A Minister of Culture

Every country has a cultural policy—and how it links it with other national issues on a larger scale also reveals how that country thinks about the arts. So . . . do the arts primarily teach us (education), entertain us (sports), add to our body of knowledge (science), strengthen a country's identity (heritage), or its economy (tourism)?

July 24th, 2009

The American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act (or the "stimulus package"), designed to keep Americans working, very nearly excluded a large segment of American workers—those who make their living in the arts. A tiny percentage of the overall package—$50 million—was originally included as additional subsidy for the United States' arts funding agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. But conservative Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) added an amendment to the bill, stipulating that funds may not be used for "any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, [or] highway beautification project" (italics added). Seventy-three of one hundred Senators agreed and the amendment was included in the bill when it was sent to the House of Representatives. After enraged constituents responded with thousands of emails and phone calls to their representatives, the House defeated the amendment, with 57% voting against it. The funding was approved, and the funding was distributed via the NEA to more than 700 non-profit arts organizations and state and regional arts agencies.

That so many elected American federal government officials saw museums and theaters as comparable to golf courses and casinos reveals a lot about how the United States federal government views the purposes and value of the arts in American society. A government's stance on the arts and culture, the government's role in them, and how (and whether) it will support and advocate for them is its cultural policy. Although "culture" in this context rarely refers solely to the arts—it could include libraries, heritage, historical preservation, language, even religion—the arts are a significant portion of what most governments mean by "culture."

Every country has a cultural policy—even if it's implied through omission rather than implemented by decision—but different countries actively engage with and stimulate the arts differently, or more, than others. Generally, government involvement entails a mix of provision of direct financial support, advocacy through government agencies and passage of laws, and indirect types of support through other mechanisms that eventually benefit the arts.

Western European governments are noted (particularly by American artists) for large quantities of unrestricted direct financial subsidy to artists and arts organizations. Other governments, like the United States, consider their rightful involvement to be more indirect. In addition to granting some funding to the NEA each year for distribution to selected arts organizations, the United States also exempts recognized not-for-profit arts organizations from paying "income" taxes, and allows individuals, foundations, and corporations who give financially to them to deduct those contributions from their own income taxes—a much more lucrative source of income for arts organizations, resulting in many times more dollars than NEA grants.

If the fracas over arts money in the stimulus package revealed a tendency of the American government to view the arts as equivalent to "entertainment," the government's provision of this tax-exempt status reveals a tendency to think of the arts' benefit to American culture as primarily "educational." The portion of the tax code (section 501c3) that allows an organization to be tax-exempt and accept tax-deductible contributions stipulates that "exempt purposes" include "charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals." When a not-for-profit arts organization applies for tax exemption under this code, it does so as an educational institution, not as an arts organization.

The United States has further distanced itself from direct involvement in the country's arts and cultural life by choosing not to have its cultural policymaking housed in a single cabinet-level agency, or assigned to a single official as an advocate for the country's cultural life. By mission and design, the NEA is solely a "funder"—a financial endowment—rather than a creator or implementer of policy, as it would be if it was a full-fledged cabinet-level agency like the Departments of State, Defense, Agriculture, Energy, Labor, Education, and so on. In contrast, most Western European (and many other) countries do have a cabinet-level "Ministry of Culture," while many others worldwide have designated "Ministers of Culture" that serve within other departments.

The use of the term "ministry" to designate government agencies and departments is an interesting confluence for the Christian—the word "minister" was originally used in English to mean "servant," and it came to be used to describe either a public servant or a religious servant. And, in the realm of cultural policy the confluence continues, as some countries consider the spiritual life of their country to be associated with or part of "culture," as seen in how they group their cultural policymaking entity with other national issues—for example, in Norway's Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs and Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and in countries such as India and South Korea, where responsibility for the country's spiritual life is included in their Ministries of Culture without specifying it in their title.

As with the United States' government's connection of "art" with "entertainment" and "education," how a country links cultural policy with other national issues on a larger scale also reveals how it thinks about the arts. A Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (Netherlands) says something very different than a Ministry of Culture and Tourism (Turkey), which says something very different than a Ministry of Environment, Heritage, and the Arts (Australia). Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology seems to be suggesting that "culture" has to do with nearly everything—except perhaps tourism, which it places in its Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

So, do the arts primarily teach us (education), or entertain us (sports), or add to our body of knowledge (science)? Do they strengthen a country's identity (heritage), or its economy (tourism)?

