Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights

Some of the more astute of you have noticed that I've been quite for the past week or two... last week I was in Orlando for a trade show -- after another run in with United caused me to arrive 6 hours later than originally scheduled -- and came down with one of the nastiest bugs I can ever remember having. (Though I did manage to make it into another picture at here look for the guy in the yellow shirt)

Anyway... I thought this temporary lull in the arts would be a good time to discuss a book I picked up along the way. Written by Bill Ivey, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman from 1998-2001, that book would be Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. It kind of jumped off the shelf at me while I was browsing the Nelson-Atkins Museum Gift Shop and knocked it out over the course of several flights zig-zagging the country.

If you've read this blog you know I'm passionate about the arts; I'm also fundamentally interested in the business and legal side of things and this book is a wonderful exploration on how both of those topics have generally served to stifle rather than enhance creative expression.

Mr. Ivey revolves the book around the concept of a "Cultural Bill of Rights"

1. The right to our Heritage--The right to explore music, literature, drama, painting, and dance that define both our nation's collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
2. The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life--Through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate.
3. The right to an artistic life--The right to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
4. The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America's democratic values and ideals.
5. The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, throughout the ages.
6. The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interests (Page ix)

Corporate ownership of both Art and Culture forms the first topic of Mr. Ivey's dissertation -- and honestly, before reading Arts, Inc. I hadn't considered this point-- he relates his time as the director of the Country Music Hall of Fame where record companies were wholly oblivious to the cache of aural history in their vaults, an in some cases thoughtlessly destroyed archives as part of corporate records purging...and in other cases the archives were so poorly organized that invaluable recordings are found only by chance, relating the example of a lost Thelonous Monk recording found by pure chance in RCA's archives.

Related to corporate ownership is effect Copyright protection has on creative expression, intelligently raising the argument that the ever-increasing span of Copyright protection -- and the no effort required, automatic protection granted under current Copyright law, combined with the lack of a true, hard-and-fast, definition of "Fair Use" goes beyond adequately protecting the interests of the original artist to stifling the expression of artists that come later in time. He argues, and I'm inclined to agree that the public interest is best served by limiting the term of copyright and requiring some positive action on the part of the creator to preserve the copyright beyond the initial term. The implications of the statutory license for audio recordings, and costs of licensing material from historic events are broadly discussed. Throughout the book, he includes the licensing fee charged for each photograph in it's caption, with $250 being the most common cost.

On the non-profit side, Mr. Ivey observes that "[M]ost non-profit cultural organizations have simply never had the resources required to adequately manage historical materials generated by their own work. Often boxed in by restrictive union regulations, orchestras, opera and non-profit theatrical production companies have often found it difficult or impossible to legally memorialize their own work. [...] Consider that the New York Philharmonic generates fifteen hours of new recordings each week; multiply that total by the two hundred or so orchestras that archive their own work" (pp. 45-46) and museums and libraries challenges in collecting, and preserving cultural expression within their financial and curatorial limitations.

OK, so as it turns out, this post has only made it through the first section of the book with the remaining Cultural Bill of Rights topics following... but this is getting a bit on the long side. Perhaps (if any one is interested) I may summarize those later... or you can just order a copy from your local independent bookseller (Bill Ivey, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultureal Rights, University of California Press, paperback, ISBN 978-0-520-24112-1) it really was a quite compelling, if occassionally depressing look at the vast cultural history that we are silently discarding as a society.


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