What is Cultural Policy? A Dialogue for an Emerging
Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies Faculty and Student
April 29, 1999
Stan Katz introduced the session by noting that our central question
- "What is Cultural Policy?" - was first raised during a faculty
advisory meeting in the fall. In fact, even more basic, one faculty
member had asked, "What do we mean by 'policy'?" To help focus
the April 29th discussion, Paul DiMaggio agreed to circulate a
paper he wrote in 1983 on the topic, "What are Cultural Policy
Studies: And Why Do We Need Them?"
Paul DiMaggio noted the context in which the paper was written
and summarized its main arguments. First, he suggested that it
is useful to think about cultural policy across many different
fields, comparing public and private policy in the arts with communications
policy, debates about education curricula and other areas of cultural
production and reception. Second, it is useful to think about
cultural policy as having to do with decisions about cultural
goods when those decisions are, in some way, contested. In other
words, if there is broad public consensus about the public value
of a cultural good, then policy is principally about how best
to distribute or allocate the good in question. This is social
policy, not cultural policy. Perhaps, cultural policy requires
conflict over the value of the good itself. A third idea in the
paper is that there is a distinction between direct policies that
are intended to shape cultural fields and indirect policies that
do so unintentionally. The cultural policy enterprise needs to
pay attention to state and non-state actions that impact cultural
outcomes without intending to do so. Finally, the fourth point
in the article, which is less relevant today, is that policy means
actions by the government and ignores policy made by foundations,
corporations and nonprofits. Today, most academics and practitioners
would instinctively include non-government actors as critical
players in cultural policy discussions.
As further background, Stan Katz mentioned an essay he wrote
for the American Assembly publication in 1984 that criticized
the notion that because America lacks a centrally administered
culture, as compared to Europe, that we don't have a cultural
policy. In his essay, Katz disputes this claim by showing how
a variety of government policies, from immigration to urban renewal,
create environments that affect which cultural goods and practices
are carried forward. Katz pointed to the Lincoln Center as an
example of an institution whose practices have been greatly influenced
by unintended public policies. In this regard, the U.S. does not
have a singular cultural policy; it has cultural "policies."
One participant pointed out the value of thinking about the "always,
already" of cultural policy. In other words, there is never a
condition when cultural policies are not at work; nonetheless,
in many contexts, foundations, nonprofits and governments are
reluctant to avow the practice of cultural policy. However, the
DiMaggio article helps us account for shifts that allow cultural
policy to become salient and legitimate for such institutions
to discuss. It is basically in "the presence of cultural conflict
and uncertainty" - when certain cultural domains are being challenged
- that the question of cultural policy arises.
Additionally, an implicit model of cultural practice derives
from America's tradition of democratic consensus. Unlike European
cultural policy that supports projects that are deeply avant-garde,
politically critical, and analytical, America's need for a broad
consensus leads to cultural practices that produce art as an opiate
for the masses. Thus, the democratic market place of ideas in
the U.S. imposes a model of cultural practice (cultural policy)
that tends to support innocuous art.
An objection was raised regarding the assumption that U.S. cultural
policy is inherently biased against avant-garde art. First, the
NEA and NEH had a great deal of autonomy in the early days of
their existence and often supported very provocative works. Second,
if we look at places like SECCA (South Eastern Center for Contemporary
Art), we see that avant-garde art is often funded through indirect
means, e.g., through a circuitous route of grants and accounting
practices. Thus, the government is often able to fund provocative
work without its hand being detected. So, we have to look at the
indirect as well as the explicit and direct.
One participant cautioned against taking an "Arnoldian" approach
to culture - e.g., viewing culture as an "extra-rational" force
that is administered and organized by some "governing body." In
this way, our approach to culture is often too "economic," as
in the case of GATT and the U.S. defending the export of Hollywood
films primarily on economic grounds, although for the French it
was an issue of cultural chauvinism. Another example is the failure
of international organizations to balance economic models of development
with sensitivity to local and indigenous cultures. We also need
to think about cultural policy outside the framework of just one
state - policies affect "culture" across national boundaries.
