It's the 11th hour in an election season. Do you know where your cultural rights are? No, you do not. Because you don't officially have any. Bill Ivey wants that to change. The Clinton-era chair of the National Endowment for the Arts has a new book out called Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, and in it he proposes a Cultural Bill of Rights.
Ivey's inside knowledge combines with his love for grassroots culture—art that comes up through the people and becomes representative of them. He sees American culture as essential to the American character, and he sees it slipping away or perverted in the exporting or encountered only passively.
He details the 20th-century shift away from participation in the arts and toward consumption. He wonders why schools continue to teach clarinet and tuba but haven't introduced piano and guitar, the most popular instruments. He explores the lame politicking and herd-mentality media-publicizing that leads to widespread self-censorship. He looks at the stultifying rhetoric surrounding old art (including the NEA's current motto, "A great nation deserves great art," which makes art sound like a vegetable: good for you, inert).
How much can be attributed to the profit motive? Corporate image-banks (like Bill Gates's Corbis) own and control millions of images, doling out accessibility according to what will make them money, leaving millions of images just as important but less popular in the dark. In his captions, Ivey includes the fee he had to pay and the restrictions he had to abide by for every photograph he uses in the book. In a section that stuns, he details the monster that has become American copyright practice—seemingly everything is "protected," almost always so that money ends up in executive pockets. Ivey wanted to include a stipulation in the book allowing certain portions to be reproduced for classroom teaching, but UC Press stopped him, "invoking fears of dangerous 'precedent' and lost licensing revenue" in "a real-life example of what Michel Foucault calls 'governmentality' —self-imposed constraint based on internalized rules—rules that end up being more restrictive than laws or regulations."
Nonprofits that act like for-profits (Krens's Guggenheim Museum, for one). Why there aren't any truly bad movies anymore (because nobody's taking risks). The amoral trade bloc of for-profit culture, including the way that Baywatch—which only ran for a single season domestically but now airs in 140 countries as the first American series primarily produced for an overseas audience—has shaped the cartoon of the American character abroad. Ivey ties all these disparate elements together and calls for a U.S. Department of Cultural Affairs or a White House cultural council to address them as comprehensively.
This should be required reading for anyone involved in any kind of art. Oh, and for Barack Obama, should we be so lucky.