “We already have a comment from the NEA.”
This was because forty years ago—just as today—the level of cultural policy dialogue in the US is so thin and simplistic that for anyone but a few aficionados, it comes down to one question: Abolish or keep the NEA? Reagan was initially for abolition, as was Trump, as are pretty much all right-wing voices since the shrewd strategists behind the 1989 attack led by Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association discovered they could raise a ton of money and outrage by sending out pictures of publicly funded artwork their constituencies would consider obscene. (If you want a recap of the whole situation, here’s one I wrote in 2011.) Most Democratic administrations come down on the other side of the question, though you’d hardly know it from their limp action and advocacy. (You’d never know it from the boasting of advocacy organizations about “saving the NEA,” but the real value of the NEA budget today is less than half what it was before Reagan.)
I got to try broadening the argument in the media in 1982, when the New York Times invited me to a roundtable discussion with then-NEA Chair Hodsoll and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin (both have since passed away). You can read the transcript here, so long as you promise not to get too depressed over how little the conversation on cultural democracy has penetrated the mainstream since then.
Biden will assuredly include the NEA in his budget proposals, and just as the agency has withstood previous abolition attacks, it will survive. That’s a good thing, as though its budget is paltry, it has channeled funds to many worthwhile organizations. Despite huge turnover, some good staff people have stuck and there are still some excellent folks on the National Council for the Arts, doing their best. So if you are judging by individual effort, there’s little to criticize.
The trouble is, a national cultural agency shouldn’t be judged by how nice or dedicated or long-suffering or honest its civil servants are. The most meaningful criterion goes to purpose: is this bureaucracy and its apparatus for distributing funds to states and organizations (there are a couple of individual fellowship programs, but most went away during the late-eighties “culture wars”) rooted in the most crucial cultural policy goals? Is it using public resources to balance the inequities of market culture? Is it dedicated to ensuring that everyone has optimal access to freedom of expression and the resources that make it possible?
In a word, no. In fact, it’s kind of impossible to imagine the NEA doing the job a truly democratic and effective cultural agency ought to do, because its major flaws and obstacles have been baked in from its founding in 1965. The agency was conceived to close the “culture gap” between major performing arts institutions’ earnings and desires. It was critically important to the market apparatchiks who conceived the NEA that any public agency be modeled after private patronage. So when you apply for an NEA grant, you expect to fill out a ton of paperwork (that’s culling mechanism number one, since you need the time, staff, and other resources to do that); to be judged on things like reviews and the opinions of known names in a particular discipline (that’s culling mechanism number two, since it takes a certain level of investment and networking to be known in those ways); and most likely, to be rejected the first few times (culling mechanism number three, a masochistic level of persistence).
If you want to read more about this, check out this 2011 essay, which provides the history and lists what I considered humane and ethical cultural development goals, none of which you will find in the annals of the NEA:
- Full cultural citizenship, where all have equal encouragement and support to feel at home in our own communities, to have a say in cultural life, to see and be seen, understand and be understood by our neighbors;
- Active cultural participation, to balance a surfeit of passive private-sector entertainments, with ample opportunities to learn, create, and experience the cultural commons, bringing us out into connection with our fellow citizens;
- Full social integration of arts methods and approaches, so that education, healing, and every other public good has the benefit of artists’ gifts and methods to enliven and engage community members;
- Awareness of and intervention throughout the entire cultural landscape, seeing commercial culture, nonprofit work, and informal participation as an ecology, and providing stimulus toward national goals throughout the ecosystem;
- Equity in the distribution of resources and access to systems, so that everyone has equal access to the means and fruits of cultural creativity, with restorative funding to redress past imbalances;
- Awareness of the cultural impact of public policies and actions (such as urban redevelopment), giving community cultural life a standing in decisions that are now seen as merely economic; and
- Many opportunities to learn and practice imagination and empathy through arts work, consciously investing in our collective capacity to develop compassion and connection through many forms of sharing stories.
Instead of taking up these truly important questions, I’ve seen exactly one cultural policy point put forward by people who hope to influence the Biden administration, and that point is entirely structural: appoint a Cabinet-level cultural “czar” to represent the federal agencies that deal with culture. This piece is typical, and typically silly. The idea is that arts and culture would have more standing and visibility within the federal government if they had a seat at the Cabinet table.
Maybe, maybe not. The Present Occupant of the White House has managed to entirely ignore and damage or eliminate many social goods funded by taxpayers by securing the pliant collaboration of the executives appointed to oversee those departments. There is no purely structural solution to a problem that is caused by the lack of coherent and meaningful goals and values.
So who should Biden appoint to Chair the NEA? He should appoint someone who is:
acquainted with the full range of cultural organizations, culture-bearers, culture-builders, and artistic expression across the country, urban, rural, and otherwise;
truly conversant in domestic and international intercultural dialogue and cultural policy debate;
deeply committed to cultural democracy: pluralism, participation, and equity;
eager to bring the agency in line with culturally democratic values, restructuring as needing, discarding what’s outdated (e.g., arts discipline categories that no longer reflect the character of artmaking), and focusing on watering the roots of culture rather than fomenting competition that is onerous and frustrating for applicants;
understanding of the entire cultural ecology, rejecting old hierarchies of value in favor of an ecosystem approach that takes in not only arts work but also includes telecommunications, education, cultural preservation; public space and community development; intercultural relations, and more.
aware of the need for restorative justice in funding—channeling resources to communities that have been systematically underfunded—and willing to enact it; and
well-equipped to address, deflect, or defuse right-wing attacks.
But will he? Well, he’s appointed an arts and humanities transition team made up entirely of competent and sincere folks who work for institutions or represent interests that have benefited from the existing agency set-up, so there’s no reason to think the considerations I’ve outlined here will be part of deliberations. I’m anticipating that he’ll appoint someone who has been head of a state or regional arts agency or a major institution, someone who satisfies the red-carpet arts groups who don’t want to see the boat rocked.
But I’d really like to be wrong.
Marva Wright singing Bob Dylan’s “Serve Somebody.”