Putting the Arts back into the Arts

Author Bill Ivey celebrates creativity, culture, and the “amateur”

Childhood Creativity

image by Adam Larson

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This article is part of a package on creativity. For more, read " The Future of Creativity ," " Why Essays Are So Damn Boring ," " Bright Ideas from Baltimore’s Citizens ," " The Creativity Conceit ," and " Art + Science= Inspiration ."

Bill Ivey has spent the better part of 30 years at the unglamorous intersection of art and policy. Having worked on both sides—for the government, as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (1998–2001), and for a nonprofit, as director of the Country Music Foundation (1971–98)—Ivey is well equipped to lead a fresh discussion about the role of creativity in a healthy democracy. During his stint at the NEA, he dreamed up an unofficial Cultural Bill of Rights, which he fleshes out in his book Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights (University of California Press, 2008).

Ivey, now director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, argues that arts policy has long targeted two issues, arts education and increasing funding for nonprofit organizations, that aim to “bring more fine art to the American people” without encouraging more people to actually create. Amateurs who might like to dabble in photography or the guitar, for instance, aren’t empowered by our society (or our schools) to do so.

Utne Reader talked with Ivey about why we’re making less art and what public policy’s got to do with it.

You write that over the past hundred years or so, Americans increasingly have become consumers rather than makers of art.
The products that allowed us to experience America’s cultural mainstream in a new way —sound recordings, films, radio—encouraged passive interaction with art. The skills of eye and hand and heart that were so much a part of making art in the 19th century, the after-dinner poetry recital or a musical performance or a fiddle tune played on a back porch, or even a cowboy poet reciting a poem around a campfire somewhere in the West, those skills were set aside.

Americans participate in sports casually. Why don’t they feel as comfortable making art casually?
We feel that sports are invigorated when many people can play at many levels. While we understand that amateur basketball players are not going to be as good as a superstar, there’s no sense that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. But in the arts, around the fourth or fifth grade, we find people who have special talent, we separate them, give them special attention, and create some terrific artists who serve society—but we tend to denigrate the amateur. The NEA participated in this by concentrating so much of its work on professionals: using the term excellence as a kind of euphemism for professional art-making, concentrating on elevating the top pros and the organizations that they work with, and pretty much leaving the amateur unincorporated art-making piece of the American scene off to the side.

How can amateurs reclaim the arts?
The amateur scene is very vigorous and very much alive. It is served by for-profit industries that provide all kinds of training systems, DVDs to teach the guitar, programs that show you how to paint, magazines and books that are oriented toward craft and art skills. There’s no absence of amateur art-making. What we don’t have is an elevation of amateur artwork into public policy around the arts. We’ve elevated the professional and placed the amateur in the role of being a mere consumer of greatness.

Is that because art policy in this country is focused on nonprofits that mostly serve the “fine arts?”
It’s important that we think less about how the symphony or the art museum is doing and look at how families are making art at home. We don’t talk about making art as a route to a vibrant, expressive life that’s a public good; we have not paid enough attention to various contemporary craft training programs, community choruses, community theater, a whole range of activities that are vibrant but haven’t surfaced as part of a policy process.

It seems that even professional artists aren’t necessarily valued beyond their craft: We don’t place a high value on artists’ approaches to problem solving and creative thinking, in terms of how they could be applied across disciplines and to public problems.
To start with, we need to have artists working on important nuts-and-bolts projects in their communities. If we’re talking about a new sewage disposal system, there should be an artist on that panel; there should be artists on school boards and neighborhood commissions, not to make the project look pretty, but to bring a unique approach. Artists are very good at metaphor, at seeing less-obvious links, at right-brain thinking that might not be linear but that gets you to a good result by making an imaginative leap.

Why is the disconnect between public policy and the arts so much more pronounced in the U.S. than in, say, Western Europe?
The United States had government before we had a sense of cultural identity; ultimately, this should be an advantage for us. Countries like France and Germany, in which culture is presumed to precede government, have had problems integrating diversity into their model of national identity. But we can talk about culture and cultural difference in our expressive lives without getting caught up in some overarching sense of Americanness. The French ask, “Is this really French?” Americans don’t think that way.

You argue that copyright law, focused as it is on the interests of corporations rather than artists, restricts creativity by limiting our access to our own cultural heritage.
Artists need to be able to earn money from their work, but by the same token, an artist needs some access to the work of others, to find things that are existing and reconfigure them into something new—the mashup is a hallmark of 21st-century artistry. The challenge is to have a conversation not about what’s good for corporations that control movies or TV shows or sound recordings, or even what is important about copyright for artists, but really how copyright serves citizens.

The Internet is still kind of a Wild West of copyright, but hasn’t the conversation regarding copyright and the creative commons begun?
Yes, but we may be a little late. We’re going to see whether the Internet remains a uniquely open space in which people can create and borrow and learn, or whether it’s going to look just like television and be all carved up with advertising, where everybody’s directed here or there based on the presence of some advertiser’s investment.

And in the meantime, the digital divide is growing.
The digital divide has morphed into something that I call a cultural divide, which involves not only access to technology, but also access to the money, training, and time that it takes to be a full participant in online work. Right now we have this cohort of people—older people, less educated people, the poor—who, taken together, constitute 15 or 20 percent of the U.S. population that is left out of full participation in the high-speed Internet world. It’s a significant public policy challenge for the United States to make sure we allow everyone to participate.