This is a long piece. If you’d like the very short version, you can find it here.
In Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998-2001 and Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University (more expansive bio here) makes the case that our cultural and artistic heritage is a set of public assets that should benefit us all, but instead are too often captured or squandered by existing cultural institutions. Ivey seeks to remedy this through the framework of a Cultural Bill of Rights. Since the book was published in 2008, Arts, Inc. has been frequently cited by arts bloggers, and Ivey has continued to speak about the topics in the book at various seminars and conferences.
Each item in Ivey’s Cultural Bill of Rights forms the basis of a chapter in the book, wherein Ivey explains why, in his opinion, we do not enjoy that particular right. He then goes into greater depth on how our government has failed to secure these rights, and closes with suggestions for how these rights could be established.
“The right to our heritage—the right to explore music, literature, drama, painting and dance that define both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.” In Ivey’s view, we do not enjoy this right because the vast majority of the cultural and artistic record of our own nation is owned by for-profit corporations, who seek to exploit whatever can be profitable and ignore or leave to molder those items with little commercial value. When perceived commercial value of a cultural artifact is low, preservation is inconsistent and ad hoc. Corporate rights owners don’t always take their de facto role as cultural archivists seriously. And intellectual property law greatly favors the owners, so when commercial value is high, costs for use can be very high indeed. Ivey cleverly illuminates the omnipresent property status of our cultural and historical record by including the rights owner and royalty fee for each photo used in the book.
“The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life—through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate.” Ivey asserts that the sacrifices often required of artists, and the difficulty generating an income, discourage many artists from fully utilizing their skills. Even artists who appear to have “made it” by, for example, signing a recording contract, still struggle to gain the attention of their employers. And artists whose potential contribution is not immediately recognized are less likely to be supported by industries focused on immediate profit. Ivey discusses Bob Dylan’s career, and doubts that Bob Dylan would become a well-known musical artist today.
Furthermore, according to Ivey, the public little understands and values artistic professions, which hinders the engagement of artists with their communities. Or, as Ivey quotes an art student friend from college, “Every family wants a Picasso hanging on the wall, but no family wants one standing in the living room.”
“The right to an artistic life—the right to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design or otherwise live a life of active creativity.” Ivey presents a long list of reasons he has perceived why each one of us does not have equal access to artistic tools that provide us with a means of expression:
- Access to high quality training for the underprivileged is irregular and often dependent upon the limited resources of charitable organizations. Even free guitar tutorials on YouTube are not available across the digital divide.
- Universal arts education usually exists through primary school at some level, but then generally becomes elective.
- There aren’t enough art educators, and it is difficult for professional artists to teach in-residence without educational certifications.
- We conflate happiness with wealth creation, and so pursue skills suited to wealth creation rather than happiness.
- Participation has been reframed as attendance, rather than personal artistic expression.
“The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America’s democratic values and ideals.” Ivey opens the chapter noting that post-September 11th, many Americans were shocked to learn how lowly our nation is esteemed in some parts of the world. He draws a connection between this perception of the United States and the poor representation of our culture that is offered abroad. He notes that one of the most popular depictions of the U.S. in Morocco at the beginning of the 21st century was the television show Baywatch, because it was broadcast for free across the Middle East, due to a unique and pioneering distribution model.
Ivey says that this sort of misrepresentation happens because our official diplomatic apparatus, the State Department, places little to no priority on cultural diplomacy, viewing it as a soft power approach that ended with the Cold War. As a former NEA Chair, Ivey speaks candidly about an East Wing/West Wing divide in federal government. Arts and culture are represented in the East Wing, alongside social functions, typically presented by the First Lady and her staff. But the serious work of government happens in the West Wing. Ivey shares interesting anecdotes of his own lack of authority and resources, as a “small agency head,” compared to Ministers of Culture in other countries. As a result of de-emphasized cultural diplomacy, commercial interests, often assisted by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, have a near monopoly on sharing U.S. culture abroad.
“The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, throughout the ages.” In this chapter, Ivey speaks of what is typically characterized as fine art or “high culture”: French cinema, classical music, gallery art, Shakespeare, ballet, etc. Per Ivey, we don’t enjoy this right for several reasons: commercial arts industries, like cable television and movie theaters, have little interest in offering something different, foreign, or strange (these are considered niche market products); moreover, fine arts are perceived to have an aloof and sneering attitude, and do not engage younger audiences on their own terms1.
