Review - The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State

by John Brown - 26 August 2008
Casey Nelson Blake, Editor, The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)
Casey Nelson Blake, Editor 352 pages | 6 x 9 | 45 illus. 
Cloth 2007 | ISBN 978-0-8122-4029-0 | $49.95

“Have you ever remarked how all authority is stupid concerning Art?”
--Gustave Flaubert, cited by Michael Kammen in his below article, p. 87

One of the characteristics of Americans, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the second volume of his Democracy in America (1840), is that they fix their minds “upon purely practical objects.” They don’t focus on “the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts,” but turn their attention “earthward.” This putative lack of New World interest toward the finer things in life was succinctly summed up by President Richard Nixon, who told his White House assistant, H.R. Haldeman, that “[t]he arts are not our people. We should dump the whole culture business.” 

The above Nixon quotation comes from an intriguing collection of twelve essays, The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State edited by Casey Nelson Blake, professor of history and American Studies at Columbia University. The purpose of the book, as Professor Blake notes in his introduction, is to offer “a rough road map of the history of the arts and public culture in the modern United States.” The volume, historical in its approach, deals with the complex relationship between culture and democracy, with a special emphasis on private and government efforts in the U.S. to extend the impact of art beyond elite audiences. The scope of the essays is wide, ranging from “Norman Rockwell, Public Artist” by Michele H. Bogart to “‘Subtle, Intangible, and Non-Quantifiable’: Aesthetics, Law, and Speech in Public Space” by Leslie Prosterman.

For students of cultural diplomacy, six chapters in Part II of the volume, “Cultural Policy and the State,” deserve considerable attention, despite the previous appearance of some of these pieces. The most important, “Culture and the State in America” (published in different form in Journal of American History [1996]), by Michael Kammen, a Pulitzer-prize winning historian, argues that, essentially, the United States does not have a “national cultural policy.” The very idea of a Ministry of Culture, he writes, “seems politically inconceivable” in the United States. He underscores that even Americans devoted to the arts are suspicious of a centralized cultural bureaucracy, citing, as an example, the painter John Sloan, who said that “he would welcome a ministry of culture because then he would know where the enemy was.” Kammen shows that funding for the arts at the local, non-federal level does play an important role in the U.S., and that in fact the USG was the first government (1917-1918) “to allow tax deductions for cultural gifts to museums and nonprofit cultural organizations.” But centralized, state support for cultural programs has been far less extensive in the United States than in Europe.

This is because, Kammen suggests, America has had no kings and queens spending “lavishly on cultural projects as a means of glorifying their reigns”; its Calvinistic tradition was opposed to “cultural luxury” and continues in “historically modified forms”; and it shared the “cultural costiveness of the very countries that colonized what became British North America.” (The contrast between U.S. and European approaches to culture is also covered by sociologist Vera L. Zolberg in her “The Happy Few -- en Masse: Franco-American Comparisons in Cultural Democratization,” which underscores private support for the arts in the United States, a country marked, she says, by a “culture of donation.”)

According to Kammen, an important exception in the U.S.’s lack of interest for state-supported culture occurred in the Cold War, 

most notably 1946 to 1974, when a pervasive concern to combat and contain communism prompted an unprecedented yet uncoordinated array of initiatives by the federal government to export American culture as exemplary illustrations of what the free world had to offer Europe as well as developing nations.

As Kammen points out, these initiatives ranged from the emergence of the Fulbright program and the establishment of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953 to government-sponsored jazz programs overseas and the covert support by the CIA for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which funded high-brow intellectual publications such as Encounter. The Cold-War U.S. government cultural initiatives are also briefly mentioned (within the context of U.S. domestic cultural projects) in two other essays, “A Modernist Vision: The Origins and Early Years of the National Endowment for the Arts' Visual Arts Program” by historian Donna M. Binkiewicz and “Between Civics and Politics: The Modernist Moment in Federal Public Art” by Casey Nelson Blake.

More information on U.S. Cold-War cultural programs overseas abound in University of Michigan professor Penny M. Von Eschen’s “The Goodwill Ambassador: Duke Ellington and Black Worldliness” and Laura A. Belmonte’s “Exporting America: The U.S. Propaganda Offensive, 1945-1959.” Von Eschen’s article, parts of which were published in other forms in her remarkable Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004) underscores that, even if his tours were subsidized by the State Department, Maestro Ellington was very much his own man -- or rather, that music was his mistress, to paraphrase the title of his book, Music is my Mistress. While the State Department saw his global gigs, in Von Eschen’s words, as “a crucial part of a self-conscious campaign against worldwide criticism of U.S. racism,” Ellington believed that jazz as a word “has absolutely no meaning today” and that “the music of my race is more than the American idiom” (but he did also say, Von Eschen points out, that “to export jazz was to export … ‘an American idiom with African roots’”). 

A final essay by Laura A. Belomonte, an associate professor of history at Oklahoma State University, covers the themes of information programs undertaken by USIA in its early years, and comes to the conclusion that 

[b]y placing the advantages of democratic capitalism within the context of the lives of individual Americans, U.S. information experts articulated, in human and emotional terms, the reasons for combating communism. Though the Soviets denigrated American morality and culture, U.S. propagandists emphasized the freedom and comfort among citizens of the United States. In contrast to communist exploitation and misery, American information experts offered the physical and emotional fulfillment available in the United States.

(Readers looking for a thorough coverage of the United States Information Agency should turn to Nicholas Cull’s recently published, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008]).

Let me conclude with a quotation by Congressman Thomas J. Dewey, who said (as quoted by Kammen) semifacetiously in 1996 that “[w]e have a cultural policy by the seat of our pants. We do it ad hoc.” Is this how a democracy should deal with its culture, including with its presentation overseas? Give much credit to the volume under review for making us think about this important question.

John Brown is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer whose article, “Arts Diplomacy: The Neglected Aspect of Cultural Diplomacy” appeared in William P. Kiehl, ed., America’s Dialogue with the World (Washington, D.C.: Public Diplomacy Council, 2006)