It was suggested that we narrow our definition of "cultural policy"
and distinguish between policies that have effects on institutional
areas of cultural production versus "cultural analysis" of policies
in other sectors such as health or human services. For example,
most policies - whether debates over welfare or the sale of human
organs- have an important cultural component, such as the language
used to frame debates, assumptions about sacred and non-sacred
goods, beliefs about the value of the market, etc.. And researchers
should employ the tools of cultural analysis in order to expose
the non-rational, non-functional components of such policies.
If the Center's research net were cast this broadly, however,
it would be called "the Center for Policy Studies," not the "Center
for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies." But, if you ask the same
questions of the film industry, which is in the business of producing
cultural goods, then we are closer to the notion of "cultural
One respondent felt that the term "culture" itself is often misused
and misappropriated. They directed the groups attention to the
work of Roslyn Deutche (architecture) who has written about the
way in which corporations use "cultural projects" - i.e., public
art- to make a claim on public space, and in the process, often
exclude marginal groups from that space. Thus, we need to pay
attention to the political side of "cultural policies" - the way
in which they can be used to legitimate certain groups and disempower
Another participant felt that an important project for cultural
policy studies is to investigate how different groups - government,
foundations, corporations - define "culture" or define the object
of their support/policies. These definitions are influenced by
norms and values that we need to understand in order to study
cultural policy decisions. For example, a dominant norm in the
history of cultural policy making has been to equate "culture"
with cultivation. Another person noted, however, that the goal
of cultivation (the appreciation of "high" culture) is just one
of many possible policy goals, and we should not assume that elitism
is at the core of all cultural policies.
It was suggested that instead of concerning ourselves with the
normative goals of cultural policy, perhaps it's more fruitful
to examine how cultural policies are constantly negotiated and
contested, regardless of their explicit objectives. For example,
during the 1950s there was a U.S. policy of cultural exchange
with Soviet Union where films, books and exhibits were shared
between the two nations. The underlying policy objective was to
sell American capitalism abroad in an effort to undermine communism.
But actual policy outcomes were much more complex. For example,
the exchange helped to open up a space for dialogue, understanding
and appreciation of Soviet culture - an unintended consequence
that had many right wing groups, like the American Legions, up
in arms. Again, this reinforces the need to look at unintended
consequences of cultural policy and to realize that regardless
of the implicit norms or "interests" of a policy, its practice
is always contested and redefined; and thus an important subject
for policy research.
Disagreement arose over whether public policy should be restricted
to only actions carried out by the government. One participant
noted that governments are empowered to make certain kinds of
decisions, and when we study those decisions, we are studying
public policy. This domain of policy making is important enough
in its own right, without bringing in corporate policy, philanthropic
policy, etc.. Others disagreed, and felt that just as NGOs (non-governmental
organizations) play a critical role in many international policy
debates, so do the actions of major philanthropies affect, in
very public ways, cultural practices and activities. One possible
solution is to use cultural policy to describe what foundations
and non-government organizations do, and to use public policy
to describe what governments do.
One respondent summarized the conversation, noting two important
themes. The first deals with definitional issues. And, from an
instrumental standpoint, researchers can define cultural policy
as they wish, as long as they are clear about their definition
from the beginning. Nonetheless, definitions are important if,
for no other reason, then to decide what is the most useful and
practical domain of research for a Center like this to undertake.
The other strand in the conversation deals with questions of
legitimacy. Is cultural policy legitimate? Some seem to suggest
that because of its normative overtones, cultural policy is not
a legitimate exercise. And, in fact, there are constitutional
limitations, such as the first amendment, that restrict a whole
range of possible cultural policies, such as favoring certain
practices over others or regulating speech in movies. And there
are issues involving the heterogeneity of American society and
the fact that widespread disagreements and populist impulses cut
against public expenditures and support for the arts. These are
fundamentally political questions, different from other more academic
issues of how to define cultural policy.
One participant asked, "To what extent are we just talking about
the production of cultural products or artifacts?" And, if so,
"What makes this a policy issue? Why is this not just a history
of how culture gets created?"
One discussant thought the issue of "non-activity, or "non-regulation"
was a useful approach to studying certain types of indirect policies,
but wondered, from a methodological perspective, how one goes
about studying this.
It was suggested that in teaching American law, an important
maxim is that a failure to act is a type of action
that has consequences. And, the same approach should be taken
with cultural policy. For example, one could study the effects
in the UK of not having a tax regime that favors deductions and
its implication for the private support of culture. This is a
policy - even though the members of Parliament who passed these
tax laws may not have been aware of their consequences on the
shape of culture in England.
However, the point was raised that including non-purposive and
indirect actions in our definition may make the study of cultural
policy too unwieldy, especially if we want to include the actions
of non-profits, corporations and foundations. It is not that difficult
to study the unintended and indirect effects of a limited range
of state policies, but when we open up our definition of the field,
it becomes much harder to track all of the unintended and indirect
effects of non-government actors.
Additionally, it was noted that if cultural policy analysis is
partly about identifying sites of possible intervention, then
focusing on state policies could be more sensible. There may be
little room for policy intervention, for example, when we talk
about the unintentional effects of decisions made by the publishing
industry on the evolution of a certain genre of novels.
Another participant raised the point that in DiMaggio's article,
and throughout the discussion, the metaphor of the marketplace
(cultural industry, regulation, market place of ideas, etc.) serves
as the dominant frame for understanding cultural policy. It was
noted that maybe the marketplace is not the only, or even the
most proper, way to look at cultural practices.
One speaker connected this point to questions of legitimacy.
For example, debates about public education are often couched
in economic or market terms. By focusing on the economic benefits
of school choice, policy makers often fail to engage in the larger
question about whether the state has a legitimate interest in
promoting national, standardized education or certain civic values.
As in the case of education, when the legitimacy of the government's
role in regulating culture is at stake, people avoid talking about
cultural policy in anything but rational, economic terms (thus,
often leaving aside questions of values and norms).
Attention was focused on the fact that the Center's name - arts
and cultural policy studies - suggests that these are two different
things. And, the arts side of the equation is much easier to think
about in terms of production of cultural goods. However, the notion
of production is less useful when it comes to other forms of culture
- say the humanities or language where the "product" might just
be an idea or an experience. For example, the graduate student
exchanges between the U.S. and Soviet Union in 1959 were certainly
an example of cultural policy making and the opening up of cultural
relations, but there is no tangible cultural product at stake,
as in the case of most arts policies.
It was noted that in the humanities, policy making is often more
ambiguous and parceled together by multiple actors; actors who
generally lack the authority to make and enforce binding policies.
Take for example the current discussions between the Association
of Research Libraries, the Copyright Clearance Center and the
Association of American Universities. The groups are meeting with
the hope of producing a joint statement on the implementation
of the fair-use doctrine in the new digital environment. This
is cultural policy and a joint statement could have significant
consequences in the area of intellectual property. However, the
nature of the policy making process is quite different, but equally
important and relevant to what the Center is studying.
Intellectual property, according to one participant, is a good
example of how Western notions of cultural policy are often selectively
imported into cultural policies in the East. For example, the
Chinese government enforces intellectual property rights by requiring
users to sign an official form every time they make a photocopy.
However, the government ignores property rights when it chooses
to allow the sale of bootlegged videos and cassettes.
One participant noted the distinction between cultural production
(Hollywood), cultural expression (language policy; headscarves
for Muslims in France), and cultural analysis of policy (the cultural
dimensions of welfare or health policy). The cultural production
part clearly falls into the "arts" mission of the Center, and
the cultural analysis part seems to fall outside the Center's
interests partly because it is too broad (just about all areas
of public policy have a cultural component). So, perhaps the bulk
of attention should be placed on figuring out how to define or
categorize policies related to cultural expression.
Finally, it was suggested that we think of cultural policy as
being situated some where in a 3 dimensional box. One dimension
is state vs. non-state policies; a second dimension is whether
policies are aimed at products verses practices; and a third is
whether these products or practices are primarily symbolic or
material (i.e., arts policies vs. welfare policies). State actions
about symbolic products are in one corner of the box, and such
policies are unambiguously "cultural policies." However, as we
move out from this category, ambiguity is introduced. The further
out we go, the more ambiguity.