Putting the Arts back into the Arts

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


| July-August 2008


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.

Dena Matthews
7/3/2008 9:22:03 AM

Many artists are small business owners and freelancers. Copyright laws serve to protect and reward them. It is important that we work to preserve the U.S. copyright laws and protections. If others are allowed carte blance access to rights managed works, just so that they may be able to remix them and profit, most creators of original content will not be able to compete or earn a living. There would be less and less original content created, a trend we are already seeing, according to the author. This is an urgent matter as bills in Congress S. 2913 and H.R. 5889 rocketing for imminent passage would free up countless numbers of copyrighted work just because someone has a hard time locating the rightsholder. The only ones who truly stand to benefit are giant corporations who would most likely be the purveyors of the "orphaned" works, remix artists and unscrupulous people who would undercut existing markets. Please act now to preserve the laws and protections that make our country so great! Sign the petition at: http://petitiononline.com/Stop2913/petition.html Send letters to Congress at: http://capwiz.com/illustratorspartnership/home/ Thank you!