What do ministers of culture actually do?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 29 2007 6:36 PM

What Do Ministers of Culture Do?

Give away money, win Grammy awards, etc.

André Malraux. Click image to expand.
André Malraux

Commandos raided the Iraqi culture minister's house Tuesday to arrest him for a 2005 assassination attempt on a fellow politician. But he's not the only minister of culture grabbing headlines: Britain's culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, was replaced Thursday. What does a minister of culture do?

They oversee grants for the arts, fund public broadcasting, support museums, and generally seek to preserve and promote national identity. But beyond that, their responsibilities vary widely. In Britain, the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport also handles tourism and the 2012 Olympic Games, and has even spoken out against U.S. laws cracking down on Internet gambling. The responsibilities of Canada's culture minister—better known as the "heritage minister"—are largely ceremonial: attending awards functions, cocktail hours, etc. In Japan, the ministry devoted to culture also covers education, sports, science, and technology, plus maintenance of religious sites and promotion of the Japanese language. Culture ministries often play a regulatory role, too: In 2006, France's culture minister defended a law that would ban iTunes unless Apple made its format compatible with other music players; in Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Culture and Information can decide what films are appropriate for public consumption.

Advertisement

The modern office of culture minister traces back to French writer André Malraux, who served under Charles de Gaulle starting in 1959 and pushed for what he called the "democratization of culture"—making the arts available to everyone, not just the elite. Since then, many countries have drawn culture ministers from the artistic community. Brazil's current minister, Gilberto Gil, has been a prominent singer/songwriter since the late '60s, when he was exiled for political activities. (He's also one of the few government officials to win a Grammy.) Even after retiring, some culture ministers stay on as cultural ambassadors. France's former culture minister Jack Lang, for example, recently helped organize the Louvre Atlanta, a collaboration between the venerable Paris institution and Atlanta's High Museum of Art.

So, why doesn't the United States have a ministry of culture? For one thing, arts in the United States are largely privately funded, and the art world is less dependent on state support. A bunch of federal agencies perform the functions given to ministries of culture in other countries. That's not to say the idea for a ministry of culture—or something like it—hasn't been proposed. In 1859, President James Buchanan appointed a National Arts Commission, but it disbanded after two years. Teddy Roosevelt made a similar attempt 50 years later, and in 1937, during a fit of New Deal-fueled government expansion, a New York congressman introduced legislation to create a Department of Science, Art, and Literature, but the proposal never got beyond committee. Subsequent efforts to create a centralized cultural agency were hampered at least in part by negative associations with Nazi propaganda and "cultural planning" in the USSR.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Guy Lepage of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, Peter C. Pfeiffer of Georgetown University, Agnes Vondermuhll of the French Embassy, and Margaret Wyszomirski of Ohio State University.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.