MRPJ #26/The Model?: “…IN A TIME OF DEEP-FREEZE” by Roberto Bedoya


Washington, DC – Winter 2003: cold days; a pending war; a tanking economy; Trent Lott; reality TV; instant messaging; orange alert: poets and the white house; rebuild/renew; and the list goes on. Where are artists in this mix of these conditions? Where are artists in the debates between needs and value? In the dynamics between artists and administrators, culture and policy, who leads in this entanglement of methods and discourses, in a time of deep-freeze?

It is the deep-freeze of conservative political ideology, of the homogenizing effects of markets (- can you tell the difference between the gap, banana republic, or j crew?) and the bureaucratic needs necessary for the privatization of the public sphere. For the artists’ community, those critical artistic questions that imagine what we don’t know are not immune from the deep freeze. Yet this is not an essay per-se, about the deep-freeze, instead it will chart some of the challenges that artists and their support systems face in this environment.

To implicate myself in this commentary, my work in the arts has been as an advocate for artists, primarily those associated with the experimental arts community. I also work on policy issues related to the support system for artists with a focus on artist-centered and ethnically-specific cultural practices. It is my recent work in the nascent field of cultural policy that I have been asked to reflect upon, on the one hand to demystify this world of activities and on the other to reflect on the paradoxical relationship between artists and administrators, culture and policy.

To take stock of where artists and their support systems are now it is important to look back at our recent history. During the 1990’s cultural war, which the Finley vs. NEA lawsuit exemplifies, I was part of many efforts to defend the free expression of artists and the value of art that makes a claim upon society which asks for social, ethical and aesthetics readjustments. As the lawsuit moved through the courts, the cultural war battles escalated. The right-wing censorial machinery attacked artists, arts organizations, multiculturalism, and manufactured a panic saying there’s a crisis in our culture (primarily based on their fear of difference). In 1998, the US Supreme Court ruled against Finley et. al., stating that the “decency and respect” of the NEA authorizing legislation was constitutional. Artists’ advocates argued that the “decency and respect” language was having a chilling effect upon artists and their support systems – as evident in the restructuring of the NEA and the ripple effect it had upon private foundation and local public monies. The NEA, it’s legal consul, and the Supreme Court refused to define “decency and respect” instead they let it operate in that vague yet authoritarian space of “you know what I mean, so behave”. Subsequently, “decency and respect” functions as a way to control, manage, and authorize forms of artistic speech. In this period of assault on the arts, I also watched many of my peers in the artistic community shift in the language they used to defend the cultural sector. It was less and less about artists and creativity and more about art and public purposes, less about freedom of expression and more about policy –cultural and public policies. In part, this shift is due to the limits of the artists’ community’s defense of freedom of expression. That the value of art lies in the ways its visions enrich society and are essential to the public good, was an argument limited by its inability to produce factual evidence of art’s value.

It is important to understand this background, not so much to revisit cultural war battles but to see it as a benchmark moment that marked a significant turn in how artists are supported and viewed. Today it is not so much the chilling effect, associated with freedom of expression, but a deep freeze of human rights, as global politics test governments and freedoms. In this climate the needs of markets, the rules of governments, or the rising propaganda machine of states are testing the expression of artists.

Against the backdrop of such conditions, come forth the recent investment of resources and development in the field of US cultural policy by foundations, academics, the leadership of national art service organizations and public policy think-tanks. To give a face to US cultural policy is difficult because it operates as a system of arrangements that effects the distribution of cultural resources and the articulation of cultural value, rather than a singular agency like a Minister of Culture evident in many other nations. US cultural policy is an arrangement that includes foundations, patrons, artists, non-profit arts organizations, for profit galleries/theaters, the entertainment industry, local and state arts council, the NEA, the informal networks of square-dancers, Native-American basket-weavers, or amateur community theater companies. All of the aforementioned groups and many more create policy by their choices — choices related to their needs and values.

Cultural policy is a form of administration. At times it is overt and easy to understand for example a curatorial policy to present new works, or an organization’s policy to pay artists a fee for exhibiting their work. Other times it can be muddled and a source of conflict, for example in the debates about art’s public purposes and how to support it vis-à-vis, arts education, support for individual artists, or strengthening cultural infrastructure programs, each having its own argument of persuasion which may oppose curriculum policies, policies about public monies, or urban planning. Currently, there is a contentious debate affecting artists, over the meaning of copyright and intellectual property as it relates to “public purposes” and to concepts of what is common and what is owned. As the artists’ community struggles over the issue of property rights and the question of “whose property”, there is still the question of “whose culture”.

