Of Art Czars and Arms Races

April 28, 2009

On the subject of Quincy Jones’s proposal to create an Art Czar, there’s a great deal that could be said for and against it… Although I’m by temperament opposed to the idea of governmental bodies imposing culture (though not funding is,  as JL Wall pointed out) I think there’s still a case to be made for it; not from the perspective of a positive good, but from a recognition that the arts are seriously underrepresented in the executive relative to any other number of concerns.

In some respects, this situation boils down to a classic arms race scenario: Each of the major departments, be it Labor, Agriculture, State, or Treasury, founds their legitimacy on the importance of having a representative and regulatory body at the level of the Executive. Those areas which do not fall under the categories of other departments thus have a substantial incentive to find some way to get representation, but the field is necessarily limited and hence the number of frivolous departments will be kept low. But still, everyone wants to get in there and those who don’t will fall behind, regardless of the potential dangers posed by having federal level posts for any of these areas.

So would an Art Czar be a good addition to the representative arsenal?  As I see it, there are a number of trade-offs at play here. First is cost: this is an issue that deserves a post of its own but I think that since the role of the department would likely be one of organizing and not itself funding initiatives, this would not be prohibitive.

The second issue is the balance between things gained by a department level post, i.e. greater representation and organizational coherrence, and things lost, i.e. local autonomy, the risk of bureaucratic incompetence, monied interests coming to dominance, etc. To someone who follows the really atrocious behavior of the Department of Agriculture, those concerns must be the central question, particularly given the scale of the art market these days. (How many billion, exactly?) Though there is no art-world equivalent of Monsanto, its not out of the question that an art Czar could become a puppet organization for some concerns over others. 

There is also the risk of politicization, as we’ve already encountered with the NEA, and we are all familiar with the kind of debacle that arts funding divorced from community standards can lead to, Piss Christ being but one example.  On the other hand, I think concerns that this kind of post could turn into a Soviet-style tool for domination are incredibly silly. These are artists we’re talking about here.  Still, I wince to imagine the uses such a post would have been put to under the Bush administration. If, as Jones seems to suggest, this post is acting in a co-ordinating role, the potential for damage would limited, but still, I don’t like to think about what would happen if those Colbert Report rejects who designed the new passports were let lose on the culture at large.

But still, the original concern nags: the arts are a huge industry, and the fact that they lack a cabinet level position is a bit surprising and maybe even unfair, given that many smaller industries are finding representation through the other departments. So even if we don’t like the idea of an Arts Czar, we still have to ask the question of whether it would make sense given the federal situation.

 But its a tricky issue, most definitely. Thoughts, dear readers?

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One Response to “Of Art Czars and Arms Races”

  1. […] H.C. Johns at The Other Right details the complicated concern that would be the suggested “Arts Czar.”  I suppose that in the end the matter depends a good deal on what, exactly, this post would aim to do: merely more centrally coordinate present federal programs (not so unreasonable, when you think about it), or to be the Department of Agriculture of the “arts industry” (and yes, I shiver when I type that in a way I imagine is related to how Wendell Berry shivers when writing “agribusiness”). […]

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