Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression

It’s rare for culture and the arts to be the top priority of any government, let alone during a global economic and environmental crisis, but Bill Ivey believes that we ignore the human right to an 'expressive life' at our peril

In the decades following the Second World War, most western democracies pursued policies designed to increase the availability of the fine arts. Cultural ministries and departments of cultural affairs were launched and the work of existing agencies expanded. Though late to the game, US cultural organisations also benefited from direct support from a new federal agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and from grants provided by similar government programmes in all 50 states. In the UK, the arts were similarly supported by direct government subsidy at all levels, and were later assigned a portion of the proceeds of a national lottery. Although private philanthropy and corporate giving were most developed in the US, the arts in the west enjoyed increased ticket sales and earned income, more generous private giving and a boom in the construction of new arts centres, museums and performance spaces – many funded at least in part by national, state or city governments.

That long period of growth – not exactly straight-line but steady – seems at an end. The National Arts Index, a new statistical measure introduced recently by the political advocacy group Americans for the Arts, paints a picture with few bright spots. Federal funding has yet to return to the high point achieved in 1992, and the proportion of overall state budgets devoted to the arts has declined by 25% since 2001. Overall attendance at symphony, dance, opera and theatre performances has declined by 10% over the same period. Despite robust promises directed at the arts during the 2008 presidential campaign, the Obama administration’s fiscal 2011 budget, issued in February, actually proposes a slight funding decrease for the NEA. In the UK, shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has promised that, should a Tory government assume power in the next election, there will be a trimming of administrative expenses in the government support process and a shift toward an American-style culture of private philanthropy. The implication is that UK arts organisations are to be gradually weaned off government largesse.

The tenuous character of public investment in the arts can be blamed on trends in the overall economy, but I believe that the issue is more complex. After all, despite recent economic distress, western market democracies, including the US and the UK, have found it necessary to maintain and even increase government support for public education, national defence, public health and protection of the natural environment.

So the crisis is more than one of constrained national budgets. The argument for public investment in culture is today unable to compete with education, healthcare, the environment and other destinations for government support deemed more essential or worthy. The diminished standing of culture among public priorities is reflected in shrinking corporate and foundation support. In the US, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has set the philanthropic agenda – global health, poverty and the environment are in; arts and culture are out.

Democratic culture

Why should the standing of art and culture in the minds of policymakers matter? Quite simply, it is because artistic heritage and creative practice are at the heart of a wide range of human engagements that are critical to both happiness and the workings of democracy.

Consider this ‘thought experiment’. If the standard of living in western market democracies declines over the next decade (as it almost certainly will), how will the affected societies – besotted by 30 years of debt-enabled consumption – reconfigure definitions of a high quality of life to maintain happiness and order in an era of shattered expectations? Is there an alternative to widespread misery, dissatisfaction, discouragement and loss of confidence? If the false promise of consumerism is unmasked, can a deeper engagement in cultural life – in the nurturing roots of heritage and the empowering achievement of personal creative practice – provide an alternative path to meaning and satisfaction? Might smart, affordable public policies specifically designed to initiate broad cultural engagement help reinvigorate the core principles of democracy?

Here we must digress, albeit with purpose, for language begins to stand in the way of argument. After all, culture has come to mean everything from the sum of human behaviour to values in politics – as in the infamous US culture wars. But if the term ‘culture’ is too diffuse, the term ‘arts’ in practice has become too narrow. Sometimes it denotes just painting and sculpture, and in other settings all of the fine arts, but it almost never embraces the full range of creative practice – amateur and professional, folk and classical, rural and urban. In the US, to describe a woman as ‘involved in the arts’ or as ‘deeply committed to the cultural life of her community’ is to call to mind someone of social and financial prominence who supports the opera and orchestras and perhaps serves on their boards of governance. Today, it is a fool’s mission to set about crafting serious, robust public policy cast in terms as wounded as ‘art’, ‘the arts’ and ‘culture’.

But that’s the mission we’ve been on. Over the past half century, cultural policy has for the most part been crafted around the value of the fine arts as an amenity, deploying various strategies to make them more available than would be the case if they had to depend on the marketplace – on ticket sales – alone. It is this policy intervention – too narrow, too burdened with hierarchical assumptions and too marginal to engage mainstream policy actors – that is losing authority in today’s economic downturn. So we must reconfigure our terminology, and at the same time redefine the sector that it describes, in order to encompass an arena of human activity that is just as important as healthcare, the environment and (non-arts) education.

Several years ago, I began to use the phrase ‘expressive life’ to denote a realm of knowledge and creative practice that, framed properly, is as distinct and robust as family life or work life. While the arts are at its centre, expressive life includes much more: ethnic and community traditions, family holiday events, historical art, photographs, political speech, social dancing, amateur music making and arts education in and out of school.

Although composed of many elements, expressive life divides rather neatly into those that draw on the past (‘heritage’) and those that emphasise individual achievement (‘voice’). The two, of course, exist in a state of interaction (see table below) – a newly composed song or poem must be grounded in the style and substance of artistry from the past; individual creative achievement must somehow be made meaningful to the larger community.

