As a historically and by design multicultural nation, cultural policy in the United States has been necessarily enigmatic. One can easily say that in defining the driving policy not only for culture, but for the majority of domestic matters, the government looks to the tenets of free market economics. Where the free market fails to provide ample opportunity for citizens to achieve a maintainable pursuit of happiness or some such thing, the government steps in and tries to establish a method of repairing the market. There are a few places where the government cannot get the open market to support real equality of opportunity (or a lack of industrial infrastructure which can create the market), and so we have permanent semi-social economic fixtures like welfare, social security, the postal service, education and health services, and certain sections of the arts industry. The key to the semi-social economics of the arts industry is that it is only certain art forms that make use of government protection from the free market, indeed, only certain sections need it. There is a thriving arts industry in the free market – many people are making a lot of money from art of various forms, whether it is film, design, theatre, dance or visual arts. So, assuming that the main reason arts administrators talk about cultural policy is to fathom the depths of public funding and tax incentives, they are faced with two difficult caveats in justifying a semi-protected market for the arts. The first one, difficult as it may be, is easy compared to the second. The first caveat is justifying the arts as important to communities while not being sufficiently supported in the free market by those communities that it is so important to. The second, and as of yet hardly approached caveat, is to answer the question of why some arts need protection and others don’t, and more importantly, what constitutes the types of arts that are to be protected.
American cultural policy has in general recoiled from directly dealing with the above policy questions. Although administrations and bureaucrats have produced numerous and flowery (and some not so flowery) documents and statements declaring their view of the arts as integral to a citizen’s education and quality of life, real money is in short supply. The entire NEA is only worth a few B-bombers. The basic federal policy is to supply seed money requiring matching funds to organizations which then act as distributors of funds to artists, whether they are symphonies or basket weavers. State and local policy mirrors this (as do unfortunately many foundations) but of course there is much more variability in policy across that spectrum. Arts organizations in general have tried to increase the amount of public funding by proving the value of arts to a community, by hook or by crook (i.e. by showing art’s positive effect on educational, tourist, or economic factors or anything else not having to do with the actual art), while opponents have tricked them into tying the value of art to public good. Of course it’s hard to argue for the public good of something that very little of the public seems actually interested in. It is my opinion that the nonprofit arts industry has been handed a losing proposition on this matter. In a country where democratic values reign supreme, it is always a losing proposition to argue for public money on the basis of positive public or community effects – for a cultural phenomenon that is inherently subjective, personal, aristocratic and undemocratic due to its true value lying in personal cathartic effects. Art will not be subjugated to democracy, mob rule, or quantitative valuation without losing an important and necessary portion of its true value. Sorry kids, equality does not go to bed with individualism without a few spats and compromises. Regardless, non-profit arts organizations have cornered themselves into proving the value of their product to foundations, the government and wealthy individuals because on some deep level they long ago gave up (or maybe some never really tried – or never wanted to) on convincing the free market of the value of their product. The whole public good junk comes in and says well maybe you’re having so much trouble because your product is not truly valuable. And that, unfortunately, sadly, may be true. Because, as said previously, there is a thriving for-profit arts industry.
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