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focusing directly on art and politics, public arts commission seeks to redefine art's relation to the public for greater democracy within and outside art.


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the relation between art and governance remains a contentious one.  Socrates in Plato's Republic (c. 380 BC) banished tragic poets from his just city-state as he saw their imitation of his ideal form (truth) a danger to just governance1.   The use of art by states to support propaganda, from the various international expositions displaying nationalisms emanating from the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815) to the spread of Abstract Expressionism in Western Europe by the United States State Department and Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War (1947 – 1991), has become an often cited and sometimes legitimate critique of state-sponsored art.  Yet, the infinitesimal funding for public art by the U.S. government remains another area of critique as the near absence of the public in decisions regarding art appears symptomatic of a much larger struggle over the nature of politics in the twenty-first century.  Contrary to state-sponsored propaganda or the abdication of the public to privatization and eventual oligarchic control under austerity, public art looks different.  This is to say, public art can look neither statist nor corporatist as long as the public has a role in determining the art.   public arts commission believes a democratic process is necessary not only in determining public art, but that public art is necessary for the democratic process.

public art is necessary for the democratic process

How is public art necessary for the democratic process?  Art allows for greater understanding of our consciousness by making sensible different understandings of the world.  Each work represents a different perception of consciousness.   Access to art is unequal.  The privatization of art has meant fewer opportunities for ordinary citizens to see art in their daily lives as art increasingly becomes seen as exclusionary save for the very wealthy.  The ability of the public to see art and gain greater understanding of different consciousness dwindles and contributes to a weakened political imaginary at the same time a greater political imaginary is necessary to overcome divisions that privatize the interests of government.  Both a greater public art and greater political imaginary are necessary to better realize democracy, which we need if we want our government to work better for everyone.

the state of public arts

Public arts in the U.S. face some major challenges.  U.S. state and federal spending on the arts represents historically miniscule investment when compared with governments such as those in Germany, which spent $1.63 billion in 20132, and Australia, which spent $7 billion as from 2011-20123.  Federal spending on the National Endowment for the Arts (N.E.A.) substantially declined since 1978 considering inflation.  In 2015, the U.S. allocated $148 million or 0.012 percent (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of federal discretionary spending to the N.E.A., the only dedicated federal agency for the arts in the country4.  The largest federal project for the arts came from Federal Project One5 as part of the Work Projects Administration during the New Deal (1933 - 1937).  Today, U.S. states spend an average of about $1.09 per capita on the arts according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies6.  Combined, the U.S. state and federal spending on the arts belies spending on the arts and cultural production as part of the U.S. gross domestic product, which increased substantially according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.   The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found the value of arts and cultural production in America in 2014 amounts to $729.6 billion or 4.2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product7.  Meanwhile, various U.S. state and federal programs have adopted percent for art programs.  Since 1963, the U.S. General Services Administration has allocated one percent of the cost of federal buildings towards art and decoration.  More than half of the states maintain a percent-for-art program.8

Of the miniscule funding from U.S. federal and state governments, artists are barred from receiving individual grants.  Artists, the producers of the arts, become squeezed as bureaucrats craft budgets to fulfill largely corporate (albeit non-profit) interests.  public arts commission seeks to ensure artists are the direct recipients of funding for their work in line with its mission to give local autonomy to the producers of art.  public arts commission believes a healthy public art requires a healthy art work-force, including artists.  Many programs for government funding of individual artists by different countries exist, notably in Australia, Finland and Germany.  While the defunding of artists directly by the N.E.A. starting in 1993 had clear political motivations following the Culture Wars in the U.S. A further discussion of the politics as well as economics of such a defunding of artists and public art in general is necessary given the challenges facing the country and the world.  public arts commission seeks to facilitate such a discussion as art ignores public debate at the peril of becoming politically irrelevant even as private dollars spent on art may increase.

about public arts commission

Focusing directly on art and politics, public arts commission seeks to redefine art's relation to the public for greater democracy within and outside art.  public arts commission will help facilitate the production of art about public arts as well as the production of a public arts about politics.  public arts commission will critically support local autonomy and thereby not favor one particular art form over another (since no two locations are the same), but rather favor public participation in the determination of public art.  public arts commission will engage both electoral and institutional politics, thereby building the capacity for greater public art considerations to have a seat at the table in political campaigns and legislative matters.  public arts commission will facilitate conversations, exhibitions and publish a journal in line with its mission to re-define art’s relation to the public for greater democracy within and outside art.  public arts commission thus seeks to engage directly the producers of art, the public and legislators in order to better represent the interests of the major parties involved.
public arts commission focuses on the intersection of art and politics, which distinguishes the organization from many private non-profit arts organizations and government arts and cultural organizations, which U.S. law largely bar from political activity.  For instance, the N.E.A. is barred from an advocacy role while many private, non-profit arts organizations claim an advocacy role but remain ineffectual in determining campaigns and legislation due to tax laws that prohibit 501(c)(3)s from influencing political campaigns and legislation.  public arts commission seeks to directly engage political campaigns and legislation in order to redefine art's relation to the public for greater democracy within and outside art.

public arts commission was launched on 13 April 2017 by stephen garrett dewyer and is based in the Minneapolis - St. Paul area of Minnesota.

Want to become involved in public arts commission?  Please contact sdewyer@publicartscommission.org with your interest and any qualifications.


works cited

1 “the tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth” (Plato, Republic).

2 Gummow, Jodie, “Culturally Impoverished: US NEA Spends 1/40th of What Germany Doles Out for Arts Per Capita”, AlterNet, 5 February 2014: http://www.alternet.org/culture/culturally-impoverished-us-nea-spends-140th-what-germany-doles-out-arts-capita


3 Australian Government Australia Council for the Arts, “Arts Nation: An Overview of Australian Arts”, 2015 edition: p. 35, http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/arts-nation-final-27-feb-54f5f492882da.pdf

4 National Endowment for the Arts, “The Arts and Economic Growth”, 2017, and U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Value Added by Industry as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product”, 2016.

5 The U.S. Congress directed $27 million to Federal Project Number One from the $4.88 billion allocated by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935.

6 Halperin, Julia, “US arts funding by the numbers: Washington, DC, leads the nation in arts spending per capita, but which state spends the least?” The Art Newspaper, 12 June 2015: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/news/us-arts-funding-by-the-numbers/.

7 National Endowment for the Arts, “The Arts and Economic Growth”, 2017, and U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Value Added by Industry as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product”, 2016.

8 National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, State Percent for Art Programs: http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Research/Key-Topics/Public-Art/State-Percent-for-Art-Programs.php

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