“The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.” Here Ivey takes aim at both commercial and nonprofit arts organizations for playing it safe. Commercial interests play it safe to maintain large audiences. For example, Ivey says Clear Channel scientifically picks songs least likely to offend or irritate so as to reduce channel changing, with bland pop music the inevitable result. This science is applied to hundreds of stations, all programmed together. To take another example, publishers need take care to distribute products that won’t be banned for indecency by the world’s biggest retailer, Walmart.
If some artist or new artistic product proves successful, then risk aversion leads commercial cultural interests to copy the success as rapidly and profitably as possible until the original idea is completely played out. In the same vein, “bankable” talent becomes more important to risk-averse institutions than matching the right talent and artistry to the content or audience.
Nonprofit institutions are also guilty of risk aversion, according to Ivey. They want to limit the risk of losing philanthropic revenue streams and audience members, and so may make similar, safe choices in programming. Some nonprofit organizations may operate more to preserve an art form with a declining audience than to create risky content for a new audience, anyway. This is more likely if a nonprofit exists to maintain elite forms of entertainment.
The Failure of Government
Ivey pins our failure as a society to enjoy these cultural rights largely on the government. The East Wing/West Wing divide mentioned above that devalues the importance of arts and culture makes it easier to treat federal arts funding and obscenity or explicit content in the arts as political footballs. Even though the First Amendment makes direct regulation of artistic expression difficult and rare (with the exception of FCC fines for broadcasters), Congressional hearings on perceived indecency or obscenity tend to result in industry self-censorship such as parental advisory warnings, V-chips and MPAA ratings that have a chilling effect on creative efforts. Government also takes corporate culture industries’ preferences more seriously than the public’s interest in culture, leading to frequently extended copyright terms and intellectual property law that increasingly favors corporate interests and keeps use of artistic assets out of public reach.
Bridging the Cultural Divide
Ivey ends the book by acknowledging, for the first time, what he sees as good news and positive trends. Citing Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, Ivey notes that creativity is again seen as a positive economic driver. Economists are increasingly interested in happiness beyond Gross Domestic Product. Corporations are taking greater notice of stakeholder benefit, not merely shareholder benefit. And influential work like Gifts of the Muse has informed conversations among arts leaders and foundations on whether we’d benefit from a greater focus on the so-called “intrinsic” benefits from the arts, such as increased creativity.
In addition to the digital divide, Ivey posits a cultural divide that cuts across class and other group identifications and separates people from artistic expression. Professionals with 80-hour work weeks, for example, don’t have enough time for arts in their lives. To help resolve this, Ivey suggests a new Arts and Crafts movement that would encourage craftspersonship and could serve as a correction or counterpoint to industrial production of cultural goods. Ivey notes that the Arts and Crafts movement linked an “aesthetic with humanitarian sensibilities,” and suggests this is an antidote for our increasingly shallow cultural participation and divided society.
Ivey also offers a list of practical recommendations that are more specific and concrete than the Cultural Bill of Rights. He suggests that cultural impact should be a component of merger analysis by the FTC and the Department of Justice antitrust division. And Ivey would require the FCC to consider local cultural impact in its regulatory decision-making. This sensible idea could be implemented at the agency level2. Ivey feels that the fragmentation of governmental arts policy among many small agencies and institutions, such as the NEA, NEH, Smithsonian, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, programs within the Department of the Interior, the Kennedy Center, cultural attachés in the State Department, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Commission on Fine Arts, the Department of Education, etc, lead to fragmented arts policy arenas with narrow foci that cannot help establish the Cultural Bill of Rights. He would instead prefer a Cabinet-level department, parallel to Ministries of Culture in other nations, to implement consistent, strategic, aligned policy. Ivey notes the potential for abuse by a Cabinet level department, but believes that this could not make the situation worse than it currently is.
Ivey also joins the chorus of those suggesting that we significantly reform intellectual property law. He encourages the adoption of Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons model for greater legal sharing of content, and notes growing discomfort with digital rights management (DRM) in the digital publishing industries. Additionally, Ivey would like to introduce “statutory rates” common in music publishing to other forms of cultural property, so that rights to utilize other work can be legally and consistently and reliably obtained3. And he recommends that copyright registration be reinstated, so that an additional step is required to enforce one’s copyrights.
Finally, Ivey speaks strongly against the digital divide, and advocates subsidies for those not able to afford access to the information superhighway, so that our next generation of artists is not determined by the affordability of high-speed internet. He is also a strong proponent of net neutrality, and makes it clear that concerned citizens must be careful observers of both Congress and the judiciary, because intellectual property law is developed as much in court as in legislative session.
Arts, Inc. is a long book, based on Bill Ivey’s considerable experience, unique vantage point, and extensive research. It is also a slow read. It is dense with supporting evidence, which is welcome, but Ivey is not afraid to repeat a point, in detail, if it can be applied to the topic at hand. For example, he repeats his concern several times, at length, that copyright law is harmful to future artists who wish to build upon past work of others. And with every chapter except the last focused on the terrible state of affairs for arts and culture in the United States, it becomes polemical and pedantic pretty quickly, despite several interesting stories from his time as NEA Chair.
Ivey has written what appears to be a manifesto, but ends with a call for adjustments to the system, rather than revolution. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Ivey has too many axes to grind, including his apparent belief, based on some experience with lobbyists, that high school band teachers are an entrenched special interest who will ruthlessly cut off at the knees any other form of music education in high schools, therefore limiting a child’s ability to create other forms of music.
Machine vs. Ecosystem
Most of Ivey’s recommended solutions are practical things that a somewhat unified and motivated government could accomplish, but it is not self-evident that such changes would guarantee the whole Cultural Bill of Rights. In Chapter 2, Ivey states, “If America’s arts system can be viewed as a giant machine connecting artists, heritage, and our expressive lives, fair use is the lubricant that smoothes the give-and-take of creativity.” Ivey prescribes fixes to the arts industries as if they can be applied by fiat; as if they are machines that were designed by an engineer, and can be fixed with better engineering. But I believe he is wrong. Arts are an ecosystem, not a machine. No engineer designs an ecosystem; one emerges when collaborating and competing forces and the actors therein find a sustainable equilibrium. No one designed the current set of inter-related systems of arts and culture generation and propagation. They emerged as a result of various incentives, initiatives, and interplay of different collaborators and competitors.
Individual institutions might themselves be machine-like, and subject to tweaking. But each individual institution, typically lacking the ability to change the environment alone, continually optimizes its activities within the bounds of its ecosystem, making collective acts of systemic reform difficult. Further, each participant in a system at equilibrium is primarily concerned with survival, not intentional restructure of the system. Ivey laments that both for-profit and nonprofit arts institutions are risk averse, but this is the natural consequence when institutions fear for their survival in a highly competitive environment. Equilibrium, after all, does not imply plentiful resources for all members. Equilibrium can be highly competitive (and in nature, often is).
The arts and culture landscape that Ivey wants requires systemic change, and systems simply cannot be adjusted and redesigned like a machine. Systemic change requires either immense cooperation and coordination among the most powerful members of the system (which might be arts consumers in this case), or revolution, or breakdown of the system into a disequilibrium that may be seized upon and exploited.
Just as Ivey writes as though the arts ecosystem were actually a machine that could be fixed, he writes about individual institutions and arts users as if their behavior and preferences could and should be changed to match his.
Ivey believes that the division of the market for arts products into smaller and better-defined niches, or the “long tail,” is bad for our cultural consumption. He believes this promotes a focused insularity of cultural preference, and does not expose consumers to new artistic forms or ideas. He contrasts this model with the radio stations and DJ’s of his youth, who would take on a curatorial role and introduce listeners to a diverse variety of content. However, he does not address the trade-off between breadth and depth. Niche focus allows for a greater depth of exploration and expression and risk-taking within that niche than would have been possible on Wolfman Jack’s border-blasting broadcasts, or the Ed Sullivan Show, which Ivey uses as an example of curated culture for a mass audience. Ivey desires that cultural institutions take more risks, so we should acknowledge that catering to a particular niche may facilitate managed risk-taking. A modern classical music ensemble can take more artistic risks with daring compositions than a larger symphony orchestra can, because the modern music ensemble has sought out a niche audience that supports the risks inherent in new classical composition.
As noted above, in Ivey’s desire for a new Arts and Crafts movement that might reconnect aesthetic and humanitarian values, he points out over-worked professionals as people who are on the wrong side of the cultural divide. But these over-worked professionals cannot be compared to exploited workers of the industrial revolution. A career working 80-hour weeks as a lawyer, doctor, investment banker or management consultant is one that is chosen and striven for, not one that is imposed upon a person. It requires a fair amount of cultural chauvinism to assert that these professionals, who have made choices that we hope are consistent with their values and preferences, are on the “wrong” side because their preferences do not match an artist’s preferences.
