Culture isn't on debate agenda

Times Art Critic

If history is any guide, we can say one thing for certain about the 2008 presidential debates, which are expected to get underway tonight in a televised performance at the University of Mississippi. There will be no discussion -- none at all -- of U.S. cultural policy.

Questions during the three planned debates will likely include the crashing economy, the Iraq occupation, taxes and healthcare. Climate change, pretty much ignored in both the Democratic and Republican preliminary debates, might even make it to the podium.

Lipstick on a pig may or may not come up. But rest assured, at tonight's planned foreign policy debate, PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer will not ask: "Sen. Obama, should the United States pledge specific funds to rebuild the Iraqi National Museum, looted during the 2003 invasion, as a diplomatic measure of reconciliation?"

At next month's domestic policy debate at Hofstra University, CBS reporter Bob Schieffer will not inquire: "Sen. McCain, should an artist be allowed a full tax deduction when donating a painting she made to a public art museum, just the way a private collector who buys the very same painting can?"

Cultural infrastructure, foreign and domestic, will not be on the radar screen. But the reason these questions won't be asked is not because they are trivial. Quite the contrary. The debates, which aren't really debates but elaborately scripted reality television shows, are designed to be trivial.

Their goal is not to elicit serious public policy discussion from the man who will be the most powerful human on Earth for the next four years. Policy chats don't draw eyeballs; car wrecks do. The aim of a TV debate is to see whether a candidate under pressure will stumble or utter a gaffe. The goal is to manufacture dramatic conflict.

"Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!"

As a species of political theater, a TV debate is always evaluated on the quality of the performances, not the script. That, you can look up.

Beyond the websites

Sen. Barack Obama's "Blueprint for Change" is posted on his campaign website. It includes several cultural proposals, mostly in the harmless realm of support for arts education but also calling for a critical change in the tax code. (He supports the artists' tax deduction, now reserved for collectors.) Sen. John McCain's campaign website includes no mention of cultural policy in its issues overview. Isn't that enough to know about where the candidates stand?

Not for me -- even though that's plainly all we'll get. Let me cite two examples of what I'd like to hear discussed.

First, U.S. taxpayers have already bailed out the Wall Street securities firm Bear Stearns & Co., are in the process of bailing out home mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurance giant AIG, might bail out the auto industry in Detroit, and have the rest of Wall Street in sight. For these hundreds of billions of tax dollars, we get a temporary measure of necessary fiscal stability -- but is that all?

Shouldn't taxpayers also acquire equity status, where applicable, so that rather than handing out corporate welfare we get some direct dividend if any of these private companies turn around? And couldn't that dividend be used, in part, to underwrite full American public participation in the arts?

As it stands now, corporate arts funding is just a self-congratulatory form of cautious corporate advertising -- and tax deductible to boot. No corporation will ever provide wide-ranging economic stimulus for a free and vibrant creative community. And that's bad cultural policy.

Second, how about the National Endowment for the Arts, neutered 15 years ago in the culture wars? At its 1992 peak, the NEA budget was a pathetic $176 million, or about 84 cents per citizen. With a budget now of $145 million -- not quite five hours' worth of the Iraq occupation -- it's withered to less than 50 cents per capita.

But forget about budget debates, which turn the discussion away from common public interest and toward special-interest lobbying. Instead, what if the NEA just changed the rules? What if, say, its art museum exhibition grants were available only to shows that are open free to the public? That one small policy change would cause a profound shift in the way American museums do business.

Currently, the public pays three times. We indirectly subsidize art museums through their tax-exempt status. We are taxed for the NEA. Finally, we have the privilege of privately ponying up at the museum box office to see the art. That's more bad cultural policy.

These two examples, taxpayer equity and a public-spirited NEA, both represent a cultural perspective at the opposite end of the spectrum from where we stand today. Remember, neoconservatives, led by former New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, catapulted the culture wars in 1989 with an assault on a symbolic target: the NEA. Their goal was to privatize the arts.

They succeeded. Privatization has been established policy throughout the government ever since. Sometimes it's contested, as in the fight over private Social Security accounts. And sometimes it's simply accepted, as in the roughly equal numbers of private contractors as American military personnel stationed in Iraq.

The culture war is widely believed to have been reignited in recent weeks, after the Rev. Rick Warren interviewed both nominees before a largely evangelical audience during an August televised event at Orange County's Saddleback Church. (Pat Buchanan, the former presidential candidate who gave the infamous culture war speech at the 1992 Republican convention, soon picked up the cudgel.) Public policy positions relinquished the church stage to candidates' perceived values.

It's TV, not theater

In fact, it's an anachronism to call tonight's scheduled debate political theater. As at Saddleback, it's a TV show, not theater, and big differences separate the two art forms. The U.S. Constitution and the legal contract among citizens it represents was written for an age of theater, when stagecraft was live, slow and framed by the constraints of a proscenium. Those qualities at least allow for the possibility of enlightened deliberation after the curtain falls.

By contrast, the age of television -- which includes the home version called the Internet -- is canned, fast and boundaryless. The curtain never falls, because there is no curtain, just a perpetual show. Unenlightened tabloid screaming dominates, 24/7.

The last time an American presidential election was waged on public policy issues rather than tabloid sensationalism was 1952, the year Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, America's most celebrated modern military hero, ran successfully as a Republican peace candidate. (After his election he launched an international initiative called "Atoms for Peace.") It's no coincidence that 1952 coincides with the beginning of the television revolution.

Likewise, today's date coincides with the 48th anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, the first ever to be televised. You remember the one: Kennedy was generally thought to have lost on the issues, but, boy, did the sweat bead up on Richard Nixon's five o'clock shadow! On election day, more than half of voters said the television debate had influenced their decision.

So, if I were moderating tonight's TV debate, I'd start with one question and a follow-up, and I'd wait for the flop-sweat: Senator, name one great civilization in world history whose government was not a major arts patron.

Now, what can we learn from this?

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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