Let’s Create Culture, Not Consume It

Posted July 14, 2008 at 3:53pm

In a world of digital television, MP3 players and YouTube, it’s easier than ever for Americans to access the culture around them.

But that only worries Bill Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Most of the American artistic world — music and movies, photography and even much that is online — is owned by big, multinational corporations concerned more about making a buck than preserving the heritage behind what it sells, Ivey argues. As a result, Americans have become really good at buying culture, but not really great in helping create it, he says.

And it’s up to the government to change that, Ivey argues.

“If we get it right, the connection with heritage for citizens and engagement in art and art-making as a … source for a high quality of life … can really be something we could work for,” Ivey said. “Art and culture constitute one way to a high quality of life that isn’t just about buying something.”

Ivey outlines his vision for America’s cultural future in “Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights,” in bookstores now.

In the book, he argues that while culture certainly is the No. 1 way the United States reaches out to the world — think about how many people watch American-produced films, for example — unnecessary copyright laws and a government unwilling to elevate culture to greater prominence have undermined art.

And Ivey is a guy who knows art.

The founding director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, Ivey served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998 to 2001. For more than 25 years before that, he directed the Country Music Foundation.

It was during his years at the NEA that Ivey became really concerned about the future of American culture.

Ivey worked hard to get the agency on good terms with Congress, which led to some modest budget increases. At the same time, he watched as copyright, trademarks and telecommunications legislation were passed and signed into law — without much thought to the consequences.

“It just began to concern me that what we really had was a constellation of issues that really should be dealt with together,” he said. “I began to think about how we might have a conversation, start a conversation, about the importance of culture in a democracy.”

It is possible to fix things through government, Ivey argues in “Arts, Inc.”

For example, he recommends a number of changes to how intellectual property is maintained, argues that public education must do more to encourage artistic endeavors and writes that a coordinated system of international art exchange must be established.

Ivey’s biggest recommendation, however, is to create a Department of Cultural Affairs, which would manage the whole thing.

While Americans have hesitated to involve government in cultural management (we aren’t fond of censorship, after all) many things Ivey thinks should be addressed by the government are already being dealt with by civil servants — just not very well.

“I think Congress has been overstressed to try and manage the culture system by simply manipulating individual parts, never having an opportunity to step back and never talking about the health of the whole,” Ivey said. “It’s not as though Congress doesn’t deal with this stuff. It’s really that each issue tends to be dealt with individually.”

The creation of a Cultural Affairs Department wouldn’t be that radical — most European countries have such agencies, Ivey says. But Ivey also admits that the United States is different than its European counterparts.

“Most countries have culture before they have government,” he says. “So, the government is seen as growing out of French culture, or German culture. I think we had government before we had culture. … We’ve been playing catch-up.”

The probability of creating a new executive department to deal with culture isn’t very high, Ivey concedes — “arts and art making is seen as a little bit squishy,” he says — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something worth thinking about.

“I think there’s good reason to step back,” Ivey says. “To find a way, whether it’s through hearings or a kind of moratorium, to step back and think, ‘What is it that we are really trying to do?’”

Ivey will hold the first area talk about his book at noon today at the Center for American Progress. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Americans for the Arts President Robert Lynch will take part in a panel discussion. Call the center to RSVP at 202-682-1611.