Support for Public Culture: An Impossible American Dream?

In "Public Culture in America: A Review of Cultural Policy Debates," Professor Dustin Kidd of Temple University summarizes the range of justifications that have been used in support of public culture since the 1980s. Over the past 30 years, a growing number of arts advocacy groups have become institutionalized through organizations, conferences, publications, and research agendas, so that they now operate as an effective network for arguing in support of public culture (defined as art and culture that is expressed and experienced publicly and that represents public interests or shared goals). A recurring theme in the discourse about public culture is that it requires the necessary ingredients of government (aka public) funding and public policy, primarily around regulation (e.g., copyright and censorship laws) and subsidy (funding through local, state, and federal agencies).

The article reviews thirteen justifications for public culture and cultural policy in the U.S. context: public interest, national security, merit, moral worth, the good life, economic development, politics, education, democracy, American identity, shared symbols, diversity, and innovation. Although democracy is a justification in and of itself, Kidd argues that it actually provides the overarching framework for all the other justifications on this list—or, as he argues, "the question concerning public culture is a democratic question" (18).

Kidd argues that there are four underlying principles that can be derived from these 13 justifications: (1) Public culture and democracy are mutually constitutive. (2) "Elite culture" can be detrimental to democracy (if it is preserved as the exclusive domain of elites). (3) The deliberate pursuit of diversity is a democratic endeavor. (4) Culture can bridge social differences.

In summary, Kidd argues that the current institutional reality is exceptionally complicated, involving not only government, but foundations, corporations, and individual donors to the arts. All of these entities play a role in shaping public culture, making it inherently difficult to achieve innovations and diversity in the current cultural climate, since most funders shy away from politically and socially challenging forms of public art. The article concludes with two different perspectives on investing in public culture: the first (Bill Ivey) arguing for strong government regulation and support of public culture as "the birthright of citizens in our enlightened democracy" (20), and the other (Tyler Cowen) in favor of the market system and indirect subsidies of the nonprofit arts. These two positions suggest that a healthy debate over public culture is far from over.

Kidd, Dustin. 2012. "Public Culture in America: A Review of Cultural Policy Debates." The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 42(1): 11-21. doi:10.1080/10632921.2012.651094.

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