Girding for the Culture Wars

Cultural Commons website has an article on their home page Are Culture Wars Inevitable? I don’t think the author, Arthur C. Brooks, really answers the question but mentions some things to think upon.

Essentially, he talks about the state of affairs and then makes some suggestions about changes for the future, but doesn’t really provide any new insights to either area. He says it might not be inevitable, but the statistics he offers seems to show the numbers are against the arts.

This point lurks in the background of my recent study in Public Administration Review with Greg Lewis, which shows that, on an extremely wide range of cultural issues, supporters of the arts bear little resemblance to the rest of the population. For example, we have found that arts donors are 32 percentage points more likely than the general American population to say they have no religion, 18 points less likely to see homosexual sex as wrong, 10 points more likely to describe themselves as politically left-wing, and 12 points more likely to support abortion on demand.

These differences make cultural policy difficult, as long as any of the subsidized content is controversial. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a satisfying policy for any activity if one part of the population perceives efficient treatment of it to involve subsidies, while for the other it involves censorship (or at very least, that it not be government-funded.

The only solace one might find with those numbers is that a greater percentage of the population in the US hold these attitudes he cites who are not attending the arts. (His assertion that “supporters of the arts bear little resemblance to the rest of the population” is therefore false in this regard. Though certainly people who hold these attitudes AND support the arts do stand apart.)

The solution, at least in a public policy realm, he says “come in four types: elimination of direct arts funding; controlling publicly-funded content; and shifting funding from arts supply to arts demand.”
If you are like me, you immediately noticed that there are only 3 options here. The fourth appears 3 paragraphs later–

“a final alternative to these policies is to do nothing. It may be the case that culture wars skirmishes in the arts are inconsequential, compared with the importance of the art subsidized. Whether or not this is the case, however, should be the focus of responsible ongoing assessment of the benefits and costs of art and arts policy.”

His discussion of the ethics held by a portion of arts donors reminded me that some people combine the fact they feel uneasy about how to approach art with the idea that museums, theatres, et. al. are places where people of low morals frequent. Nevermind that these people stand next to them on the bus and behind them at Starbucks. Far more graphic situations occur in movies thanks to digital effects than could ever appear on stage (though granted, part of the thrill of live performance the lack of insulation). Still, there is a stigma attached, deserved or not to the arts by some quarters.

On the other hand, movies rarely combine that lack of insulation while challenging audiences by employing religious icons in unexpected ways. (Joe writes diplomatically.) The experience can be jarring enough without having deeply held beliefs shaken. You have to respect those who face that experience honestly.

You don’t have the respect those who damn it on hearsay and rumor or who approach the experience anxiously awaiting the end when they can enumerate their shock. More than ever, the internet allows people to be insulated from the experience, be no less shocked and appalled and express their disgust to their representative all from the comfort of their homes.

People have always had the ability to choose to avoid and ignore that which did not interest them. Now it seems people’s main interest is seeking out and calling attention to these very things. The groups you fear will be adversely impacted by these horrors have a hard time not being facinated by something everybody keeps pointing at.

Personally, it seems like the conflicting view that comprise the culture wars are an inevitable part of being alive. I am sure there have been plenty of people who were vocal about their disapproval of the type of art the DeMedici’s or the Catholic Church was commissioning. The difference, people will say is that the art was being privately subsidized rather than publicly.

Given that the NEA budget is about 64 cents per person in the US, anyone tithing to the church back then was probably paying more than the typical citizen does today. (Though the church’s holdings were far vaster than they are today so the subsidy may just be as insignificant.)

Wider Audience vs. Degraded Culture

Ah! Back from Vacation seeing my adorable nephew. I didn’t do much thinking about the arts at all during my visit, though I am quite convinced that my nephew’s drool patterns on my shirts are harbingers of his future genius in the visual arts.

Fortunately for me, a comment by a blog reader set me to contemplation upon my return so I am ready to write!

Indija Mahjoeddin, a randai scholar in Australia recently commented on an entry back in January on a Randai performance I had attended. I had essentially wondered if, for all the personal growth participation had accorded the students, would casting directors of Broadway and League of Regional Theatre venues see any value in that experience or would the students have been better off doing Chekhov?

Indija bemoans the fact that she has a hard time getting past the gatekeepers at theatres because randai is not avant garde enough for some, but not commercial enough for others.

In my email back to her, I basically pointed out the thorny problems with popularity. While appealing to a fringe audience doesn’t always pay the bills, there are some unsettling repercussions to having ethnic art forms become vogue.

When something becomes hot, people want to jump on the bandwagon and don’t want to spend the time to grasp the deeper significance of an art form. Instead they are satisfied with parroting the superficial aspects. Worse, there are people who sincerely wish to learn the true nature, but come in contact with instructors who are teaching the superficial elements.

I wasn’t in Hawai’i two days before I realized that Hollywood had done hula and Hawaiian culture a great disservice (I actually suspected that was the case before I arrived.)

Trying to maintain true to the cultural heritage of a group while trying to make a living wage educating the greater population about that culture has always been a narrow line to walk.

One of the strangest stories I have come across recently is an article that accuses popstar Gwen Stefani of exploiting a Japanese pop cultural trend. It is just difficult for me to see how a woman who borrows lyrics and music from Fiddler on the Roof for her songs is grossly misrepresenting a trend where Japanese girls dress in clothes from other times and cultures.

The unoriginal stealing from the unoriginal seems like a victimless crime as far as the principles are concerned (those who originated the music and styles they have appropriated might be another matter altogether.)

