Who We Are

By Arlene Goldbard .

I admit it: I’m obsessed. I turn my attention to the way we spend our commonwealth as a nation, and like a song you can’t get out of your head, the cultural policy questions that matter most to me keep cycling through: Who are we as a people? What do we want to remembered for, our vast creativity, or our prodigious ability to punish?

Most mainstream debate about cultural policy in the U.S. actually focuses on one question, arts funding. Recently, the focus has been on cuts to the budgets of state arts agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts. (If you’re interested, check out my 3-part series on the subject, “Life Implicates Art.”)

Cultural policy is much, much bigger. It’s the aggregate of public statements and actions affecting cultural life. That includes support for artists and arts organizations; regulations and other policies affecting the commercial cultural industries (for-profit film, TV, music); telecommunications policies that regulate the internet, TV, and radio; education policies affecting what is taught, whose culture is deemed worth learning—and much, much more.

The tiny portion of public funds going to arts and culture has been accurately described as the equivalent of a rounding error in categories like public spending on the military or prisons. Nevertheless, when budget-cutting happens these days, culture is treated like a significant center for cost-savings. Politicians use the arts as a form of symbolic speech, to signal a get-serious attitude. In return, they get a lot of credit for almost no impact on the deficit.

It reminds me of a joke that’s making the rounds, inspired by recent events in Wisconsin: a CEO, a Tea Party member, and a union member are sharing a plate of cookies. The CEO takes 11 of the 12 cookies, then turns to the Tea Partier and says, “Watch out! That union member wants a piece of your cookie.”

The truth about arts funding is even more stark: for the last decade, we taxpayers have been spending the equivalent of two annual NEA budgets a day, seven days a week, on war. In the recent legislation extending Bush-era tax cuts, the U.S. Treasury lost $225 billion in revenues from tax breaks specifically tailored to benefit high-income taxpayers. In our version of the joke, the CEO is the world’s largest war and prison industries; the union member is an artist; and the Tea Partier is all the other social programs duking it out. But it isn’t one cookie out of a dozen we’re fighting over; it’s barely a crumb.

People who specialize in framing public issues—campaign advisors, for instance, and other strategists—tell us it’s not the facts and figures of an issue that matter most, it’s how the issue is framed. How big is the picture? Who is in it? How do the pieces connect? One popular way of explaining this is to show a group of people two pictures. In the first, group members see a bunch of sick-looking cattle in a field. When asked why the animals are ill, they speculate that the farmer has neglected them, or they have a virus, or they don’t have enough food. Then the picture is switched. In the second image, the frame is enlarged. Behind the hill, group members see a huge factory, belching black smoke. Suddenly, other reasons for the cattle’s illness occur to them: the air is polluted, chemicals are in the animals’ drinking water, and so on.

Our arts funding debate is like the first picture, a frame far too small to hold adequate information. What do you want to fund, politicians ask, school lunches or the arts? Health care or art? But when we pull back for a long shot, we see that those aren’t the choices. Officials are choosing tax breaks for the wealthiest over cultural funding; they are building prisons faster than schools and quibbling over an NEA budget that equals half a day’s worth of war funding.

If we bring the big picture into the frame, what values are driving our current cultural policy? I’m ashamed to say that they are the same values the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., listed 44 years ago in his famous speech at Riverside Church: “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

We can change this, but we have to start by telling the truth about what’s at stake. Who are we as a people? What do we want to remembered for, our vast creativity, or our prodigious ability to punish?



Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. Her blog and other writings may be downloaded from her Web site: www.arlenegoldbard.com. She was born in New York and grew up near San Francisco. Her most recent book, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development was published by New Village Press in November 2006. She is also co-author of Community, Culture and Globalization, an international anthology published by the Rockefeller Foundation, Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, and Clarity, a novel. Her essays have been published in In Motion Magazine, Art in America, Theatre, Tikkun, and many other journals. She has addressed many academic and community audiences in the U.S. and Europe, on topics ranging from the ethics of community arts practice to the development of integral organizations. She has provided advice and counsel to hundreds of community-based organizations, independent media groups, and public and private funders and policymakers including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Independent Television Service, Appalshop and dozens of others. She is currently writing a new book on art’s public purpose. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center.


Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)
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1 reply
  1. Kristi Holohan
    Kristi Holohan says:

    If you're a preacher, I'm the choir. Agreed.

    Our over-all priorities and framework of presenting the picture display the decline of our culture. When we (or our government which is supposed to represent us) as a collective society cut out these cultural displays of expression, it becomes so apparent that our focus is not on growth and celebration (as the Arts can so often bring) but on military and destruction.

    Shall we work together to form alternative Arts Funding Structures or Reform the System, maybe-both. Thanks for your post!

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