For the past several years a group of faculty at the University of Chicago has been convening, teaching, and doing research under the aegis of what began life as "The Arts and Humanities in Public Life Initiative," but now, after several name-changes, is being called the Cultural Policy Center. This waffling in nomenclature points to a real difficulty we have faced in trying to convey the object and kind of research we have in mind. One difficulty is that the term "cultural policy" suffers by association with an all-too-well defined history of Stalinist or fascist cultural commissars, Ministries of Culture, and the monstrous perversion of arts and humanities into propaganda machines. "Cultural Policy" with a capital P strikes many as an "un-American activity," as one major foundation discovered to its dismay last summer when it proudly announced a new $50 million program to support research in cultural policy, only to be peremptorily and viciously savaged in the press.
If the public finds the term "cultural policy" objectionable for political reasons, those within the university – and in particular in that sector of the university where culture matters most intensely – tend to find the term objectionable on what might be called epistemological grounds. Humanists have a hard time figuring out precisely what entity "cultural policy" identifies, and an even harder time figuring out why we should be interested in knowing more about it, or engaging in sustained academic research on aspects of it. Culture we are perfectly prepared to accept as an object of study (though we may argue vehemently about its boundaries), and we pride ourselves in analyzing the politics of gender, race, class, or sexuality that are played out via cultural works or practices. But what would it mean to study cultural policy rather than culture itself or the ideologies conveyed through culture? And in America, at least, we don’t have government control over the arts and humanities, do we, so what policies would we study? And even if we could identify policies towards the arts or the humanities, why should humanists bother to study them?
That humanists should find it difficult to think of "cultural policy" as a real object of knowledge is natural enough. After all, the history of the human sciences and the division of the faculties create deep intellectual incentives encouraging us to divide culture frompolicy. To study policies, we imagine, is to deal with measurable aggregates rather than aesthetic particularities; costs and benefits rather than pleasures and values; objective facts and figures rather than subjective experiences and meanings; institutions rather than texts or images – at least that’s the way we like to think about what "they" do versus what "we" do. The bogeyman, humanists have been taught, is reification – the flattening of human complexity and meaningfulness to what Georg Lukacs called a “gray statistical mean,” and to avoid this evil most humanists take to heart Auden’s famous commandment: “Thou shalt not commit a social science.”
The problem with such piety is that it gives humanists no purchase either on the social sciences or, much more crucially, on the governmental policies and practices that social scientists help influence.