Sunday, April 8, 2012

art for all, but none for art

*This is an entry in the semifinals of the Spring for Music Arts Blogger Face-Off. I strongly encourage you to follow this link and vote for Seated Ovation on the right. Thanks!*

Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary
of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?

In theory: absolutely.

Igor volunteers for the position.

I can’t think of anything better, and less controversial, than appointing a Secretary of the Arts.

Imagine a world where the Bang on a Can All-Stars play every year at the White House; where Richard Serra gives lectures at the House of Representatives; where the Wooster Group stages a reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the Capitol Building every July 4th.

Appointing a Cabinet-level position for the arts would demonstrate an astounding level of government commitment. Certainly its creation would mean that it had to be both effective and ambitious in its early years, funding projects across the cultural spectrum with a vast budget, adding a Composer Laureate, Artist Laureate, and Director Laureate to our measly Poet Laureate. Orchestras would have the financial backbone to experiment to a degree previously unprecedented; opera houses across the country could integrate new works into their repertory.

In a decade, we would be Europe, a cultural paradise, with Regietheater and new music festivals in every city. I witnessed a subsidized culture last year in Germany, and it is an experience not to be forgotten. The State Opera of Cologne mounted the premiere of Stockhausen’s Sonntag, constructing two theaters within a massive convention center. Eighteen state museums in Berlin alone covered all of the arts, over and over – an entire, gigantic museum devoted to post-war art alone. A new-music festival spread fifty pieces over twenty-five well-attended events, only ten of which were written before 2000 (11 world premieres, 10 German premieres, 8 festival commissions) One time I saw the President at Fidelio; the Prime Minister trekked out to the middle of nowhere for the opening of an Anselm Kiefer exhibit of cows. When the Queen of the Netherlands came to town, her entourage included the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

I’m not one of those people who think Europe is the be-all-and-end-all, and a lot of their cultural presence has little or nothing to do with state support. Britain is in a quagmire with regards to government arts funding, and budgets are being cut all over the continent. But an American Arts Czar (Czart?) would be awesome. Really, look at all those departments. Surely we’ve got room for some arts.

And surely we need a Secretary. To have someone with the clout of a Cabinet minister fighting for the NEA, unveiling new initiatives with not only a massive budget but also the public eye, would do a great service to art. The symbolism of the position would send a strong message to American artists that the country cared about what they were doing.

Certainly there was a time in our history when the government paid a bit more attention to the arts, and it wasn’t all that long ago. As Alex Ross recently noted, Harry Truman, who spearheaded the initial idea for the construction of the Kennedy Center, brought scores with him when he attended classical performances. A big portion of the Cold War was about cultural prestige, and that included funding, propagandizing, and proselytizing for American art. It didn’t always happen stateside: we tended to focus on Europe, funding the Darmstadt Summer Courses and Congress for Cultural Freedom to promote anti-Soviet aesthetics. But the Lincoln Center complex itself is a testament to our government’s commitment to the arts in a culture war, a set of living monuments to a society that spent millions on classical music.

But we are living a different kind of culture war today, and it’s not the kind that ends up with $142 million for Lincoln Center. So,

In practice:

Coco says no.

I can’t think of anything worse, and more controversial, than appointing a Secretary of Culture.

It was just a year ago that a certain Study Committee attempted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts entirely. Mitt Romney is campaigning with the promise of cutting the NEA, along with public broadcasting and the NEH. The real battles between legislature and the NEA took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it’s still bundled together with NPR as an enemy of the American people.

Any attempt to create a position at the level of Secretary of Arts/Culture would be a political debacle. Let’s say we somehow actually get the position approved (can you imagine the nightmare of congressional hearings?), and The Secretary drafts an agenda of goals: revitalizing the Kennedy Center; funding an exhibition of American multicultural art which would tour the country and the globe (remember when we used to have arts ambassadors?); appointing a composer laureate; pushing for better arts education in the schools. Pretty modest, right?

