Jeff Chang on US cultural policy

One of my favourite music writers, Jeff “DJ Zen” Chang (who incidentally wrote some of the best liner notes to a hip-hop album ever, on Quannum Projects Soulsides Greatest Bumps) has penned a piece in The Nation about President Obama’s recnt inclusion of  $50 million  for the NEA in his stimulus package. 

The victory reflects how notions of the value of creativity have changed. During the past decade, discussions advanced beyond the dead-end debates about the limits of government-funded free expression. Boom-era theorists like Richard Florida and Elizabeth Currid, not to mention Hollywood bulls like Darren Star (Sex and the City) and Doug Ellin (Entourage), helped make creatives sexy again. Groups like the US Conference of Mayors dreamed not just of expanding cultural tourism or fostering postindustrial innovation but of attracting new chai latte-sipping bourgeois into decaying parts of town. The economic value of creativity was so firmly established by the mid-’90s that it helped drive the ravenous appetite for global corporate consolidation once the Clinton administration began sweeping aside ownership caps and deregulating markets.

For decades, the de facto policy has been to confuse the culture industry with the source of creativity and largely to abandon the production, promotion, distribution and enjoyment of arts and culture to the dictates of the boom/bust marketplace. The result has been the spread of “lifestyle economies” that are merely new forms of monoculturalism and the rise of an environment increasingly antithetical to creativity. A wave of deregulation in the culture industry has consolidated distribution channels and destroyed local scenes, locked away sources of inspiration behind fences of “rights management” and copyright and favored a “blockbuster or die” approach that raises barriers to entry and creates diseconomies of scale. Call it the privatization of the imagination.


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