The Politics of Culture

The Center for Arts and Culture

Policy Perspectives for Individuals, Institutions, and Communities
Edited by Gigi Bradford, Michael Gary, and Glenn Wallach
2000, 364 pages, $18.95 paper. The New Press, New York.

I accepted the assignment of reviewing The Politics of Culture, a new collection of essays from the Center for Arts and Culture, with the sort of reluctance I would bring to reading speculative science fiction: I know the approach and subject have significant value to people I admire, but its attractions elude me. While this is a book I would have avoided if left to my own inclinations, it won me over and I highly recommend it. It brings forward substantive research and engages in provocative inquiry about factors shaping the development and behavior of the cultural sector. While I imagined that much of this writing would focus on the culture wars of the 1990s and their aftermath, this collection is much broader than the federal funding policy debate and offers multiple and differing points of view.

The collection has many highlights, of which I'll mention a few. Glenn Wallach's "Introduction" provides a clear overview of the field and of major policies shaping U.S. culture. Virginia R. Dominguez's dense, "Invoking Culture: The Messy Side of 'Cultural Politics,'" further opens the dimensions of the field by deconstructing the word "cultural" from an anthropologist's point of view. Paul DiMaggio's meaty, "Social Structure, Institutions, and Cultural Goods: The Case of the United States," (first published in 1991) provides both further historical overview and insight into the consequences (sometimes unintended) of policies, including those of grantmaking institutions. Justin Lewis's, "Designing a Cultural Policy," analyzes financial policies affecting broadcasting and asks how to stimulate innovation and quality in the media, noting:

The economic case for traditional arts funding...presupposes that while the free market would impoverish the high arts, it enriches the more popular cultural forms. This is a silly idea that originates from a profound ignorance of contemporary culture. Our cultural industries, under the fiscal guidelines of the free market, have not produced the best possible television system and do not promote diversity in the newspaper industry; they neglect innovation in popular music, and generally serve a narrow set of economic interests rather than a broad set of cultural interests. (Page 87)

Michael Kammen's “Culture and the State in America,” provides further historical perspective on public and private cultural policies in the United States. So, too, does John Kreidler's “Leverage Lost: Evolution in the Nonprofit Arts Ecosystem,” which traces the role and value of discounted labor in the cultural sector and the importance of matching grants as a cornerstone of arts philanthropy that may be reaching a point of diminishing value. Also provocative, and very helpful to those of us who are not economists, is Bruce A. Seaman's “Arts Impact Studies: A Fashionable Excess,” analyzing the inappropriateness of many of the economic impact studies conducted on behalf of the arts.

One appealing feature of the book is its willingness to present differing points of view. Alberta Arthurs' stirring “Making Change: Museums and Public Life” with its celebration of the Rockefeller Foundation's museum program to build cultural diversity, and Ellen McCulloch Lovell's, “Commencement Address: The Gift of Good Work,” calling for a generation of artist-citizens, are sharp contrasts to Robert Brustein's “Coercive Philanthropy,” a smart, sharp critique of recent foundation trends toward grantmaking that aims to meet audience development and diversity goals and that asks cultural organizations “ shoulder obligations once considered the exclusive responsibility of American politics....”

Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund