PRINT November 1999


Pew Charitable Trusts

TEN YEARS after Senator Jesse Helms lit into Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe for making “indecent art,” we find ourselves in the midst of another protracted culture war, this time more serious than the first: I’m referring not to the ludicrous attacks by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani on the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but to the campaign, in Congress and elsewhere, to wipe out America’s rapidly eroding cultural resources. As odious as the mayor’s foray into the art world may be, it pales beside the full-scale ecological disaster brought on by the effects of long-term defunding and deliberate neglect. Squabbles over the National Endowment for the Arts have made many Americans suspicious of the arts; K–12 arts education has been cut dramatically; virtually all grassroots and alternative arts organizations are struggling to survive; the costs of museum construction have skyrocketed, as has the price of art for acquisition, with little public support for necessarily increased budgets; museum programs are increasingly dictated by funding from private and corporate sponsors; and even the most basic information about the arts and about cultural policies is unreliable and uncoordinated. Sure, museum attendance is booming nationwide, but scratch the surface of the American scene and you discover a full-fledged cultural meltdown.

To rectify this critical situation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, a $4.7 billion foundation based in Philadelphia, has made an extraordinary commitment to promoting a national cultural policy discourse. In August, the Pew announced that it would allocate $50 million, or about 40 percent of its culture budget over the next five years, to “provide the mechanisms to improve and develop cultural policies in the United States.” This is, of course, a huge endeavor, even with this kind of budget. Wisely, though, the Pew, as the centerpiece of its plan, has provided for a national information center, likely to be located in Washington, DC, that will compile and generate data on the arts, conduct polls, and plan conferences. This will allow cultural leaders (museum administrators, funding agents, dance and theater company heads, writers and critics, as well as artists themselves) both to coordinate their efforts and to be prepared to respond to blitzkrieg attacks of the sort that typified the culture wars of the last decade. In addition, the Pew fund calls for money to be committed to cultural journalism—not just critics’ grants like the NEA once provided, but substantive support for major programs, such as the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University—as part of its agenda to help develop such a channel of communication.

What is remarkable about the Pew plan—beyond its sheer size—is its focus on research and community rather than support for individual artists or grassroots organizations, the historical focus of NEA funding. The proposal is not simply a pragmatic or frantically defensive solution to the culture crisis, but a reasoned and concrete effort to reconstruct (or perhaps to construct for the first time) the discourse around cultural policy, what Stephen R. Urice, the Pew’s National Culture Program Officer, calls “an infrastructure for understanding the role of culture in America.”

Unfortunately, the phrase “cultural policy” still has an awkward bureaucratic ring to many people. Critics—and not just conservative ones—argue that support for cultural policy studies really masks a desire to promote a national arts agenda. In a prominent recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, for example, conservative arts writer Alice Goldfarb Marquis claimed that the goal of the Pew program was “developing a ‘national policy’ for arts and culture” that would include lobbying for inclusion of that policy on the platforms of next year’s presidential candidates.

Marquis went on to argue against the Pew plan, claiming that “American culture is rich precisely because it has no organizing framework” and that “policy is the last thing it needs.” (Of course, it is ironic when conservatives complain about a “national arts policy,” since Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich have been trying for more than a decade to install just such a program through various policing actions.) Marquis’s view implies, of course, that the United States does not currently have a verifiable cultural policy simply because one is unenunciated. In fact, the practices of our national cultural policy are not only readily apparent but also fairly consistent. As Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Center, observes, “State policy toward culture may even be officially neutral, but that is exceedingly difficult to effect in actuality. Use of official language, forms of adornment, even forms of entertainment offered at state functions encourage certain kinds of cultural expression and discourage others.”

Such subtle patterns of exclusion and coercion—in effect, teaching citizens to regulate themselves—are what Michel Foucault referred to as “governmentality,” and these maneuvers are precisely what cultural policy takes as its object of study. Indeed, one of the disheartening conclusions that activists may draw from Foucault’s notion of governmentality is that even oppositional identities can be harnessed to the larger systems of social production and reproduction (this has always formed the basis of the left opposition to cultural policy studies). But cultural policy discourse is not about regulating culture per se, or even about intervening in the direction that culture takes. Rather, it is about understanding how culture itself is regulated. Of course, academics and intellectuals often argue whether one can effect greater change from within the institution, and the nature and direction would be significantly affected if the programs of policy development were in the hands of critical theorists rather than, say, local bureaucrats, but the question remains whether consultants are complicitous in their dealing with policy issues and whether they relinquish their status as critics of governmentality. There is certainly no simple answer to this question, and I think it is wise that the Pew grant seeks to foster rather than resolve such disputes.

Even though cultural policy discourse can be distinguished from the more narrowly semiotic or textual analysis that governs most critical practices, this does not mean that it lacks its own spirited political basis. Australian critical theorist Tony Bennett, one of the leading lights of the nascent cultural policy movement, has argued that the subject encompasses the “programmatic, institutional and governmental conditions in which cultural practices are inscribed [and, therefore, poses] political issues [that] an exclusively critical politics cannot address.” In other words, the goal is not to militate for a particular political position, but rather to understand the regulating effects of institutions and practices and, especially, to comprehend the crucial relations between culture and power.

In a similar way, the Pew initiative, far from advocating a specific national arts agenda, has a more provocative and far-reaching goal than regulation: to establish a strong and effective cultural policy community. This means transforming the cultural landscape by establishing a network of communication and a national discussion about arts policy. Everyone talks about “community,” of course, but the Pew actually has a plan to build one; the foundation’s largesse will be directed toward generating reliable information on the arts, establishing cultural think tanks, and measuring the results of cultural initiatives. The foundation’s earlier grants supported key academic pilot programs, such as Paul DiMaggio’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton University, but the current multimillion-dollar program should move the field well beyond such initial efforts, mapping the terrain and linking currently disparate cultural agendas ranging from historic preservation policy to legal standards governing repatriation of cultural properties.

Flare-ups over specific artworks are dramatic and newsworthy events, but they often distract attention from the destruction taking place elsewhere in the fragile ecology of the cultural field. In the current crisis, the Pew Foundation has raised the alarm just in time and directed a giant klieg light at one of the greatest policy disasters of our generation, the trashing of American culture. Quite appropriately, I think, the Pew has likened this festering condition to the state of the environmental movement before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. One can only hope that, like that crucial text, the Pew initiative can spark the nation’s attention and, in so doing, turn the tide of the “new” culture war.