This article is a much shorter version of this. If you want the full force of my verbosity, read that one.
In Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey, former Chair of the NEA, makes the case that our artistic heritage is a set of public assets that should benefit all, but instead are often squandered by existing cultural institutions. Ivey seeks to remedy this through a Cultural Bill of Rights.
Each item in Ivey’s Cultural Bill of Rights fills a chapter in the book.
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America’s democratic values and ideals.”
- “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.”
- “The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.”
According to Ivey, we don’t enjoy these rights because of a failure of the government to prioritize cultural life and rein in corporate greed. An East Wing/West Wing divide devalues the importance of arts and culture makes it easier to treat the arts as political footballs. Congressional hearings on indecency result in industry self-censorship such as parental advisory warnings, V-chips and MPAA ratings that have a chilling effect on creative efforts. Government takes corporate preferences more seriously than the public’s interest in culture, passing intellectual property law that favors corporate interests and keeps use of artistic assets out of public reach.
Ivey does offer practical recommendations. He suggests cultural impact should be a component of merger analysis by the FTC and DOJ antitrust division. And Ivey would require the FCC to consider local cultural impact in its decision-making. Ivey feels that the fragmentation of governmental arts policy among many small agencies and institutions leads to fragmented arts policy. He would prefer a Cabinet-level department to implement consistent, strategic, aligned policy. Ivey also suggests that we significantly reform intellectual property law, encouraging the adoption of Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons model for greater legal sharing of content, and the reinstatement of copyright registration. And he speaks against the digital divide, advocating subsidies for those not able to afford access to high speed internet. He is also a strong proponent of net neutrality.
Arts, Inc. is based on Bill Ivey’s experience, unique vantage point, and extensive research, and is dense with supporting evidence, but the suggested cure is inconsistent with the diagnosed disease. It appears to be a manifesto, but calls for adjustments to the system, rather than revolution. Ivey prescribes fixes to the arts industries as if they are machines that can be fixed with better engineering. But the arts are an ecosystem, not a machine. No engineer designs it; it emerges from collaborating and competing forces in equilibrium. Individual institutions continually optimize activities within the bounds of their ecosystems, making systemic reform difficult.
Ivey offers the Cultural Bill of Rights as a model for reform. However, it is divorced from historical views of rights, typically based on active struggle. By contrast, Ivey casts advocacy for cultural rights in the mold of the environmental movement—one that has focused on public awareness. While either model can be grounded in grassroots activism, ignoring the models of struggle dilutes his assertion that these cultural rights are rights in the way that we think of them.
Despite these problems, there are uniquely useful insights in Arts, Inc. Few writers have Ivey’s qualifications to discuss systemic issues of policy-making. He connects all the dots between the U.S. federal government, artists, consumers, corporate owners of artistic assets and nonprofit arts institutions. The breadth of knowledge and research is impressive, and many of his solutions in the final chapter are remarkably practical in contrast to the manifesto structure of the bulk of the book.