Better Late Than Never


Confessions of a Premature Cultural-Policy Wonk

by Arlene Goldbard

© copyright Arlene Goldbard 1995

This essay may not be reprinted without the explicit permission of the author.
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Arlene Goldbard points out the consequences of the cultural establishment's long-term denial that the U.S. even has a cultural policy, and comes out as a Cultural-Policy Wonk. She then argues that

If we want to win the culture wars -- and I certainly do -- we have to figure out just what has been happening here and hurry up and learn the lessons we need to move into a future in which "culture and democracy" is not an oxymoron...

She draws upon George Lakoff's paradigm of the family as metaphor in conservative and liberal worldviews to analyze the unhappy blend of conservative and liberal values that have characterized public arts-support programs in the post-War U.S.

She concludes with four "decisive, unequivocal steps" for cultural-policy advocates to take in order to put public arts support on a more suitable foundation of public policy.


For most of the three decades since the National Endowment for the Arts was established, there was very little interest in cultural policy in this country. The official position was that the United States had no cultural policy, just a public form of private patronage.

In my view, this is an example of the social complex that has been labelled "nothing happening here." Of course the U.S. government has a cultural policy, whether or not it is explicitly acknowledged. Closing the border to immigrants is an element of public cultural policy. Adopting "English-only" legislation is an element of public cultural policy. Allowing television to be controlled by commercial interests is an element of public cultural policy. And public support for the arts -- even if it is closely modelled on private patronage -- is a central element of public cultural policy because it defines the public sector's relationship to artistic creation and expression, and of all forms of expression, the arts are the most purely emblematic of cultural values.

All states, all social institutions, have cultural policies which may be deduced from an examination of the cultural impact of their actions. But until a few years ago, it was considered inexcusably radical to insist on this self-evident fact.

I speak from experience here. Fifteen years ago, when mainstream arts advocates were first trying to find ways to accommodate to Reaganism, Don Adams and I made ourselves very unpopular in those circles by calling for explicit, comprehensive national cultural policy and in its absence, forecasting precisely the situation that has come to pass. Any student of history knows that ideas have their moments. To borrow a historical parallel, in the Thirties, quite a few progressives in this country spoke out in alarm against the growing specter of fascism in Europe. Eventually, of course, the United States entered the war and almost everyone became an anti-fascist. But a few years later, during one of our episodes of home-grown repression, these early alarmists were singled out for their precipitate timing: they were labelled "premature anti-fascists." Well, before the backlash hits and someone else has a chance to say it, I want to come out of the closet as a premature cultural policy wonk and welcome this new interest in cultural policy, however long it lasts.

Denying the truth of cultural politics -- saying "nothing happening here" when something is certainly going on -- has left us in the worst possible posture to respond to the threat posed by those well-funded and carefully scripted forces who have been taking cultural policy seriously, and who've been moving in recent years to control public support for artistic expression. Pat Buchanan, Jesse Helms and their cohorts on the far Right talk about being involved in a "culture war." But the battle is not evenly matched. Their side has objectives, a game plan, and to extend the metaphor, legions of battle-ready combatants, while the other side -- the advocates of public arts funding -- is still trying to cobble together its defenses.

While, as a premature cultural policy wonk I find it encouraging to see the recent mobilization of the mainstream arts world against these reactionary forces, it must also be recognized that this threat is not new: it has been the leading edge of national cultural policy since Ronald Reagan came to office in 1980. Reagan initiated devastating cutbacks in alternative cultural fields through jobs programs, community development programs, and other social spending; and they have continued ever since. What's changed is that the Right's imminent predominance in cultural policy-making is now perceived as a threat to mainstream interests as well. It took being demonized by the Right to make people begin to consider how important cultural politics are.

Well, better late than never, I suppose. But if all that supporters of public arts funding can come up with are limp homilies about quality and excellence and the sanctity of the peer-review process, then it will be a case of too little, too late.

If we want to win the culture wars -- and I certainly do -- we have to figure out just what has been happening here and hurry up and learn the lessons we need to move into a future in which "culture and democracy" is not an oxymoron.

From my vantage point, outside the academy and the arts-institutional framework, I think far too much of the debate so far has been a matter either of the direct beneficiaries of existing public funding talking with each other about how to return to what I see as a very unsatisfactory status quo, or of a fairly hermetic academic discourse that cannot see the forest for the trees. I see myself as what C. Wright Mills called a "public intellectual," and most of my work in this area has focused on the future, the need for a dynamic, compelling vision of culture and democratic development which can engage people who have no direct financial link to the public arts apparatus or the minor academic industry that studies it. But today, I want to focus more on the past and present, because I believe the essential task now is to understand how we have come to this pass, and to redefine the problem so that it is no longer of concern only to a tiny special-interest constituency of professional artists, administrators and academics.