Cultural warriors take to their radio shows:

“Obama is trying to force-feed us liberal propaganda paintings.”

“Walt Whitman was a socialist fascist.”

“Liberals want to give $500 million of your tax money to mime troupes and artists who paint with their feces.”

“Composer laureate Steve Reich: more like Third Reich.”

“You know who else was a painter?”

We couldn’t even get America’s nicest rapper to read poetry at the White House without stirring up crazy.

The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t be having a productive national debate about what the arts mean in American culture – the problem is that we can’t have a productive national debate about anything right now, least of all something as complex as art. If it’s hard to argue for throwing money at universal health care, it’s going to be much, much harder to argue for throwing money at a 75-year-old man who likes the marimba. Take a look at this article. It’s absolutely crazy, and it’s probably one of the more in-depth, thoughtful responses to a controversial issue in the arts. Take a complicated subject like that to television, and you’re screwed. (Remember Glenn Beck, art critic?)

Let’s say, hypothetically, the Czart manages to convince the country that Steve Reich, Richard Serra, and Peter Sellars aren’t political liabilities. Then you’ll still have to reckon with the changes of elitism—why is my tax money going to something that most Americans can’t even understand?

There aren’t too many President Bartlets hanging around Washington these days. And there are many, many Governor Ritchies.

It’s not that I’m nostalgic for the past, either – that came with its own set of complications. The construction of Lincoln Center, our cultural mecca, bulldozed seventeen blocks of ethnic neighborhoods and drove 7,000 families out of tenement housing.

And I don’t mean to suggest that just because we might lose a battle, we shouldn’t fight it. If we conceded to conservative ideas about what to spend money on, there wouldn’t be an NEA, Planned Parenthood, or oops I forgot the third one. In theory, we shouldn’t have to fight for the arts – they seem like the least controversial thing in the world. But the reality of today’s toxic political climate is that those things that seem beyond controversy – birth control, UNESCO -- are the ones that we have to spend much too much time fighting for.

Right now, an Arts Secretary would be useless, and thus not necessary. Maybe we would end up with someone with a lot of political clout, but I’m guessing as soon as the entire Fox News crew came running after our Czart, he/she wouldn’t stand a chance (remember this?). Secretary after Secretary would be forced to resign under pressure from various non-existent “scandals.” The attention given to artists wouldn’t be the kind they wanted – suddenly people who had been successful for decades would find themselves “controversial” in the eyes of America.

There are other ways for the government to fund the arts. But, at least right now, a position on the public scale of a Secretary would be a waste of time. I would love to see the Obamas take on the arts a bit more than they have – things looked promising with Karaoke Simple Gifts Inauguration, and they’ve hosted some cultural events, but I want a bit more ambition (they’re trying to raise the NEA budget, but not by very much).

Oddly enough, the best shot at more governmental support for music might be…*dun dun dun* President Newt.

Believe it or not, but Callista Gingrich is a pianist, French horn player* and singer—she majored in music at Luther College in Iowa—and as first lady, would make music education a top priority. So there you have it: vote Newt, and we’ll get not only a colony on the moon, but Space Arts Ambassadors to spread the Maple Leaf Rag around the galaxy.

In conclusion: Yes, we need one. It’s a battle we should fight. But for now, let’s see if we can fix the other parts of our government before adding new ones, and quietly double the budget of the NEA every year.

And, rub my belly.

*Someone please watch that video and explain to me where she gets that syllable accent on French horn, I have never heard that before.


  1. Wasn't that a wonderful factoid about Harry Truman? Who knew? I agree 100% with your statement, "But for now, let’s see if we can fix the other parts of our government before adding new ones, and quietly double the budget the NEA every year." Can I suggest on amendment, that is triple it? Or quadruple it? Or . . .

  2. Cyborg-lista Gingrich was erroneously programmed by Newt's glactic council to emphasize capitalized words (ex. French) when reading teleprompters.

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