In Defense of Decentralized Cultural Policy

Upon doing the Doris Sommer readings for class today, it struck me that what Antanas Mockus did very cleverly was to use culture to influence culture. Consider, briefly, Richard Kurin’s tripartite division of culture in popular thought: the worlds of entertainment, scholarship and politics. Mockus was able to use entertaining  cultural products to affect change in the political aspects of Bogotá’s culture.  As Sommer articulates, using art to influence how people think is by no means a novel idea, but many examples of such initiatives in the past are heavier on the conformity and lighter on the individualistic whimsy than having mimes directing traffic (see Goebbels, Joseph). In contrast, Sommer is laudatory of Mockus and other leaders that use centralized cultural apparatuses to celebrate individualism and strengthen democratic and artistic institutions in their constituencies.

In the U.S., we have a largely decentralized system for funding culture. It relies heavily on tax deductible donations to nonprofit organizations and the private sector. Even the most direct, prominent means by which the federal government funds culture are not directly controlled by the president or the legislature (the NEA, NEH and Smithsonian). While putting the arts in competition with God, sick children and other charitable causes may seem unfair, it seems that, given the current political landscape, a lot of people are coming around on the idea of a decentralized model of cultural production. However, I would like to briefly entertain my dark imagination and imagine the current chief executive of the United States with a fully-fledged, centralized cultural apparatus at his disposal (constitutional considerations aside).

People throwing yellow flags (ala NFL refs calling penalties) at people with “degenerate” fashion or haircuts.

Creepy dear leader productions in schools nationwide.

Alex Jones on PBS (for any of you that missed it, Alex Jones’ attorney actually tried to help his client in a custody battle by claiming that he is a “performance artist”).

People putting government sanctioned stickers on foreign automobiles or other products.


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