To understand the development of public arts funding in the United States, I want to use a brilliant and handy paradigm put forward by George Lakoff {1}, a pioneer in the field of cognitive science, the study of how we think. Lakoff makes the point that humans think in metaphor, and that in order to decode and comprehend our current political debates, it is necessary to understand the system of metaphors that anchor social and political thought. He points out that the most common metaphor for the nation is the family, and puts forward two contrasting clusters of metaphors which underpin what he calls "conservative" and "liberal" political views.

Lakoff calls the conservative metaphor "The Strict Father Model." Some of its salient features are the father's dominant position in providing moral authority and setting family policy, commanding obedience and meting out retribution, providing safety for the family through strength. In the Strict Father model, children are brought up to be self-disciplined and self-reliant, to respect authority. The father builds his children's moral fiber by imposing a strict code of right and wrong with appropriate punishments, and by teaching them self-denial to resist internal evils. No one has the right to interfere or usurp his authority. In terms of the "national family," adherents of this model favor defense expenditure, investment in prisons and retributive punishments, and policies which remove rewards from those perceived as having weak moral fiber, such as those who cannot control their sexual appetites and conceive children out of wedlock.

Lakoff describes the liberal metaphor as "The Nurturant Parent Model," in which the goals of family life are being cared for and cared about, having loving interactions, living happily, and deriving meaning from these experiences of community and caring. A major part of the parent's job is to protect children from external evils. Children are brought up to be self-realized, capable of self-nurturance, of pleasure, and of forming loving attachments. The family is a sort of community in which authority is negotiated: the children are taught empathy in the hope that they will become responsible citizens out of empathy and not out of fear of punishment. When discipline must be imposed, the goal is restitution rather than retribution. In terms of the national family, adherents of this model favor protecting those they see as weak through environmental laws, labor laws, and a treatment/rehabilitation model of handling those who commit crimes.

Now, this is fascinating stuff. Each model has certain inherent strengths and weaknesses. The Nurturant Parent can be overprotective, creating crippling passivity and dependence, for instance, while the Strict Father can be too much the disciplinarian, creating crippling shame and self-loathing. But even without their nuances, in the sketchy fashion in which I have drawn these models, they are tremendously useful in understanding the development of public arts support to date.

Within the liberal paradigm, arts funding is an essential government function, because exposure to and participation in the arts is an essential ingredient of the quest for self-realization in our national family. Our fellow family members need the arts for the pleasure they bring, for enjoyment, for the way they create opportunities to expand communication and understanding, for the way they pass on information and teach about the world. Artistic creativity and the appreciation of it are intrinsic aspects of the fully realized individual and society. In relation to the larger marketplace, artists and nonprofit arts groups need protection from the vagaries of commerce and the distorting effects of commercialism. Whatever they take from the public purse, they return in the form of the social benefits they provide.

Within the conservative paradigm, arts funding is an inappropriate function of government, because it rewards individuals and organizations who lack the moral fiber and self-discipline to make their way in the world unaided, who essentially play for a living, who are stubbornly determined to question all manifestations of constituted authority, and who often adopt ways of life which are seen as morally repugnant -- loose living, aberrant sexuality, and so on. Every dollar they take from the public purse is stolen from normal, hard-working people who are forced by an intrusive government to pay for things they detest. Members of our national family are entitled to participate in the arts, particularly the wide variety of wholesome entertainments available, if by dint of hard work they have amassed sufficient resources to take care of essential obligations and still underwrite their arts participation. But they should not be compelled to do so.

If we take these paradigms as opposite poles of a continuum, then the existing public arts support apparatus would have to be described as a sort of moderate Republican creation, which I suppose would be fitting because much of the original thinking behind the NEA was in a study undertaken by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund {2} and conducted by Nancy Hanks, the NEA Chair remembered for her role in ensuring, through shrewd political campaigning, the agency's early expansion to something near its present size. But the current apparatus did not spring full-blown from the brow of Nelson Rockefeller. It is the product of a threeĞdecades-long push-pull between paradigms that will always clash and never coalesce.

That there is public arts funding at all is certainly due to the pressure of the liberal paradigm, the Nurturant Model of our national family. But almost all of its peculiarities are due to pressure from the adherents of the Strict Father Model. I want to explore just two of many possible examples.

Consider, for instance, the matching requirement which is put forward as the jewel in the crown of public arts funding, saving it from being the sort of state-sponsored art policy-makers dreaded when they established the NEA in the Sixties. The general rule is the bigger the match, the better the grant, so that when public arts spokespeople go before Congress to defend their appropriations, they boast of the large number of private dollars each public dollar has unleashed. But underpinning the notion of matching funds is actually the opposite idea, that public dollars should chase private ones, because the artists and groups that have proven themselves worthy in the private sector marketplace have demonstrated their initiative and self-reliance before coming to the government -- the head of the national family -- for a hand-out. There is nothing intrinsic to public arts funding that demands a large private-sector match. To the contrary, logic would seem to have it that public funding is most needed by those artists and groups unable to command substantial private funds. The requirement is there entirely to satisfy the moral accounting principles of conservatives.

