Inevitably, some issues go completely unmentioned in political campaigns. One such story, which ought to have gotten more attention, is
Barack Obama’s program to restore long-dormant federal Arts programs and introduce new ones. Sen. Obama has assembled an impressive committee to design and (hopefully) oversee the project, which borrows some from Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA Arts projects, Lyndon Johnson’s NEA, and adding timely new features.
And If this seems to you a minor piece of his agenda, well, someone begs to differ. On October 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave an address at Amherst college that included the following:
The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover's quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist's fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
Tragically, this was his exit line on the subject.
Now, enter Barack Obama, who has made clear his intention to refocus the national dialogue on culture and fine arts. Novelist Michael Chabon, writing on behalf of the committee, eloquently says:
Every grand American accomplishment, every innovation that has bene_ted and enriched our lives, every lasting social transformation, every moment of profound insight any American visionary ever had into a way out of despair, loneliness, fear and violence—everything that has from the start made America the world capital of hope, has been the fruit of the creative imagination, of the ability to reach beyond received ideas and ready-made answers to some new place, some new way of seeing or hearing or moving through the world. Breathtaking solutions, revolutionary inventions, the road through to freedom, reform and change: never in the history of this country have these emerged as pat answers given to us by our institutions, by our government, by our leaders. We have been obliged—to employ Dr. King’s powerful verb—to dream them up for ourselves.
America’s artists are the guardians of the spirit of questioning, of innovation, of reaching across the barriers that fence us from our neighbors, from our allies and adversaries, from the six billion other people with whom we share this dark and dazzling world. Art increases the sense of our common humanity. Imagination of the artist is, therefore, a profoundly moral imagination: the easier it is for you to imagine
walking in someone else’s shoes, the more difficult it then becomes to do that person harm. If you want to make a torturer, first kill his imagination. If you want to create a nation that will stand by and allow torture to be practiced in its name, then go ahead and kill its imagination, too. You could start by cutting school funding for art, music, creative writing and the performing arts.
Well, that last bit is exactly where we have come to. The Reagan administration started by cutting school music programs, leaving the funding of musical instruments to charities like VH1’s Save the Music, which makes as much sense as the military leaving the funding of helmet liners to Cher (really!) until she went before congress and shamed them into funding that).
Finally, for the record, the sum total of John McCain’s statement on the Arts:
John McCain believes that arts education can play a vital role fostering creativity and expression. He is a strong believer in empowering local school districts to establish priorities based on the needs of local schools and school districts. Schools receiving federal funds for education must be held accountable for providing a quality education in basic subjects critical to ensuring students are prepared to compete and succeed in the global economy. Where these local priorities allow, he believes investing in arts education can play a role in nurturing the creativity of expression so vital to the health of our cultural life and providing a means of creative expression for young people.
That’s it. Doesn’t sound like he’s given a moment’s thought to the matter.
I encourage everyone to read the PDF of Obama’s Statement on Arts and Culture. It’s a bold statement of how a civilized nation respects creativity, benefiting the intellectual and economic health of its people.