In 2004, the RAND Corporation conducted a study "to improve the current understanding of the arts' full range of effects in order to inform public debate and policy," which it published as Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. The study's authors identified two types of benefits of the arts to society: instrumental benefits, in which the arts are a means to another type of gain (economic gain, educational improvement, expanded knowledge), or intrinsic benefits, in which the arts are inherently valuable and "enrich people's lives." They wrote (italics added):

"People are drawn to the arts not for their instrumental effects, but because the arts can provide them with meaning and with a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation. We contend not only that these intrinsic effects are satisfying in themselves, but that many of them can lead to the development of individual capacities and community cohesiveness that are of benefit to the public sphere."

How, then, can a country's cultural policy invest in these intrinsic benefits? At this point, the dialogue often returns to the debate over money. American artists and advocates regularly call for increased quantities of unrestricted government grants which simply allow artists to create, relieving them of the need to spend time away from their work to cultivate funders and other financial support for their work. Arts organizations complain about the ever-increasing need to justify their work to funders through reporting on the instrumental benefits they provide to their communities—this many schoolchildren received discounted tickets, that many patrons ate at area restaurants afterward—when they believe strongly that their real contribution to their communities is intrinsic.

Even more than the money, however, American artists seek validation through a stronger national cultural policy—the implied "nod" that the United States' federal government believes that they are as important to the country's welfare as workers in education, defense, agriculture, energy, and other areas of national life in which the country has a stronger and more cohesive national policy, and a (much) greater financial investment.

Some change to the United States' cultural policy is probably on the horizon, as Barack Obama, in his campaign, identified himself as a "champion for arts and culture." Some had hoped that the Obama administration would see the first cabinet level "Arts Czar" or Department of Culture; however, the President has stated disinterest in this direction. But with the hiring of actor Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar and "House" fame), a.k.a. Kalpen Modi, in a newly created position as the White House liaison to the arts, and the nomination of feisty, risk-taking Broadway producer Rocco Landesman as chairman of the NEA, significant changes are still likely.

Politically conservative American Christians have often been opponents of the NEA and of federal involvement of any kind in the arts. The "culture wars" of the 1990s are now legendary—a study by Peter Marsden, quoted in Alberta Arthurs and Glenn Wallach's book Crossroads: Art and Religion in American Life (The New Press, 2001), stated that, in 1998, only 8.4% of self-identifying "Conservative Protestants" supported federal arts funding. The conflict between American Protestants and the arts is long and complex, and the result has been the kind of action taken by Senator Coburn, Senator Jesse Helms (who was largely responsible for slashed funding and the near elimination of the NEA in the 1990s) and other Christians in public service.

However, it is in the "instrumental vs. intrinsic" dialogue that the Christian has an advantage over the secular person. The Protestant church has developed an interest in the arts in recent years, mostly because of its intrinsic value. Some creative expressions made by Christians have the instrumental goal of evangelism or teaching, and, in fact, it was largely for these purposes that the modern church's interest in the arts awakened. Most of the church in time, though, came to recognize that the benefits of the arts were larger than their instrumental value. The creations of a divinity intrinsically have value, and, we can surmise, the creations of the creations of a divinity intrinsically have value. They do not need to make money, increase test scores or save souls to be worthwhile.

The idea of "meaning-making" is frequently connected with spirituality, and Christians can talk about the spiritual dimensions of the arts, and advocate for them, in ways a government agency bounded by "separation of church and state" cannot and a secular artist or arts organization will not. The individual Christian must allow the Spirit to lead in determining how and whether to object to specific government policies, and in determining how and whether to object to specific meanings being made in the art around them.

But Christians can always advocate for the intrinsic importance of meaning-making through creative expressions to "benefit the public sphere." How? In the same way that artists and arts organizations would like to see the United States government advocate for and validate them—through "voting with our checkbooks." The making and extending and receiving of art is largely an economic interaction, like every other exchange of services in the marketplace. Christians must be willing to invest in the creative expressions that give meaning to their lives, and that they would like to share with others. "Patron" comes from the Latin word meaning "father" (patrönus) and, although being a father means much more than paying the bills, most fathers will attest that paying the bills is an awfully large part of it.

If Christians can become true patrons and take upon themselves the goal to "father" the intrinsic, meaning-making benefits of art and the people who create it, perhaps, then, the best "ministers (servants) of culture" will not be the ones in government offices.

 

Luann Purcell Jennings is the founder of Church and Art Network, which serves leaders in churches, ministries, schools, and arts organizations who are working at the intersection of faith and the arts. A theater director, arts administrator, and educator, Luann is also an adjunct theater faculty member at St. John's University and founded the Arts Ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC). She lives with her husband Chuck, a jazz guitarist, in New York City.

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