What Culture? What Public?

September 29, 2015

Whether or not the public has a “right” to culture, they’ve got plenty of it. In New York City alone (where I write this), there are more than eighty museums and countless galleries where we can go see art for free. There are dozens of movie theaters, plus access, through Netflix or Amazon, to thousands of old and new movies and television series, on our laptops and smartphones.  And, with YouTube and Spotify, we have access to literally millions of musical recordings.

So asking whether the public has a right to culture is a little bit like asking whether they have a right to snow in Buffalo: it’s coming either way.

No, what we typically mean when we say the public has a right to culture is that some group or other wishes to assert dominion over very specific, very valuable individual examples of culture.  So, for example, the German government recently proposed legislation that would give regional authorities the ability to designate specific artworks as protected national treasures if they are more than 50 years old and valued at more than 150,000 euros. Export licenses could be denied for the designated works. Germany’s culture minister said in an interview: “the cultural nation of Germany is obligated to collect and preserve its cultural property.”

Notice what is going on in that one sentence. First, a public (out of all the possible publics) is defined: the cultural nation of Germany. The broader public, the public that includes those of us interested in art who are outside the cultural nation of Germany, are excluded. We have no right to this culture.

Next, the legislation is described as an obligation. This is not something the German government has chosen to do; it is something it must do. Why? Because if the public (the cultural nation of Germany) has a “right” to something, then it is the government’s duty to provide it.

Last, what the government is doing, on behalf of its public, is “preserv[ing] its cultural property”—defined not as the thousands and thousands of artworks and movies and songs that are freely available to everyone, but as a tiny subset of those works, the ones that are more than 50 years old and worth more than 150,000 euros. That is the culture that this particular public has a right to.

Against all of this, one might say instead: there are many publics and there is lots of culture, and sometimes they find each other. No one has a “right” to any of it—it doesn’t “belong” to any of us—but that doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable or worthy of protection.