To begin a discussion of cultural policy in the United States it is unfortunately necessary to first decide not only what culture is, but what it is when placed next to Policy in the context of the state. That brings up the question of what is meant by the word ‘state’ – or that group that any policy is supposed to be a product of. In the United States, because of its peculiar and somewhat unique history of being an amalgamation of cultures imported, rather than the development of a culture out of geographical and historical necessity, there are what seem to be two or three effective cultural policies aside from the official state proclamation. This is because the government chooses to have comparatively little power over the cultural developments of its citizens. The larger part of cultural activity is the domain of the free market; however the government does set broad policies in this arena. There are strict guidelines as to the use of certain words and the description of certain acts using public channels of cultural dispersion. There are also both self-imposed and state-imposed rating systems to define the age at which children and young adults are publicly condoned to participate in certain cultural activities. Examples of this type of free-market cultural policy include drinking laws, obscenity laws, movie and video game rating systems, and even marriage laws. These examples are rarely considered as true ‘cultural policies’, yet more than any other government activity they are true cultural policy. The one area where the American representational government system has never shied away from imposing restrictions or definitions upon the general culture is where it butts up against cultural values of morality.
Yet when we speak of cultural policy we immediately think of the arts. This is because when the government sets ratings for movies or limits the sexual content of public broadcasts they are dealing with fairly measurable aspects of an art – usually sex or violence content – rather than a measurement of merit or the public good of an art. Or it has to do with an ‘un-artistic’ cultural phenomenon, such as marriage laws, that are looked at as legal rather than cultural questions. Official cultural policy concerning the ‘arts’ carries with it a connotation not of what the government will limit as in the case above, but in what it will directly support, either through monetary contributions or tax law. So if we are to discuss cultural policy in the United States, we must consider the other powerful players in the game of directly supporting the arts. These are the philanthropists and the grant-making foundations, and to a large extent, the free-market.
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