I use the word culture here broadly, not so much culture as in “objects,” but culture as in “ways.” As an advocate I am engaged with the “ways” of artists and the “ways” artistic questions circulate and have impact. It would be easy to reflect upon the mystery of the muse and focus the discussion on “ways” of creativity, but the “ways” of administration are also of importance. The relationship between poiesis and praxis [1], that is the “bringing into being” and the “doing” of art with its effects upon publics, is a bewitching complex relationship that affects the livelihood of artists, the meanings of art, and the work of cultural advocacy.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno, in writing on the paradoxical relationship between culture and administration, says “culture suffers damage when it is planned and administrated; when it is left to itself, however, everything culture threatens not only to lose its possibilities of effect, but its very existence as well.” [2] He goes onto discuss how culture is perpetually threatened, and not just by administrative concerns and ambitions, such as outcome-based evaluation, information-management systems, scenario planning. Culture is threatened by culture itself with its fluid, irrational, instinctual processes and its potential for radical change that challenges administrative systems that sustain and support artists and art.

The question at the beginning of this essay, … between artists and administrators, culture and policy, who leads in this entanglement … in a time of deep-freeze? is one artist intermediaries wrestle with. Artists intermediaries are those go-betweens who affect how artists are supported, art finds its audience or an organization honors its mission. Artists can be their own intermediaries but more often than not administrators do the bulk of this labor. Working in the field of artists-centered cultural practices, I’ve witness how artists and the mechanisms that empower talent are privileged, which asks for flexible administrative system that can address the evolving needs of artists for space, information, validation and exposures. Yet the tension between artists and administrators become exasperated in the dialogues around artists needs and values. In the growing privatization of culture, how and by whom, is artistic value defined—is it economic, aesthetic or ethical value? What administrative system best support artists’ needs and value—the evolving manifestations of artists-centered organizations or some form of networked node administrative system that can create synergies suitable for the growing complexity of our society. In the midst of this dynamic is the call of responsibility and accountability that artists and administrators must acknowledge as they proceed and cultural policy initiatives must recognize in their aims.

There are numerous cultural policy efforts afoot to measure the cultural world through -surveys, mapping projects, or instrumental portrait of cultural participation. Measuring the world, so as to enhance management is an administrative ambition that can simultaneously engender and forecloses the potentialities of art. It will produce a better understanding of the sociology of art, of the practices and institutions that engender artistic production, which is a knowledge that can be used to improve the support system for artists. However, my concern is that it may also produce efforts that foreclose artistic exploration. Measuring the world is very different than composing the world – artists compose the world, it is the speech of imagination. What are the policies for composing the world?

The deep freeze is bearing down on the cultural sector compounding its weak and stressed fault-lines. For artists-centered organizations, beyond the weakness of being under-capitalized, (as to why this is the case is another essay) there is the ideology of empowerment, whether it be talent or communities that are being tested. The paradoxical relationship between culture and administration, artists and administrators is not going to vanish in this freeze, quite the contrary. There is an urgency asking that cultural administrative systems address the growing pragmatic needs of artists in innovative ways. There is also need to maintain the platform for the “bringing into being” the value of poiesis. The poet Charles Olson says, “What does not change / is the will to change” – this will to change needs to be amplified as actions that can thaw the freeze. It lies in arts abilities to speak truth to power, in the support of an artistic counter-norm whose explorations push, challenge and reimagine the plural. It lies in arts capacity to advocate for the unbearable—not as a destination, or end-game, but necessary irritant. The unbearable that artist wrestle with as they proceed to make meaning, make art, as they compose a world that is different than our current givens.

[1] My thoughts on poiesis and praxis are informed by Giorgio and Agamben’s writing of the terms in The Man Without Content (Stanford University, 1999), chapter 8
[2] Theodor Adorno, Culture and Administration in The Culture Industry (Routledge Press, 1991) p.108

Roberto Bedoya is a writer, cultural advocate and arts consultant. He is the former director of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO) a national service organization for artists-centered organizations. Currently, he is an arts consultant who’s recent projects include: The New York Foundation for the Arts, Cultural Blueprint Project; New York City Arts Coalition and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Creative Downtown Project; and The Urban Institute’s Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for US Artists.

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