Is the United States in urgent need of a national cultural policy? Is it likely to improve the quality of American cultural life if the Federal government establishes something like a ministry of culture in Washington to oversee the life of the arts in this country? Is access to the arts now to be made a government entitlement on the model of Social Security, Medicare, or—what may be a more plausible parallel—our failed Welfare programs? If so, who is to determine what qualifies as “art” under the jurisdiction of a national cultural policy? What, for that matter, will the now amorphous and much abused term “culture,” which once meant high culture but can now mean anything from museum exhibitions of motorcycles to the pornographic doggerel of rap music, actually signify for the bureaucracies that would be empowered to assess its value?

These are but a few of the alarming questions that have been raised by the announcement this summer of a new multi-million-dollar “initiative” to “optimize America’s cultural resources” by the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia. While the Pew announcement does not specifically identify the goal of this massive initiative as the establishment of a new Federal agency for the arts, its gruesomely bureaucratic approach to what is described as “a new era of cultural policy development to ensure that the cultural policy heritage and artistic resources of the United States are appropriately sustained and supported” is clearly a call for more centralized regulation of the arts and their institutions. This, in our view, is a very unwelcome prospect.

Moreover, with the Pew’s calling for “building an infrastructure for the development of more effective private and public policies affecting American arts and culture,” and its promise of “a new world of accountability” in the arts, not to mention its reference to “segments of the nation” that are “culturally underserved,” we are reminded of nothing so much as the political and statistical propaganda blitz that preceded the endorsed transformation of medical practice in this country into the bureaucratic nightmare it has become today. For in the arts, as in the practice of medicine, every increase in bureaucratization results in a significant loss of standards. What we are being persuaded to implement in the Pew’s proposals is something like a system of HMO’s for the nation’s cultural health. Which means, of course, more bureaucracy, more regulation, less choice, but also more emphasis on the arts as, in the words of the foundation’s own announcement, a “vital part of our society,” with some bureaucratic entity determining what is “appropriate” for the cultural health of the nation.

Then, too, there is the problem of the role assigned to the media in the Pew’s vision of the future of the arts in America. In an interview with The New York Times this summer, Marian A. Godfrey, director of the culture program for the Pew Charitable Trusts, was eager to acknowledge that “A big part of our effort will be the media part.” This, too, is bad news. For while there are few things about the life of the arts in this country that can be regarded as absolutely certain, one of them surely is that the increasing role of the media—especially television—in reporting, “reviewing,” and otherwise publicizing the arts has itself become more of an obstacle than a contribution to a serious public understanding of the arts. For the interests of the media and the interests of the arts are seldom the same. What the media are primarily interested in are celebrity, novelty, and controversy—in a word: news—while the arts, at their highest levels anyway, are governed by longer-term considerations that do not lend themselves to capsule media coverage. Often the only extended media coverage a serious artist receives today is to be found on the obituary page of a few newspapers. Even the Sunday art page of The New York Times has pretty much abandoned its coverage of the New York exhibition scene in favor of more topical or political art-related subjects.

Politics is, of course, another thing that has had a detrimental impact on the mainstream media’s coverage of the arts, for the left-liberal bias of the media is reflected in the mindset of its arts reportage and reviewing, where house rules on political correctness shape judgment and opinion, and multiculturalist ideology often determines the very performances and publications that are given featured attention. The arts coverage on National Public Radio and PBS is the most notorious offender in this regard, but our few remaining quality newspapers are often just as bad. There is, in any case, an obvious bias in favor of popular culture in the mainstream media that makes it difficult for the fine arts to receive the attention they deserve.

It speaks volumes about the mindset of the Pew’s own program for the arts that its announcement links “media and advocacy” as virtually identical enterprises, and you can be sure that recipients of the funds that the Pew Charitable Trusts will henceforth be lavishing upon the media will be obliged to meet some pretty strict standards of “advocacy”—advocacy, that is, for the bureaucratic behemoth that the Pew’s multi-million-dollar “initiative” is designed to bring into existence.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 1, on page 1
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