The University Record, December 7, 1998

The culture controversy: Bollinger speaks at Yale

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communication

Nearly everyone agrees that there ought to be some boundary or separation between the cultural sphere of art, literature and music, and the spheres of politics, commerce and religion, says President Lee C. Bollinger,

“But the difficulty comes in identifying and articulating that line,” Bollinger told a Yale Law School audience Dec. 1. In a speech titled “A Lonely Impulse of Delight: Public Cultural Institutions and Democracy,” Bollinger spoke about the role of public institutions, including universities, in preserving and fostering high cultural achievement. His speech as the Ralph Gregory Elliot First Amendment Lecturer is the first of a series of presentations that Bollinger will give on this topic, which he also will address in a forthcoming book.

Public institutions of culture, according to Bollinger, are bedeviled by three areas of controversy: the legitimacy or desirability of governmental involvement with culture, the degree to which public cultural institutions should be autonomous from government interference, and whether public cultural institutions are maintaining a proper degree of separation from other spheres in society, including politics and commerce.

Some critics of government involvement in culture believe that the state should be neutral regarding any notion of the public good, and that the state has no business supporting or advancing activities preferred by some over others, especially those that principally benefit wealthy or highly educated individuals, Bollinger noted. According to those critics, to require all citizens to pay for that from which but a few derive pleasure is deeply objectionable, he added.

Other opponents of state involvement in cultural endeavors fear that misuse of the power of patronage could be used to distort culture. To those who distrust government, Bollinger said, “the line between official patron and censor is too thin to withstand the inevitable wave of illicit motives that one must expect from the bureaucrats who will be designated as guardians as well as sponsors of culture.”

He cited as an example an exhibit from Berlin called “Degenerate Art,” which toured the United States a few years ago and documented the censorship of contemporary art by the Nazis.

Proponents of public support of culture offer counter arguments. They say culture is special and distinguishable from other forms of entertainment, which do not deserve state support, and that the free market will not produce the desired amount of culture. Proponents of state support of cultural institutions also note that the risks of distortion of culture are not limited to government patronage, Bollinger said.

In recent years, autonomy for public institutions of culture has become a constitutional issue, Bollinger said, citing the 1990 amending of the enabling statute of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) that requires the NEA take “into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” in its funding decisions. Several artists sued, claiming that restrictions based on the content of an artistic work violate the First Amendment.

A noted First Amendment scholar, Bollinger said nearly all of the Supreme Court’s decisions interpreting the First Amendment have dealt with establishing limits of the government’s power to censor speech. With a few exceptions—libel, obscenity, some form of clear and present danger, and fighting words—it has been established that the state may not restrict speech because its content or message is dangerous or offensive.

“We prefer, so the theory of the First Amendment goes, the ‘invisible hand’ to the state’s very ‘visible thumb,’” Bollinger noted.

In National Endowment for the Arts vs. Finley, the Supreme Court said the government cannot use subsidies (such as refusing to award a grant) to suppress dangerous ideas or to impose a burden “calculated to drive certain ideas of viewpoints from the marketplace.” Bollinger said the Supreme Court also did not insist that the government distribute subsidies without regard to the ideas or contents of applications for NEA grants.

A third area of dispute centers on whether public cultural institutions have internally maintained the proper degree of separation from other spheres of activity within society, primarily the political and commercial. Bollinger said it is often alleged that cultural institution “insiders”—faculty members, curators and museum directors—improperly politicize or commercialize the institution they serve. Criticisms of politicization come from the left and right sides of the political spectrum: “One side says cultural institutions have become the handmaiden of the leftist ideology while the other says they have willingly become the rationalizers and implementers of hegemony,” Bollinger concluded.

Unlike Europe, where there seems to be a more comfortable consensus about the role of public institutions of culture within society, in the United States “the consensus has collapsed and the fissures of disagreement have been both exposed and widened,” Bollinger said.

Bollinger offered several purposes and roles of public cultural institutions, including the preservation of objects, texts or other examples of achievement or beauty; creation of a sense of regional or national identity; and quest for truth.

“It may be that the search for truth is to the 20th century what the search for spiritual meaning was to the 19th century. As the world has become increasingly secular, at least at the level of public institutions in the United States, ‘truth’ has replaced God as the organizer of meaning in our thinking,” Bollinger said.

He also talked in detail about democracy, belief and fanaticism, tolerance and multiculturalism. An axiom of democratic theory is that sovereignty, or ultimate decision-making authority, rests with the citizenry. Citizens must not only be free but also have the capacity and opportunity to form their own views and beliefs about matters of relevance to society. Opportunities for discussion and debate are critical to the formation of wise public decision-making, Bollinger said.

The Constitution’s branches of government, as described by James Madison in the Federalist Papers, were created to ensure that reason would win out over passions, Bollinger noted. In addition to having the simple principle of majority vote to resolve disputes about beliefs, we also have the First Amendment, which protects the speech of the minority and of the unpopular.

Even those who argue most eloquently in favor of tolerance and pluralism come to a point where they must insist on having their own way and that others comply and even obey, Bollinger said. “Self-assertion and insistence are as much a part of social life as self-restraint and tolerance,” he added.

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