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28.3.04

The Ionarts Proposal

The following proposal began as a series of quixotic remarks about American cultural life. We now present a more thoroughly formulated presentation of these ideas, for the consideration of our readers and hopefully for the politicians to whom it is addressed. Readers are requested and encouraged to voice their approval or disapproval for this proposal in the comments section (click on the "Comments" link at the bottom of this post).

To the Elected Officials of the United States Government:

As the most powerful nation on earth, it is scandalous that the United States should be impoverished in terms of its cultural life and heritage, by comparison with other industrialized nations. In many other countries, it is accepted that the importance of the arts to the citizenry demands that a government sponsor an entity at the national ministerial level, charged with the mission of fostering and preserving all facets of society's artistic and creative life. The list of countries in Europe that fund such a Ministry of Culture at the national level should cause us as Americans some embarrassment, where in recent years federal funding for cultural programs has been reduced from slim to meager. Of course, this list includes those states of western Europe which one might expect to support the arts, such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and the United Kingdom. However, it may be surprising to learn of more challenged countries in Europe where the government's commitment to the arts is no less devoted, such as Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Turkey. (For more information, see Cultural Policies in Europe, a compendium Web site from the Council of Europe.)

The evidence becomes more striking when we consider the countries worldwide that fund some sort of Ministry of Culture, sometimes in conjunction with another important policy area like Communication, Education, Sports, Youth, Tourism, and so on. From the list of such countries (Window to Culture) maintained by the Unesco Sector for Culture, it is clear that, in what we might label the "Cultural Arms Race," the United States lags behind such nations as Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Cuba, India, Jordan, Kazahkstan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Oman, Ukraine, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Vietnam. Here in North America we are, in terms of government support of the arts, the poor cousin of both Canada (which has a Department of Canadian Heritage, which funds the Canada Council for the Arts and a number of other programs) and Mexico (which has a National Council for Culture and the Arts).

The United States government does spend money on sponsorship of the arts. According to the Americans for the Arts organization, estimates of federal funding of the arts are as follows:

Direct funding to our country's primary cultural agencies—the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute of Museum and Library Services—presently reaches nearly $250 million. Add to this the dollars that go to cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with about a dozen others, and the federal investment rises to almost a billion dollars. [Another estimated $1 billion dollars for arts-related projects is spent by the Departments of Education, Justice, HUD, Transportation, and Defense.]
Another list of arts-related funding in the federal government is maintained by the National Endowment for the Arts.

We propose the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Culture, which would collect together into one entity the existing arts and culture agencies of the federal government (and their budgets): the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. This new department would be charged with fostering and preserving the cultural life and heritage of the United States, including the support of appreciation of the history of the arts (museum-related programs, scholarship and research, and arts education in public schools) and funding for living creators of art, music, and literature. To make an appropriate fiduciary commitment to this mission, we also propose a special funding arrangement for the new Department of Culture.

At present, the United States military budget (approximately $399 billion for FY 2004, which President Bush wants to raise to $420 billion, according to his latest budget request, which does not even include most of the cost of the latest war in Iraq) is around five times greater than its closest competitor (Russia, approximately $65 billion) and over ten times greater than that of France (around $30 billion), for example. The military accounts for a staggering percentage of the overall federal budget, far out of proportion by comparison to other programs in the budget as well as by comparison to other countries of the world. Therefore, we also propose that the new Department of Culture receive an additional amount of funding (above and beyond the present funding levels for the agencies listed above) equal to a mere 1% of the American military budget, which at present levels would amount to approximately $4 billion.

Following a lengthy visit to the United States in 1831 to 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville, a government functionary from France, published a book about the United States called Democracy in America. In one chapter in that book (Vol. 2, Section 1, Chapter 9, The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove that a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, or Art), de Tocqueville tries to dispel the fear many Europeans had that, because the arts had fared so miserably in the United States, "if a democratic state of society and democratic institutions were ever to prevail over the whole earth, the human mind would gradually find its beacon lights grow dim, and men would relapse into a period of darkness." To fear democracy for this reason, he said, "is to mingle, unintentionally, what is democratic with what is only American." De Tocqueville envisioned a democratic society that would come naturally to a profound appreciation of the cultural life, when a society in which class divisions had ceased to exist would become conversant with the higher pleasures:
As soon as the multitude begins to take an interest in the labors of the mind, it finds out that to excel in some of them is a powerful means of acquiring fame, power, or wealth. The restless ambition that equality begets instantly takes this direction, as it does all others. The number of those who cultivate science, letters, and the arts becomes immense.
This will not happen if we do not use the power of our wealth, represented in the federal budget, not only to build up the power to kill and dominate but also to cultivate our "taste for the pleasures of mind . . . so natural to the heart of civilized man," to use de Tocqueville's words. If our government does its part to present the joys of art, literature, and music by supporting them and making them available to all, then indeed, as he put it, "this intellectual craving, once felt, would very soon have been satisfied."

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