Forum Document Series

Center for Arts and Culture

By press time, the Reader had received two booklets documenting discussion forums convened by the Center for Arts and Culture.

Forum on Freedom and Diversity of Expression, moderated by James Fitzpatrick.

On June 25th, 2001, the Center for Arts and Culture convened a panel of experts to discuss the First Amendment and freedom of expression. The forum was moderated by James Fitzpatrick, a CAC board member and specialist in consitutional public policy issues, and included, among others, James Early, director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife, John Romano, a screenwriter and TV and film producer, and Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute.

The discussion covers many of the topics that are central to creativity and freedom of expression. It begins with the "culture wars," the political attacks on the NEA of the early 1990s, and takes on the question of public funding for art. The panelists also discuss the importance of the First Amendment to artistic expression, the crudeness of mass culture — considering whether possible correlations between it and violence justify censorship — and debate media consolidation and its potential to squelch diverse expression.

Unsurprisingly, the conversation breaks down fairly quickly into a traditional right-left split. While most of the panelists support the NEA, for example, citing art's capacity to enrich society as a justification for its public financing, Wattenberg, the panel's conservative member, takes the well-rehearsed position that taxpayers' dollars should not pay for work that might offend. Fitzpatrick, the moderator, calls this the “sensitive society,” in which the rights of the listener are protected, sometimes at the expense of those of the speaker.

In reading over the comments made by the various panelists, what strikes me most is that money is the common thread running through all the topics. Wattenberg objects to provocative art only when public money might fund it, while the “sensitive society” model amounts essentially to a consumer-driven cultural economy, in which only what will sell to (and not offend) the broad public becomes available. Meanwhile, Romano, the producer, notes that controversial content will not prevent a work from getting made as long as it promises profits. As he says, “if you could show NBC tomorrow that you have a miniseries...showing that Jesus was a black lesbian but it was going to get a 55 share, they would discover a tremendous willingness to go with your vision.”

In the discussion of media consolidation, it is the profit motive that has caused the media mergers of the past decade, the panelists note; and if diverse content proves a moneymaker, we will see it regardless of how few providers are out there — if not, we won't.

The inescapable conclusion of these conversations is that, when it comes to freedom of expression, money, perhaps even more than the First Amendment, is the sine qua non in our consumer society. One could wish that its centrality to expression had been foregrounded more thoroughly in this discussion. Perhaps such an acknowledgement might even have led to a shift in the old right-left stalemate.

Overall, the conversation recorded in this booklet is intelligent and to the point. Yet it does serve to underscore the degree to which each side in this long-running debate is hunkered down in its own ideological trench, each lobbing the old arguments at the other to little clear effect. Greater attention to the economic issues underlying the debate would have enriched the conversation.

Forum on Preservation, moderated by Ellen McCulloch-Lovell. Panelists: Peter Brink, James Early, Jack Meyers, Larry Reger
October, 2001, 48 pages.

This forum provides an overview, historical analysis, and policy implications of cultural preservation in the United States. The discussion ranges from public perception of federal preservation efforts to the need for policymakers to focus on digital preservation. The group honed in on key preservation challenges regarding which traditions to save and what strategies to take in the future, or as Larry Reger, president of Heritage Preservation says, “How do you make an icon?”

reviewed by Sophia Padnos, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts