U.S. Minister of Culture Proposed


My usual morning routine where I dozily listen to an hour or so of NPR's "All Things Considered" "Morning Edition"* as I drift towards consciousness was rudely disrupted today by a segment which asked, "Does the U.S. Need a Culture Czar?" What an absurdly stupid idea! Is the U.S. suffering from a lack of artistic production? Not enough movies, popular music, dance troupes, community theatre productions, books published, operas, and so forth? As a study from the rightly superfluous National Endowment for the Arts reports:

There are now almost two million Americans who describe their primary occupation as artist. Representing 1.4 percent of the U.S. labor force, artists constitute one of the largest classes of workers in the nation—only slightly smaller than the total number of active-duty and reserve personnel in the U.S. military (2.2 million). Artists represent a larger group than the legal profession (lawyers, judges, and paralegals), medical doctors (physicians, surgeons, and dentists), or agricultural workers (farmers, ranchers, foresters, and fishers).

This abundance of American artistic production is flourishing without much federal government interference, aka, subsidies. According to the Washington Post, the terrible idea of a Culture Czar has been gaining traction:

In a radio interview in November, [legendary music producer Quincy] Jones said the country needed a minister of culture, like France, Germany or Finland has. And he said he would "beg" Obama to establish the post.

In addition, Jones sadly noted: 

"I have traveled all over the world all the time for 54 years. The people abroad know more about our culture than we do," he said. "A month ago at my high school in Seattle, I asked a student if he knew who Louis Armstrong was. He said he had heard his name. I asked him about Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. He didn't even know their names. That hurts me a lot," Jones said. 

Jones' lament seems far more of a condemnation of government schools than a lack of artistic production and knowledge. Additional government support would likely do for the arts what it's done for public education. Dismayingly, the Post reports that the leader of President-elect Obama's arts review transition team, William Ivey, has expressed some interest in this idea. 

Ivey, a former chairman of the arts endowment, wrote last year that the cultural environment had been neglected and needed to be fixed. "If the task requires consideration of a new government agency—a Cabinet-level department of cultural affairs—so be it," said Ivey. 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I shudder to think what we all might get to behold should the country be saddled with a new Minister of Culture. 

Take a look at economist Tyler Cowen's 1998 Reason article on how protectionism and subsidies hurt the French film industry.

Disclosure: My wife and I have served on the board of an excellent community art gallery, and contribute to one of the best community theatres in America.

*I did say that I was dozing.