Saturday, January 10, 2009

Secretary of the Arts?

I've been thinking a lot about the petition for a cabinet-level position for the arts. Isaac fueled my motor w/ a great post. He argues that an Arts Czar would "[embed] the arts comprehensively throughout federal & state government agencies", comparing government support for the arts to its support for the sciences.

I've been thinking about how government should play a fundamental role in the arts. Like education & a free press, the arts are a necessary contribution to a healthy democracy because they broaden & educate minds. But also, as Mike Daisey's "How Theater Failed America" argues, American theater (like much of our culture) has adopted a corporate approach to the arts, & that structure is unsuitable for true creative production (except, debatably, on a massive scale, eg Hollywood). The state-structured & -sponsored approach is an alternative & potentially a democratic one.

Again, Isaac has a few suggestions -- co-ordinating w/ the Small Business Admin. & Community Devel. on new arts orgs, working w/ State on arts-based diplomacy. Though he argues that it wouldn't be a radical shift, I think it would be just that.

It's not just advocacy & co-ordination, it's not just embedding. I think a Sec-Arts (or a near-cabinet position, a la Head of the EPA) would demand new bureaus. It would rope in some surprising agencies (like the Smithsonian) & fund comprehensive projects (ethnography, archaeology). I'm envisioning a massive expansion -- what some would consider an intrusion, hence the radicalism -- of American arts in the government. In essence, it would turn part of the US Government into an artistic company.

But I'm all for this radical shift. And there is a precedent: FDR's Federal One, the largest of his New Deal agencies. Really, Isaac & I only disagree on semantics (in fact, he's a lot more pragmatic than I am).
The more I think about it, the more I think it ought to be an "Arts & Sciences Czar," encompassing work on arts, sciences, applied & theoretical math, even athletics. Sec-Arts/Sci would work with Hollywood, B'way producers, & museums but also universities, publishers, researchers & sports teams.

Ultimately, the only reason I'm not convinced that Arts-Czar ought to be a cabinet position is a cynical one: that the position would be a purely symbolic gesture. We don't need an arts advocate: Obama has a good, clear arts policy (that includes increasing the NEA grant). But maybe the 36K signatories want a radical change in the relationship between arts & government. Not just more funding, not just more recognition, but a government that makes art. That's what having a Secretary of the Arts would mean.

1 comment:

Milena said...

I agree, funding for the NEA is miniscule enough - why add a cabinet position to pay someone to do the job the NEA is already doing? Why not just allocate the funds to the NEA?