Will Joe Biden save American culture? A view from La Presse, Montreal

NOTE: This article by Charles-Éric Blais-Poulin was translated from the original French version which appeared on 16 January in La Presse, published in Montreal. I was one of several people interviewed for it. You can find the original version here. The original article described me as “autrice et référence mondiale en matière de démocratie culturelle,” which roughly translates as “author and global reference on matters of cultural democracy.” I just might add that to my website.

Will the President-designate of the United States don his superhero cape to save the cultural sector knocked down by COVID-19 and the Trump era? While some specialists hope for a brand new “New Deal,” others moderate the impact of politics on the huge American arts and entertainment industry, which has never really been able to count on financial support from Washington.

North American box-office income plunged 80% in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to analyzes from Comscore. The US $2.2 billion collected by American cinemas represents about half of box office receipts…in 1984! By last summer, some 3,000 jobs were already lost in the Broadway entertainment industry. Across the country, more than one in two artists has lost their livelihood in the fine arts and performing arts sector. Even worse, a third of directors of museum institutions and 90% of independent theaters fear a permanent closure. This is without counting nonprofit art organizations, which fear a shortfall of US $14.6 billion.

The American cultural sector, which used to shine all over the world, is suffering greatly. Not only from COVID-19, trivialized by the Trump administration, but also chronic underfunding, experts believe.

Will Joe Biden be able to restore Uncle Sam’s image on screen, on stage, or in institutions? The announcement of the Democratic candidate’s election was greeted with a mixture of relief and enthusiasm on November 7. “One of the happiest days of my life,” writer Stephen King tweeted, among a thousand other similar bursts of joy on social media.

“I’m so thankful that Biden is on his way,” Susan Harbage, visual artist and associate professor at the University of North Carolina, told La Presse. “I hope he understands the value of inclusion and the arts.”

The American photographer, who explores the concepts of identity and borders, criticizes Donald Trump above all for his “mismanagement of the pandemic,” which “has caused major damage to the art world and its institutions.”

At the end of 2020, the controversial president ratified a bipartisan US $900 billion stimulus package; $15 billion was allocated to the cultural sector, battered by COVID-19. In particular, theaters, independent cinemas and cultural institutions may be able to claim six months’ salaries and general expenses.

Last Thursday, Joe Biden presented a new $1.9 trillion plan to “rebuild the country.” The text, which will have to pass Congress, provides for the granting of a maximum check of $1,400 per American and an extension of unemployment benefits.

“The U.S. economy must first become normalized,” explains Frédéric Martel, professor of creative economy at ZHdK University in Zurich, Switzerland. Helping tourism, aviation, transport, cafes is also helping culture. If you help the economy, let it pick up in a global way, it will necessarily help artists. On this point, Joe Biden is certainly going in the right direction.”

Now that he has free rein in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Joe Biden must propose an ambitious vision for culture, argues Arlene Goldbard, American author and global reference on matters of cultural democracy. She advocates for a new “New Deal,” an investment policy implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 to curb the effects of the Great Depression.

Five major cultural projects were then brought together under the Federal One program by the federal agency The Works Progress Administration (WPA).

“To be successful, such an employment program must be universal and employ a workforce in many industries,” says Goldbard, from Lamy, New Mexico. “But previous initiatives have shown that artists are particularly resourceful and determined. Although the WPA of the 1930s served many public needs, its five arts programs are most remembered.”

According to the consultant, cultural life is suffering from degradation of the social fabric, worn out by COVID-19 and Donald Trump’s presidency. “People can feel isolated, traumatized, even afraid to re-engage in their community.” Artists, she believes, are the perfect match for “bringing people together” in an America divided by social and racial tensions.

Artist Susan Harbage agrees: “Our work is more than ever necessary to start a dialogue in political spaces, spaces of power, community spaces, to draw us beyond borders, rather than keeping us behind borders.”

Joe Biden is due to detail his intentions for culture in the coming weeks.

The NEA, the (fragile) sinews of war

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the equivalent of the Canada Council for the Arts, is one of the only tools available to the U.S. federal government to support artists and cultural institutions.

Since coming to power in 2017, Donald Trump has often tried to ax it. Last year, the agency Lyndon B. Johnson set up in 1965 was threatened again in the proposed budget, called “End Waste and Needless Spending.” The Institute of Museum and Library Services, which supports museums and libraries across the country, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, fuel for the world of letters and the humanities, were also in the sights of the Trump administration. The U.S. Congress has repulsed all assaults.

“Every president since Ronald Reagan has cut federal cultural budgets or kept them small,” says Arlene Goldbard. “Today, for example, in absolute dollars, the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is the same as in 1984, but its actual value is 40% of its value then.”

The NEA has an annual budget of approximately CAN 200 million, while that of the Canada Council for the Arts reaches 360 million. For a population nearly nine times smaller….

“One of the things President Biden can do is recognize how terribly underfunded cultural development is in the United States,” she continues.

I would love to be wrong, but given that Biden has filled his arts and humanities transition team with people who profit from the status quo, I doubt he’s shaking up the cultural world much.

Arlene Goldbard, specialist in American cultural policies

Voices are also being raised for the Biden administration to finally endow Washington with a secretary of culture, with the appointment of a “Dr. Fauci of the arts,” referring to the famous director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In this way, Washington could actively participate in reviving the cultural industry, alongside the big players in Hollywood, for example, and more local organizations.

These are pious wishes, says Frédéric Martel, French sociologist and author of Culture in America. “I don’t think Joe Biden will change anything, although he might increase the NEA’s budget a bit.”

The 46th president of the United States could still restore the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, an advisory committee that counsels the presidency on its cultural orientation. It dissolved in 2017 after Donald Trump refused to condemn far-right rallies in Charlottesville.

Favored stars

“The cultural industries almost completely escape the intervention of the federal government,” explains Frédéric Martel, professor of creative economy at ZHdK University in Zurich. “What makes America successful is not about public funding.”

Aid from Washington, through the NEA or other federal agencies, accounts for about 2% of money invested in nonprofits, he estimates. “We are talking about extremely diversified and decentralized public political action, with small sums and many agencies.” The private sector is funded indirectly through tax deductions, university research and development or…non-profit organizations.

The United States promotes both art and entertainment, public and private, mainstream and counterculture. We can criticize it, but overall, it works.

Frédéric Martel, professor of creative economy at ZHdK University in Zurich

Proof of the relative success of this way of seeing and doing: “Even in very anti-American countries like France, it is almost always American artists who are on the cover of publications like Le Monde, Les Inrocks or Télérama.”

Arlene Goldbard deplores the disengagement of the State which favors “a national policy which, de facto, allows private patronage to set cultural values, since most of the resources go to the red carpet arts,” that is to say cultural events centered on the pageantry rather than on the intrinsic value of the works. “This devalues the contributions of those who don’t fit the elite model.”

“Joe Biden could become the first president of the United States to propose a democratic and participatory national cultural policy,” she slips in without too much expectation.

Symbolic power

Experts consulted by La Presse still believe that the entry into office of the Democratic president will have symbolic value.

“I expect Biden to follow the Kennedys’ and Obamas’ model, inviting and honoring a wide range of artists at the White House,” says Arlene Goldbard. “Or at least giving the impression of caring about the culture.”

Such openness gestures would contrast with the attitude of Donald Trump, more prone to slaps than outstretched hands. A harsh critic of Hollywood stars and productions, the one who made a famous appearance in Mom, I Missed the Plane Again has seen his Hollywood Walk of Fame star vandalized time and time again.

Representatives of Paramount, Universal, Netflix, Sony and Walt Disney, as well as directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, have “invested” at least US $100,000 each to have Joe Biden drive Donald Trump from the White House. In the past, the former Delaware senator has worked hand in hand with the high priests of American cinema, among others, to fight piracy and conquer the Chinese market.

The Vice President-designate’s ties to Hollywood run even deeper. Kamala Harris, fond of art in general, met her husband, a former lawyer from Beverly Hills, thanks to her best friend, Chrisette, wife of a certain screenwriter, director and producer: Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Django Unchained, Marshall).

No wonder, then, that the film mecca thinks it has found its messiah.

“Many artists have worked very hard to defeat Trump, with a wave of creative energy expressed through music, the visual arts, and so many other disciplines,” recalls specialist Arlene Goldbard.

“I hope President Biden recognizes this.”

Is protest art running out of steam?

Black Lives Matter, climate challenges, economic crisis: activist art still has good years ahead of it, experts say. “The dispute is permanent in the United States, whether under Obama, under Trump or under Biden, notes sociologist Frédéric Martel. “The dynamism of the counterculture is extremely strong there.” Visual artist Susan Harbage and consultant Arlene Goldbard even predict a boom in art as a tool of contestation in the United States. “Of course, all art is political,” said the latter. “Either it reinforces the status quo, or it calls for action against its inequities and cruelties, to combat them. More and more artists are realizing their potential role in creating a more just society. I expect them to redouble their efforts, that they will not give up.”

More cordial negotiations

Canadian promoters of cultural diversity held their breath during the negotiations leading up to the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement in 2018. Donald Trump’s revised NAFTA project threatened the cultural exception status of Canada. In particular, this allows Ottawa to regulate cultural products as it sees fit, including the digital services of American companies such as Netflix, Twitter and Apple. If the Republican president’s negotiators finally agreed to maintain this clause, the arrival of Joe Biden could facilitate subsequent exchanges, believes Solange Drouin, co-chair of the Canadian Coalition for Cultural Diversity. “The negotiations are likely to be more pleasant, more predictable and more interesting. We can expect better decorum to discuss cultural issues. The Director General of ADISQ has a lot of hope in Bill C-10, which she hopes to see adopted by Parliament as soon as possible. This is a revision of the Broadcasting Act aimed at regulating the web giants. And a first real test for cultural exception. “Once Canada is well armed with a law, we will see how the United States reacts.”

Cecile McLorin Salvant “B.-Loved.”