Cultural Policy: A Failure of Leadership

Cultural Policy: A Failure of Leadership

June, 2015



The United States is unique among Western market democracies and other major powers in its failure to organize official engagement with culture within a centralized government ministry or department.  Following the Second World War, as national identities were reconstructed and the UN gently inserted “culture” into the global conversation about social justice and human rights, many countries either initiated or intensified government involvement with culture, combining responsibilities for activities like trade in cultural goods, intellectual property law, media regulation, and support for artists and artistic endeavors into a single ministry or department.  The US did not.

Not entirely immune from the mid-century global enthusiasm for “governmentalized” culture, the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations all gave lip-service to the importance of arts and culture, including brief mentions in State of the Union addresses.  In 1965, inspired in part by the work of Ford and other foundations, Lyndon Johnson signed legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Voice of America and United States Information Agency were already in place.  But government’s embrace of culture was tentative and never expanded beyond the two endowments, the USIA, and the VOA.

In truth, this mid-20th century period can be viewed as a three-decade “Cold War Exception,” during which American art and artists were seen as exemplary of both U.S. cultural achievement and the unique, free-spirit character of American creativity.  From this mindset, a high-level de facto cultural policy arose, celebrating American artistry as symbolic of American freedom. In fact, the Cold-War utility of US art abroad briefly gave culture a position – albeit a modest one – on the public-policy agenda.  President Richard Nixon briefly toyed with the idea of creating a unified Department of Cultural Affairs.  While the Nixon administration is today viewed as notably supportive of a role for government in culture, the president ultimately backed away from the idea of a cabinet-level cultural department.  Given tepid interest in cultural policy, it should be no surprise that when the US prevailed in its decades-long competitive struggle with the Soviet Union; enthusiasm for government-supported culture waned; the NEA was attacked, the USIA eliminated, while the Voice of America suffered sharp reductions in appropriations.

In the US there was never an attempt to “bundle” the diverse agencies and departments that collectively shape the US cultural system.  So today policy regimes like copyright, film, TV, and music exports, cultural heritage, media ownership, Internet access, and support for fine arts institutions are housed in entities as disparate as the Library of Congress, Office of the US Trade Representative, the Federal Trade Commission, Smithsonian Institution, Federal Communications Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Unfortunately, there is no coordination among any of these or among the many other agencies of government that influence the system in which art, knowledge, and information are created, distributed, consumed and preserved.

Over recent decades, absent any hint of a central departmental “core” around which to craft policy affecting culture, US policymakers have remained uninterested in — even noticeably disdainful of —  cultural work.  These leaders are wrong, because to truly serve public purposes by providing equitable access to cultural heritage, to the tools of personal creativity, to the Internet, digital technology, and to old and new media, the US must combine and coordinate law and regulation affecting intellectual property, trade in cultural goods, international relations, and arts learning to define a robust, unified policy regime.  If society is to address many inequalities in the cultural sphere, advocates interested in cultural vitality as a public good must lead by actually shaping this new arena of public policy — American cultural policy – because at present, when it comes to culture, mainstream policy actors in the U.S. “just don’t go there.”