“Too often culture is thought of as a commodity instead of a public good,” said Sally Steenland, Senior Policy Adviser for Faith and Progressive Policy at Center for American Progress. “It is seen as an extra rather than a human right.”
Steenland moderated a CAP panel on Tuesday about the role of arts and culture in the United States. The event featured Robert Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, and Bill Ivey, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts and author of Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) gave opening remarks and also participated in the panel.
Ivey’s book was the focus of the panel discussion. He said that “greed” and “neglect,” words he used in the title, are key to the problem. Marketplace interference in terms of strict copyright and intellectual property laws are blocking access to our rich cultural heritage and stifling creativity, according to Ivey. Legislators have not dealt effectively with these marketplace forces and pressures. For example, it is illegal for waiters and waitresses to sing “Happy Birthday” to customers in a restaurant because the song is now owned by Sir Paul McCartney.
The panelists contributed to a definition of culture, which they saw as broader than “Culture”—often considered as limited to the opera, symphony, and ballet. Instead, the panelists defined culture with a small “c” as encompassing a rich national heritage and the capacity for each individual to have an expressive life. “You cannot exist as a person without some expressive element to your life,” Rep. Cooper said. “It’s a necessity.”
“Arts activity is linked to practical things like economics,” Lynch said, describing how culture can aid commerce in cities and towns and be an engine of economic strength. He also emphasized the importance of arts investment at a local level, including instruction in schools. “Arts in the classroom are a great unrecognized tool in American advancement,” he said.
The panelists agreed that federal policy concerning the arts was not the major solution to preserving a shared cultural heritage and strengthening cultural expression. Grassroots participation and activism was crucial as well. They differed regarding one of the major recommendations in Ivey’s book: the creation of a federal cabinet-level Department of Cultural Affairs that would provide an integrated approach to cultural legislation, regulation, and funding. While Lynch agreed that it might be a good idea to appoint an official to deal with cultural matters in a coherent way, Rep. Cooper stressed that they had to “get real about the politics” and delineate the problems before urging such a big change.
Finally, the panel looked to the environmental movement as a guide for what can happen when big ideas and detailed policy are used to achieve common goals. Panelists said that the environmental movement was an encouraging model and guide. Ivey hoped that the arts would follow the path of the environmental movement, but he warned that there is still a long way to go because “culture is less widely supported.”
Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN)
Sally Steenland, Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy, Center for American Progress
A light lunch will be served.
A light lunch will be served.