Ivey offers the Cultural Bill of Rights as a model for reform. However, it is divorced from historical views of rights, which are typically based on active struggle. Ivey does not even discuss whether his Cultural Bill of Rights is more likely to be granted or rather demanded and asserted. This is a strange omission in a discussion of “Rights.”
Ivey believes that fair use greases the creative gears and supports the rights of artists to create while borrowing from other artists, while intense copyright restrictions inhibit such creativity. The principle of fair use is described as too vague and inconsistently applied, and in any case, fair use is only used as a defense once legal proceedings are threatened or under way, making it an expensive principle to apply in practice.
Ivey wants an expansion of this; he clearly advocates for a wider freedom within the scope of law to encourage and empower artists. Yet he spends no time on the artistic vitality of illegal reappropriation of cultural products for creative endeavors, e.g.: unauthorized samples in hip hop; exposure of friends to new music through mix tapes, burned CD’s or shared mp3 files; or unauthorized video mashups and parodies so prevalent on YouTube. He seems uninterested in, or possibly unaware of, the emergence of creative internet memes (transmittable and mutable ideas or cultural artifacts) from open, authority-flaunting internet playgrounds like 4chan. The artistic reappropriation that Ivey champions (e.g., collage, pastiche, remix) is happening in spite of legal limitations.
The best review of Arts, Inc. that I’ve read was published in voiceXchange, a peer-reviewed online journal published by graduate students in the University of Chicago’s Department of Music. Eric Martin Usner points out, “As so many studies of popular culture have shown, law and control/ownership actually do much to inspire creative circumvention of ‘official,’ mainstream, or hegemonic arts through creative ‘piracy’—cultural disobedience.” Usner further notes that the heritage of civil disobedience, from Thoreau to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Gandhi and Vaclav Havel is relevant in any discussion of rights. Ivey doesn’t spend much time with the history of other struggles for rights, e.g., the Civil Rights Movement, gay marriage, and the Declaration of Independence. In these struggles, rights were demanded from and asserted against powerful institutions long before they were ever granted by powerful institutions, and typically focus on the prevention of harm to one part of society by members of the dominant culture. By contrast, Ivey casts advocacy for cultural rights in the mold of the environmental movement—one that has focused on public awareness and changing hearts and minds, with a fair amount of success. While either model can be grounded in grassroots activism, ignoring the models of struggle dilutes his assertion that these cultural rights are actually rights, in the way we think of them.
Ivey recognizes that a centralized Department of Culture to administer our cultural rights could potentially have too much power to encourage a homogenized or sanitized U.S. arts scene. He makes the argument that it wouldn’t be worse than the current situation, where art gets homogenized and sanitized by corporate interests. He writes, “The introduction of a central cultural authority in the United Sates could backfire, opening new opportunities for control that might make it more difficult, not easier, for Americans to achieve rich expressive lives. But, as we’ve seen, there’s plenty of poorly directed cultural interference going on right now4.” Ivey sensibly anticipates concerns about a more powerful governmental authority involved in arts and culture, but simply asserts that the government won’t be worse, more parental, or more homogenizing than for-profit arts industries. He doesn’t support this assertion. Much of the book is an exploration of how we are not able to trust corporate or public institutions to protect and perpetuate our artistic heritage, yet he believes part of the solution is a new government institution to consolidate others.
Despite these problems, there are uniquely useful insights in Arts, Inc. The wider public debate (i.e., outside of the arts blogosphere) over copyright law in the United States rarely takes utility for future artistic endeavor into account, despite some current relevant cases in classical music and theater. And among arts and culture writers, few have Ivey’s qualifications (and interest) to discuss structural, systemic issues of policy-making. Ivey has written a book that connects the dots all the way from the U.S. federal government to artists to consumers of art to children first exposed to the joys of artistic creation to corporate owners of artistic assets and nonprofit arts institutions. The breadth of Ivey’s knowledge and research is truly impressive, and many of his proffered solutions in the final chapter of the book, labeled “Conclusion” in the table of contents, are remarkably practical in contrast to the manifesto structure of the bulk of the book. I highly recommend this chapter, even if you choose to skip the rest.