A balanced expressive life containing an equal measure of heritage and voice offers the real possibility of providing individuals and communities with satisfaction, a high quality of life and even happiness. A strong grounding in heritage provides a sense of place, continuity, permanence and connection; the free exercise of voice offers achievement, opportunity, creativity and self-esteem. Art from the past is the repository of heritage; art-making in the present is the playing field of voice.

Expressive life
Heritage  Voice
Community  Individual
Belonging  Alone
Connection  Autonomy
Knowing  Imagining
Collective  Personal
Home  Frontier
Tradition  Invention
History  Future
Consensus  Free expression


Although my expressive life frame is new, the ideas it encompasses are not. Arts-and-crafts pioneer William Morris advanced both handmade art from the past and present-day, hands-on craft as essential alternatives to the deadening influence of industrial production. The idea of expressive life is suggested by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s notion of the tension between “the Lexus and the olive tree” (respective symbols of our drive for prosperity and development and our desire to retain identity and traditions), and it underlies philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s conviction that respect for cultures (heritage) must be balanced by “a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices” (voice). Although the terminology and context of these arguments vary, it is clear that many observers, over more than a century, have felt that expressive life is critical to the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Arts policy in the real world

The notion of expressive life might appear overly theoretical but, for me, it emerged from encounters with the realities of policymaking around arts and culture in the US.

I served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the US federal grant-making agency, from 1998 until 2001, during the second Clinton-Gore administration. A significant part of the NEA chairman’s job is ‘case-making’, arguing the value of government investment in the arts before members of the US Congress, the administration and community leaders throughout the US. By 2000 – two years into my four-year term – it was clear that arts advocates had taken old arguments about the value of the arts to public policy about as far as they would go. The intrinsic, fine-art-is-good-for-you-like-medicine approach had served adequately in the past, but mainstream policy types had become sceptical that investments in opera or art galleries would wean surly young people away from hip-hop or rock’n’roll.

Instead, non-profit arts leaders had taken up a set of ‘instrumental’ arguments, claiming that art engagement improved in-school maths and reading skills or that low-cost housing for artists helped revitalise blighted urban districts. But the research supporting such claims was thin, and the US cultural agenda seemed stuck.

Even as arts leaders reframed old arguments to stimulate public support for the arts, the Clinton administration was enacting new legislation and regulation that would profoundly affect the system within which art is created, distributed and consumed. In the mid-1990s, the duration of copyright protection was extended, limits on ownership of multiple radio and television stations were lifted, the United States Information Agency (an international cultural exchange agency) was eliminated, its thin shadow rolled into the Department of State, and the free flow of information and entertainment on the internet was significantly restricted by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

These policy changes reshaped the very character of art and art making in the US, but in a striking exhibition of narrow focus, the arts community – leaders concerned about the NEA, non-profit funding and in-school arts education – were nowhere in sight when law and regulation were being revamped. Librarians objected to copyright term extension, but for the most part it was the marketplace that was affected, with big record companies, film studios, TV networks and radio chains finding themselves free to set new rules for creativity and consumption.

So anyone who happened to be concerned with cultural vitality in the US in the late 20th century was in a double bind. The old agenda for the non-profit fine arts had reached the limits of its ability to inspire policy intervention, while at the same time concerned advocates had entirely sidestepped intellectual property, media ownership, the character of US art abroad and a free and open internet – all arenas of intervention in which government and market forces were combining to craft real cultural policy.

To me, the need was obvious: leaders who cared about culture needed to step back, widen their lens and test the health of the entire arts system, not just the niche occupied by classical music, painting, sculpture and non-profit theatre. Our task was to argue for the enactment of government policy and corporate practice that truly served art, artists and arts learners, and that tilted the cultural system towards broad public purposes. Our new policy arena needed to be wider than ‘the arts’ but narrower than ‘culture’. The idea of ‘expressive life’, unburdened by preconceptions and hierarchical assumptions, seemed an appropriate phrase to delineate the new task.

Opening debate

Once policy questions zeroed in on expressive life instead of only ‘the arts’, new questions immediately emerged. Do both rich and poor people have access to the tools necessary for full participation in the creative powers of the high-speed internet? What impact do the American film and television industries abroad have on the image of the US in other countries? Are historical films and sound recordings owned by global corporations mere assets, or does such privately held heritage art in some sense belong to everyone? Do radio stations owned and programmed by distant managers really give voice to local concerns? Is the intellectual property regime light or burdensome? Do systems of licensing and payment make it easy to make new work out of old, or are they simply roadblocks on the path to knowledge, creation and consumption?

Concerns such as these properly direct us away from the questions of non-profit funding or in-school art instruction that have historically occupied cultural stakeholders. Instead, to consider the vitality of expressive life is to address media access, the effect of a ‘life-plus-70-year’ copyright term and the power and independence of the US Trade Representative in promoting American culture abroad. To trace trends in the health of expressive life is to observe that, since the 1980s, authority within the arts system has been ceded to a deregulated marketplace.

The set of interlocking issues framed by expressive life constitutes a surprisingly robust policy sector. Combining access to heritage (both publicly and privately held), intellectual property, support for non-profit fine arts organisations, arts learning in and out of school, media literacy and media ownership, barriers to free speech and internet penetration gives us a regime every bit as compelling as healthcare or the natural environment. The challenge is to attract key policymakers to the new model.

There are two sets of players that must be convinced to adopt the expressive life model. The first one is the established arts community – the group that has laboured to improve the wellbeing of the fine arts. Non-profit actors are aware of the expressive life argument; a few leaders have embraced it. Andrew Taylor, who heads the arts management programme at the University of Wisconsin, argues that “expressive life has become an extraordinarily useful model”.

But Taylor is the exception. Leaders in the non-profit fine arts, pushed to the wall by decreases in government funding, donations and ticket sales, are hard-pressed to see the value of redefining their sector as part of the larger one outlined by expressive life. Although mired in a dog-eat-dog world of competition for fixed or shrinking resources, orchestras, museums and dance and theatre companies persist in putting forward old arguments, hoping against hope that belt-tightening, a retreat into mainstream, popular programming and a little luck will get them past a rough patch without massive layoffs or fatal injections of red ink.

People who shape mainstream policy – elected and appointed officials, corporation and foundation leaders, parents and social activists – present a different challenge. They tend not to think much about culture and, when they do, they fit all questions and answers into the narrow art-as-amenity box. They would never consider cultural vitality to be as important as, say, community healthcare, housing for the poor or the preservation of virgin forest. They would be the first to push arts learning out of classrooms when school budgets shrink, or to eliminate money allocated to arts organisations from economic stimulus legislation, as was attempted in the US Congress early in 2009. Late in the Clinton administration, I was discussing a possible NEA budget increase with Congressman David Obey, today chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. His comment stayed with me: “Now that we’ve balanced the budget, we can begin to fund some of the ‘grace notes’ of life.” While I appreciated his support, he obviously saw culture as something you get around to with the money left over after you’ve paid for everything important.

Cultural rights

Expressive life is harder to marginalise than the arts, simply because it engages so many active legislative and regulatory regimes. But we need something more – a set of assertions that can justify the pursuit of a vibrant expressive life as a democratic public good, such as this Cultural Bill of Rights:

1. The right to our heritage – the right to explore music, literature, drama, painting and dance that define both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions

2. The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life – through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate

3. The right to an artistic life – the right to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design or otherwise live a life of active creativity

4. The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates the democratic values and ideals of America

5. The right to know and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, through the centuries

6. The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.

Cultural rights advance a moral claim to an important perceived benefit of citizenship: a vibrant expressive life. They make an affirmative argument – that citizens of a mature democracy possess a just claim to a cultural system that enables them to engage heritage and expand creative capacity. And if our cultural rights are to be honoured, public policy must approach important issues in a new way. Copyright must balance the interests of creators and corporations against our right to fair use and a healthy public domain; historical recordings and films must be simultaneously considered as assets and as national heritage; the promotion of domestic art products around the world must proceed with an eye on the honest representation of core democratic values; and companies that finance and distribute creative work must possess sufficient financial elbow room to enable experimentation, risk taking and the preservation of the vast inventory of existing work. To honour our Cultural Bill of Rights is to adjust the work of regulators, legislators, corporations and the courts, and to continually adjust policy so that it conforms to public purposes. To implement our Bill of Rights is to ask one question again and again: “Will policy ‘x’ enhance the expressive lives of individuals and communities by making heritage and the tools of creativity more available, or will the policy increase costs, erect barriers or limit access?”

If centres of power and influence in government and the marketplace can be convinced that expressive life constitutes an important destination for public policy, no doubt the arts will enjoy increased support; if we define an important new policy arena, many boats will rise. But the argument in favour of cultural rights and expressive life is not really about the arts at all. Rather, our task is to answer the pressing 21st-century challenge that introduced this essay: “If western market democracies must abandon the false promise of consumerism, then how shall we live?”

Thirty years ago, economist Robert Lane discovered that, despite steady and dramatic increases in material wellbeing since the Second World War, citizens in the western world were no happier in the 1990s than they were in 1950. Lane, writing 10 years ago, blames a longstanding “spirit of unhappiness and depression that mocks the idea that markets maximise wellbeing”. Few people today would defend the notion that market forces produce a high quality of life, but equally few can offer real alternatives to consumption and market fundamentalism. Expressive life, grounded in cultural rights and implemented through public-oriented laws and citizen-sensitive corporate practice, can be an important avenue to a high quality of life now that our late 20th-century illusions have been shattered.

Q&A with Bill Ivey

Want to join in the debate? Please submit your questions and comments for Bill Ivey and we will publish his answers online in the coming weeks.