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has been able to successfully present cultural heritage without being, by and large, accused of exploiting that culture. Email me or comment below.

I’d also like to hear from anyone who might have some anecdotes about people who were accused of exploiting or undermining cultural elements only to later be praised as a great disseminator of the self-same material.

For instance, I have always wondered if Carl Stalling and Chuck Jones were vilified for belittling classical music by scoring Bugs Bunny cartoons with it. Today many people credit the cartoons as their first exposure to classical music and in some cases, the initiating incident in their love of the music.

How to Advocate

My state arts council sponsored a meeting with a Jonathan Katz, CEO of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies yesterday on the topic of arts advocacy. The state arts council and the gentleman were working together on their presentation and this was the first time they had delivered it so it was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of value, but it had its high points.

Organizations were encouraged to have their board members attend the meeting, but it didn’t appear too many board members were there. I imagine the 1 pm meeting time might have been an impediment to attendance.

A person from the state discussed the process the government went through in order to fund the state arts council. Personally I prefer the Schoolhouse Rock version of how a bill becomes a law rather than the convoluted flow chart describing how it travels through committees, etc.

Mr. Katz pointed out that each of these stages was an opportunity to have a conversation with people about supporting the arts community. His biggest push though was to have decision makers/persons of influence, be they reporters, politicans, bankers, civic leaders, educators, tourism officials, etc., attend an event because that experience changes the whole context of discussing the arts with them.

He got into a discussion of using the value of the arts as part of the conversation with these persons of influence. Since he started talking about economic benefits, I asked him his views on the Rand report Gifts of the Muse – Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts that was recently discussed on

His feeling was that the report didn’t go far enough in terms of suggesting how to integrate their findings into an advocacy discussion in practical terms. His feeling was that you do need to mention the economic benefits because the arts truly make contributions in that arena. But this discussion has to be balanced by the intrinsic value argument as well. It is just as important to bring recordings of kids chattering excitedly about their experiences to the table as it is to have financial spreadsheets at hand.

One of the most interesting statistics he brought to the talk was that between 1993 and 2001, taken as a whole state arts organization funding grew faster than state government growth. The combined state arts funding grew by 6.6% while state governments grew 6.5%. Mr. Katz’s point was that folks were making some pretty good cases for arts funding.

Mr. Katz also provided some interesting insight into the workings of state governments when it came to arts funding. He really reinforced the idea that advocacy can never stop. One of the things NASAA has observed is that the state arts organizations that made the biggest gains in funding also had the biggest losses when the time came to cut back.

The mistake people made was equating the increase in funding as a sign that the state finally “got it” when it came to the arts. The legislatures on the other hand were of the mind that the arts were the last ones to get a lot of money and now it was their turn not to have money.

They also found that organized advocacy groups were more effective over the long term than individual arts organizations advocating on their own behalf. At the same time, there has to be a single advocacy point person who is rallying the efforts of the group in an effective manner presenting a well-organized united agenda.

How do you do good advocacy you ask? Well, NASAA has some good articles on their website, including a survey that helps organizations and state arts councils evaluate their advocacy activities.

In addition to reaching the opinion leaders in the community, you have to employ the community leaders on your board to flex their persuasive skills on your behalf. They might be able to talk their friends into writing a hundred thousand dollar check, but talking passionately about their involvement with your arts organization will generally have greater yields over the long term.

Every board member has to be able to advocate to friends, family, business partners, etc and answer the question “why are you spending your time working them them?” It isn’t an answer that the staff can give the board members and they will sound more convincing if they can talk specifically about why they view organization as a worthy cause rather than to simply say it is a worthy cause.

Advocacy for your work is also more compelling coming from people not directly associated with the organization. If an educator, tourism official, business owner, etc., talks about how money for the arts helps them in their jobs, it goes a long way in convincing the holders of the purse strings.

This is the essence of the best advocacy efforts according to Mr. Katz — telling decision makers how helping you will help them. It will come as no surprise that public figures welcome any opportunity to maintain their position by helping their constituencies and increasing their visibility. Everyone essentially wants to be seen as doing good. If their help will help you to empower kids, then show them how it can be done.

People want to be loved so if they care about you or if you affect someone who they care about, then chances are they want to do something to sustain that affection.

One last lesson I learned from the talk–don’t just concentrate on your allies. Work on converting perceived enemies to your cause as well. This is particularly important when working in the political arena. The reins of power can change hands. If you have set one person or one political party up as your champion, there is an implied message that the other folks that are not-champions.

Converting them will take different messages than the ones you use for your easy allies and it won’t be easy, but in the long run, it can be worth the effort.

Maybe I Should Take Myself Out More Often

As I thought, Drew McManus featured my account of my orchestra attendance on his blog today. I hadn’t expected him to essentially quote my entire letter to him. I am pleased that he did (and corrected some of my lapses where my mind sped along faster than my fingers).

What really tickled me was that Patricia Mitchell quoted from the letter I wrote Drew on her blog, I guess what I had to say made her happy because her only comment is “YES”

I obviously think my letter on Drew’s blog is worth reading so go take a look!

Just for the record, I did email the marketing person at the Honolulu Symphony and suggested they take part in what I bet will be a national trend by next May. I haven’t heard from her, but considering that they are approaching their season finale and departure of their music director, it is not surprising that she would be concerned with other things.

I would take myself to cultural events more often, but I am such a ungrateful date. I never thank myself for the lovely dinner before hand or the thought that went into picking the event. Sure I am easy and will go home with myself on the first date, but all I get out of the evening is listening to myself snore.

I am sure I will enjoy the experience more if I take a friend the next time as Drew suggests.