The Cultural Bill of Rights is difficult to compare to human rights or civil rights, as these are often very much about not being harmed by members of the dominant culture. The Cultural Bill of Rights, for example, will not prevent anybody in this country from being lynched, so it is worthwhile to examine whether they are potent as “rights,” or whether they are redundant with free speech rights. If Ivey’s Cultural Bill of Rights seeks to protect us from active repression of (or chilling effect on) our artistic expression, then it is redundant with free speech rights, and Ivey ought to add his influence to ongoing free speech advocacy. But if the Cultural Bill of Rights means that we have a right to be encouraged and subsidized to be more artistic and expressive, and I think this is Ivey’s intention, how should such rights be balanced against other priorities? For example, how can Ivey’s cultural rights be granted precedence over the arts industries’ rights to profit by artistic expression as best they can?
Instead of answering these larger questions, Ivey has assumed the supremacy of artistic expression, and offered solutions for his cultural rights in the style of environmentalism. This sets up the arts as something we really should appreciate more, and should protect, even if we don’t really want to, or we’ll be sorry later. In other words, the heritage and capacity for artistry that Ivey says we’re entitled to is the broccoli that we’re supposed to be eating instead of the potato chips that the cultural industries are feeding us. The recommendation to use the organizing tools of environmentalism is consistent with the tone of Ivey’s recommendations for governmental and bureaucratic reform. But this is at odds with the tone of aggrieved complaint throughout the bulk of the book. Despite Ivey’s best efforts to write a manifesto of articulated grievance and demand for change, I’m left with the conclusion that you can take the bureaucrat out of Washington DC, but you can’t take Washington DC out of the bureaucrat. Ivey is calling for new policy, not revolution. This is perhaps consistent with his view of the arts as a machine (which can be tweaked) rather than a system (which is more likely to be changeable in a period of disruption or disequilibrium). An arts advocate should decide whether she or he accepts some central premises of Ivey’s:
- We are entitled to and have a right to a life of artistic participation and expression.
- The current arts system is not delivering our cultural rights.
- These rights can be reclaimed, though, through adjustments to the culture machine.
- The best way to reclaim them is through grassroots organizing to change hearts and minds, as with the environmental movement, so that politicians are forced to take notice, so that policies can be improved.
- Once government policy is improved, our access to our cultural rights will be improved.
If you can agree with all of the above, then you can agree with Ivey’s prescriptions. If however, you believe that the arts are an ecosystem rather than a machine, or if you believe that a more powerful governmental presence in arts and culture will not be a positive change, then you must seek other solutions.
Eric Martin Usner’s review in voiceXchange, cited above, focuses on Ivey’s call for a more expressive life for all people, as well as some analysis of the concept of cultural rights.
Jason Baird Jackson at Indiana University responded to Arts, Inc. just this March, from a folklorist’s perspective, with more in depth analysis of Ivey’s perspective on intellectual property.
Video of a panel discussion of Arts, Inc., hosted by the Center for American Progress. Ivey was on the panel with Robert Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), and moderator Sally Steenland, Sr. Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress. The discussion focused on the theme of cultural assets as public goods.
Bill Ivey introduced many of the themes of Arts, Inc. back in a 2005 column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “America Needs a New System for Supporting the Arts”.
USA Today published exactly the reductive, brief review you’d expect from USA Today.
The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy at Vanderbilt University (Ivey is the Director) has a page about the book with well-chosen pull quotes.
1. Ivey suggests that the nonprofit arts institution model in which most fine arts are presented are designed to preserve the art for privileged, wealthy elite audiences, rather than a larger audience. According to Ivey, the nonprofit tax exemption was established as wealthy elite business leaders began to convert frontier towns into cosmopolitan cities, and nonprofit institutions were built so the elite could continue to enjoy their symphonies and provide a marker of European sophistication to their new cities. The implication is that this exclusivity has extended to the present day, keeping the majority of citizens on the outside of the fine arts world.
2. However, agency-level policy-making is subject to changing politics of different Presidential administrations. The application of local impact assessment to media company mergers would likely have been treated very differently by George W. Bush’s administration than Barack Obama’s.
3. It should be noted, however, that at the time Arts, Inc. was written, statutory rates established by the Copyright Royalty Board were being challenged as too high for webcasters such as Pandora.com and Live365.com. This was not resolved until after Ivey’s book was published. Congress intervened and passed laws giving the digital royalty clearinghouse SoundExchange a window of time in which to negotiate new, superseding rates.
4. Ivey makes reference to the writing of cultural theorist Michel Foucault on governmentality: “invisible, sometimes internalized mechanisms of control that extend the reach of official authority and limit individual autonomy.” He believes Foucault would see governmentality in the way corporations and foundations exercise control in the arts industry, thereby excusing Ivey’s own advocacy for a greater official role for government. It’s an interesting, but in my mind, weak, argument.