Monday, March 16, 2009

Do We Need a Cultural Bill of Rights?

– And by the way, are you getting the Expressive Life you’re entitled to? –absent_art.jpg

Here’s an egregious adaptation of some famous words by William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult to get current events, wealth or social standing from the arts, but people die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

Author Bill Ivey would agree, as attested in his stirring new book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.

Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is convinced that America’s collective appreciation for — and cultivation of — art and culture is withering in a social climate where the mentality of big business reigns and a mania for the bottom line severely impoverishes the cultural lives of Americans.

Not only is our intake of art reduced to “product” that best “performs” — i.e., conforms to market analyses — but since the early twentieth-century our nation’s artistic heritage (in other words, private art-making passed down through tradition) has been increasingly threatened, a result of America’s steady development into an almost strictly consumer culture (recall that our recessional woes owe much to our 70 percent consumer-driven economy). Ivey writes:

By the 1920s new arts companies offering new arts products were converting engagement in art into an act of consumption. The notion of participation was reshaped — its sense of doing replaced by passive activities like purchasing a recording or attending a concert or exhibition. … The commoditization of emerging art forms pumped up the taking in (consumption) at the expense of making art.

As revealed by the virtually unrestrained media conglomeration and rise of big-box retailers over the last quarter-century or so (witness your neighborhood’s own big_box_stores_pshrink40.JPGWal-Marts, Targets, and Best Buys), this culture of consumption-over-creation has only gotten worse. Which means, says Ivey, that we are all being cheated out of something that ought to be endemic to any thriving culture built upon democratic, pluralistic values, namely: our “expressive life.”

The term is Ivey’s coinage, and refers to “a reservoir of identity and spiritual renewal powerful enough to replace the fading allure of empty consumerism.”

Today this Expressive Life is rarely attributed the importance it deserves, but is nevertheless a vital-sign of culture and societal health, or as Ivey puts it:

A realm of being and behavior that …can be as distinct as ‘family life’ or ‘work life.’ …[It is] something akin to tradition, a place where community heritage interacts with individual creativity, maintaining the past while letting in the new.

Who is working effectively to repair our diminished Expressive Life?

Ivey pleads passionately for Americans to take the pulse of their nation’s cultural wellbeing and see if we don’t need a new cultural fitness program. Not only is personal art-making at risk in a society where the marketplace rules all, but professional art-making is in distress, thanks in no small part to bottom-line thinking, as well as to the predominance of “intellectual property” and broad expansions in restrictive copyright:

By failing to link our expressive life to America’s public purpose, we have placed our nation’s heart and soul at risk. We are forcing our great artists to navigate a complex and discouraging marketplace in order to survive. We have converted the shared memory embedded in our priceless cultural heritage into mere ‘intellectual property,’ which is bought, sold, abandoned, or simply locked away in the vaults of giant media companies.

For the record, Ivey’s subtitle, How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Culturalarts_inc_bk_cvr.jpg Rights, dangles unfittingly; better if it continued: … And What We Can Do About It, for he offers a range of fresh policy ideas, all of which gravitate around his astonishing central premise that America ought to adopt a “Cultural Bill of Rights” and establish an office of cultural affairs dedicated to the protection of those rights.

Arts, Inc. even includes Ivey’s prototype for just such a document (which, it should be noted, would advocate not for the rights of any one artistic community, but for artistic culture in the broadest sense):

The right to explore [the arts of]…both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.

It’s wonderfully fresh thinking — and makes for an affirming read. Surely we’d all agree that more art for everybody can only be a cultural positive. (Writer D.K. Row hints as much in this fine Oregonian article in support of gallery-going in hard economic times).

But … there’s a frightful prospect that inevitably accompanies any vision of legislative cultural advocacy like Ivey’s, and that is a government empowered to tell us what art is, how it should sound, what it should show, etc. Censorship, and all the gray areas that come with it, is the big ugly genie in the bottle here.

Or … maybe not. Ivey (who, by the way, was an advisor on President Obama’s transition team) compellingly demonstrates that de facto government censorship is already with us, through heavy fines levied by the Federal Communications Commission.

We must lay our fears of a new McCarthyism to rest, says Ivey, if we are to counterbalance the prevalence of corporate mindset in our arts system.

One example of that prevalence (not mentioned in Ivey’s book): Ever heard of BookScan? It’s a point-of-sale technology used by mega-bookstores (nefariously) to track the sales history of authors — and to excise store inventories of those writers whose “product” fails to “move.” This means that if your last book sold less than 20,000 copies you’re likely to miss your shot at shelf space in such a store — that is, unless your publisher coughs up the fee for a special co-op display. “Who can argue with that?” say BookScan apologists. “Sales figures don’t lie.” And so the gatekeepers of the present cultural system (read: market executives) keep on looking for the next sure “big thing.”

black_canvases.jpgUntil we articulate our cultural rights and take measures to protect them, such cash-cow worship will continue unfettered, and will further narrow what cultural offerings come readily available to the public.

Likewise, private ownership of our cultural heritage will only grow broader. (Did you know that the monolithic firm CORBIS owns the famous photograph of JFK Jr. standing in short-pants and saluting his father’s coffin? Thought that image was a part of every American’s heritage? Actually, it’s “intellectual property.” Happen to be a teacher and want to use it in a history lesson? Fine, but it’ll cost you.)

Where, in such a system, do we see the artists and cultural advocates having their say? Federal cultural initiatives and endowments, says Ivey, are well-meaning but politicized to the point of dysfunction. Lacking a central and binding proclamation of cultural rights, such organizations inevitably get bogged down in petty congressional partisanship. The public non-profits sector, on the other hand, is in a shambles and has succeeded in little more than polarizing culture by class: expensive highbrow versus popular lowbrow. (Maybe Creative Commons, for one, is a start.)

But what we need is an organized office working in service to our fully articulated rights to cultural wellbeing.

Ivey asks the right question:

How could a department of cultural affairs possibly generate a cultural system less functional, less attuned to public purposes, than the one we’ve been handed by a century of marketplace arrogance and government indifference?beginning_artist_shrink35.JPG

Are you ready to claim your Expressive Life and stand up for your cultural rights? Read Arts, Inc. and decide.

* * *

A society that does not labor to be beautiful becomes indifferent to smog, litter, what Henry James called ‘trash triumphant,’ lurid communications, wretched TV, billboards, strip malls, blatancies of noise and confusion — or it considers these things the price you have to pay to make more money. --Denis Donaghue

(This post also appeared at Soul Shelter)


  1. I very much enjoyed this post. I think I'll order the book. Thanks.

    Would love to strike up a conversation with you about Art Activism, guerrilla literature, and more.

  2. Nice to hear from you, Quinn. I hope you do pick up a copy of Arts Inc.

    By the way, here's an update on the subject of this post -- Tues. March 17, 2009: "President Obama Establishes White House Arts & Culture Post." A step forward perhaps?

    Congrats on your forthcoming book. I'll be in touch.