Or consider the whole edifice of protections against "cheating" by grantees: the reporting requirements, the audit and evaluation processes, the periodic controversies over whether grants should be returned because they have been used to write a somewhat different novel or make a somewhat different film than the one proposed many months, even years, before. All of this monitoring and enforcement leads to a heavily bureaucratized agency with substantial expenditures for the creation and handling of paperwork. Yet to my knowledge, nothing as egregious as the ordering of mass quantities of $600 coffeepots or $400 toilet-seats has ever emerged from the public arts funding apparatus. In fact, most such controversies involve minuscule sums of money which cost far more to retrieve than to write off as part of the normal cost of doing business. There is nothing intrinsic to public arts funding that demands that arts agencies be run like insurance companies. To the contrary, logic would seem to have it that anything as fluid and evanescent as artistic creativity would need a complete different approach. The accounting-office trappings are there entirely to satisfy the moral accounting principles of conservatives.

The result of this thirty-year evolutionary process is a system that satisfies no one. From the liberal perspective, the defenders of public arts funding have not been able to generate a very exciting or effective response to recent attacks from the Right because the NEA and its counterparts have not been very exciting or effective agencies. They are almost without exception too bureaucratic, distant from artistic creation, and inflexible. With scant resources in relation to a very large landscape of need and possibility, they use their money in a fashion which creates maximum resentment per dollar, subjecting prospective grantees to a lengthy, time- and energy-consuming contest which produces many times more losers than winners, so that with every round of grants-giving, the Endowment makes legions of new enemies within its perceived core constituency of artists and arts organizations. Leaving aside the claims made by paid employees of the Endowment and related advocacy groups, the sentiment in support of the NEA I heard expressed most frequently during recent years' lobbying efforts was that it ought to be saved because it is better than nothing. "If we lose it," people said, "when will we get anything to replace it?"

From the conservative perspective, no matter how diligent and thorough arts agencies are in adopting Strict Father moral accounting procedures, they can never succeed, because they are unbreakably linked to the subversive power of art to stimulate questioning of all the eternal verities, and because they are tainted by their association with aberrant individuals -- homosexuals, iconoclasts, members of cultural minorities, aesthetic and political radicals. Republican spin-doctors have been successful in putting across the cover-story that money is their main objection, that when painful budget-cutting must be accomplished, non-essential public initiatives must be made to feel an especially sharp pinch. But this is unalloyed hogwash. Not long go, Congress decided to give the Pentagon an extra, unasked-for $7 billion to build a couple of questionable weapons systems offered by defense corporations with impressive records of political contributions. In round figures, this amounts to some forty-odd NEAs. There is plenty of money to pay for the things that the Strict Fathers of our national family care to accomplish. Support for the arts just doesn't happen to be one of them.

My lifelong philosophy has been that it is better to be hanged for a sheep than a goat: that is, go for what you want and let the compromise come later, if it must. So far as I am concerned, a lot of the ground already lost in this debate is due to the self-censorship and preemptive compromise engaged in by public arts support defenders. So my proposal for the future of public arts support has four decisive, unequivocal steps.

  1. Step One is to recognize that if public cultural policy is going to have a constituency larger than its direct beneficiaries, it has to be grounded in social policy, and has to encompass the entirety of cultural development, not just the professional arts. Within this framework, need must be a major criterion of public cultural spending. Subjectively, it may be true that the socialite who is forced to give up her vacation house and the homeless person both feel the pain of deprivation. But as social policy -- the retributive viciousness of Gingrich and Company notwithstanding -- fixing the homeless person's problem must take precedence. Whatever instrumentalities are used, the priority for support must go to initiatives which cannot be sustained in the marketplace.

  2. Step Two is to come out of the closet as cultural policy advocates, stop mouthing the Right's uninspiring platitudes about quality and excellence, and say why our nation should adopt explicit, democratic, and equitable cultural policy. Some of my own reasons are because I think it is in the national interest to encourage a vibrant culture of free expression, communication, and participation; because the arts create forums for essential public deliberation and debate; because we have a national crisis of passivity and nonparticipation engendered by the commercial mass media and it is in the public interest to acknowledge and address it; because cultural dynamism stems from the willingness to constantly re-engage with and reinvent cultural heritage; because the exigencies of the marketplace so overwhelm noncommercial impulses that they must be nurtured and protected as part of our cultural commonwealth; because aesthetic pleasure and the experience of beauty are part of our birthright as human beings; and because it is a thousand times better for civilization that our resources should be spent to encourage citizens to express themselves and communicate through the arts rather than to underwrite our current national growth industries: the manufacture of armaments and the construction of prisons. If you seek to learn what our national cultural policy is, you need only ask where our resources are invested. How does the federal budget express our values as a people? Do we want history to remember us for having have built a garrison state, as Fortress America? I fervently hope not.

