The Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight says that we won’t hear about cultural policy during the presidential debates, not because cultural policy is trivial, but because the debates are designed to be trivial. They aren’t debates at all “but elaborately scripted reality television shows.”
So how about considering these issues?
As it stands now, corporate arts funding is just a self-congratulatory form of cautious corporate advertising — and tax deductible to boot. No corporation will ever provide wide-ranging economic stimulus for a free and vibrant creative community. And that’s bad cultural policy.
Second, how about the National Endowment for the Arts, neutered 15 years ago in the culture wars? At its 1992 peak, the NEA budget was a pathetic $176 million, or about 84 cents per citizen. With a budget now of $145 million — not quite five hours’ worth of the Iraq occupation — it’s withered to less than 50 cents per capita.
But forget about budget debates, which turn the discussion away from common public interest and toward special-interest lobbying. Instead, what if the NEA just changed the rules? What if, say, its art museum exhibition grants were available only to shows that are open free to the public? That one small policy change would cause a profound shift in the way American museums do business.
Currently, the public pays three times. We indirectly subsidize art museums through their tax-exempt status. We are taxed for the NEA. Finally, we have the privilege of privately ponying up at the museum box office to see the art. That’s more bad cultural policy.
These two examples, taxpayer equity and a public-spirited NEA, both represent a cultural perspective at the opposite end of the spectrum from where we stand today.