  3. Step Three is to then look freshly at the question of methods and instrumentalities. The backdrop for cultural policy-making should be examining the entire public policy apparatus for the way it speaks to cultural problems and supports cultural development.

    Policy actions taken in fields which are often considered to be outside the cultural sphere may have far more impact than actions taken directly in relation to the arts. For instance, a guaranteed annual wage or negative income tax, first proposed as federal policy during the Nixon administration, would make it possible for anyone who wished to obtain the means of subsistence without being abused by an odious and punitive welfare system. It would not be undertaken first and foremost as a method of arts subsidy, but it would have a critical cultural impact in enabling artists willing to live modestly to simply get on with their work without engaging in the grants-game.

    When it comes to direct subsidy, I favor watering the roots of the tree rather than focusing on the leaves: grants to particular artists and arts organizations severely limit the impact of public funding, turning it into a narrow special interest and arousing opposition from those who disagree with the selection of end-products it supports. The obvious analogy is to libraries, where tax funds have been made to stretch far by underwriting collections of books and recordings made available to the public free-of-charge, rather than awarding individual titles to worthy applicants for their own private libraries.

    There are many ways to spend money without the creation of a distant and unresponsive bureaucracy. Especially when there is only so much money to go around, I believe it should be allocated first and foremost to the public provision of the means of cultural participation -- classes and workshops, accessible performing and exhibition space and other art-making facilities and equipment, subsidized distribution systems for publications, media, music and so on, and the skilled creative workers to staff these enterprises. These things are naturally best done in a decentralized fashion, with funds distributed at local levels. Secondary expenditure should be for research, training, communications networks, support for experimentation, historical preservation -- in short, the sorts of initiatives which are best and most efficiently coordinated through central agencies at state, regional, and national levels.

    Each element of cultural policy, including arts support mechanisms, should be made in light of the entire spectrum of culture, including the commercial cultural industries. The market, which so dominates our cultural landscape, should be tapped to support cultural development, through initiatives such as a tax on advertising, an unproductive expenditure which accounts for some $50 billion a year. The over-stressed distinction between "the arts" (i.e., nonprofit enterprises) and all the commercially viable music, media and other artistic enterprises in which most citizens take part ought to be dropped, because it means absolutely nothing to people who are not the beneficiaries of the existing arts-support apparatus and encourages those who use it to make silly statements, such as asserting that young people, for whom music and dance are essential parts of everyday life, don't participate in "the arts."

  4. The fourth and final step is to put forward this vision of aims and instrumentalities in an exciting, dynamic fashion, making full use of artistic talents. Encouraging a public interest in our cultural commonwealth requires first capturing public attention, an aim which can never be accomplished with the colorless bureaucratese, sanctimonious pieties, and good-for-you boosterism of so much that is produced by arts advocates.

    Washington-watchers say that there may be an opportunity within the next few months to adopt legislation which reconceives the federal arts-support apparatus. While organized arts interests will certainly move to make the best possible use of this opportunity and ought to be helped to do so, I hope they will not allow it to distract them from the larger issue. Thirty years of "nothing happening here" and six months of "hurry up" just can't add up to the kind of thoughtful, effective, and comprehensive policy that's needed. Whatever its virtues, the chief feature of any legislation which is adopted within the next few months will be that it is doable in the current political climate.

It will take some years and tremendous effort to win public support for a new cultural policy. It will require nurturing a diverse group of policy intellectuals and supporting the development of new and promising policy proposals and their introduction into public discourse. The one thing I am sure of is that if the advocates of public arts support persist first and foremost in trying to please the Strict Father foxes currently in charge of our national henhouse on the Hill, it will never happen at all.


  1. My too-brief paraphrase of Lakoff's ideas comes from his essay Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, or Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals in The Dust [available here in Webster's World of Cultural Issues], which first appeared in Volume 62 Number 2 (Summer 1995) of Social Research. I'm looking forward to the publication of his book-length treatment of this topic, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't, due out from the University of Chicago Press in March 1996. (Return to Lakoff text reference)

  2. Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects, Rockefeller Panel Report No. 7 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965). (Return to referenced text)

Arlene Goldbard is a writer and long-time cultural activist who currently lives in Ukiah, California. She is a partner in Adams & Goldbard, an organizational and cultural development consulting firm established in 1978.

This essay is adapted from her remarks at a December 1995 symposium on the status and future of public arts funding convened by the Missouri Arts Council and the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Saint Louis, Missouri.

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