Pop Culture
Jan 26, 2009, 07:46AM

Of Culture Czars and Arts Advisers

Should the arts and humanities get a cabinet nod?

The notion of a cabinet-level position for the arts and humanities has been kicked around for a long time. Recently, two op-ed articles—one for, one against—were published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, respectively. Neither are particlarly long or in-depth, but both revolve around the notion of a centralizing arts and humanities funding in the pursuit of keeping American culture vibrant and relevant.

From the Times:

Mr. Obama has an opportunity to revitalize our national spirit by strengthening our cultural programs at every level. It’s hard to imagine what could be a more important — and enduring — legacy.

William R. Ferris, the author, was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1997 to 2001, but his argument is rather lacking in specifics—aside from the expected nods to President Franklin Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration (which funded Walker Evans and James Agee) and President Lyndon Johnson's creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the vein of Ferris' argument is the fact that, as the Cold War quickly reached its highest points, the cultural center of the world shifted from Paris to New York City, where certain government-subsidized artists such as Jackson Pollack redirected the arc of art history.

But I digress.

David A. Smith, writing for the WSJ, has this counter-argument:

Art is a type of human expression fundamentally different from the other activities carried on by people in society, let alone by a state. It is a far more individualistic enterprise and has to be conceived -- I almost am tempted to say jealously guarded -- as such. Similarly, the cultural programs carried out by the American government thrive on the individualism and energy found in their respective agencies. In addition to the NEA, there's the NEH, IMLS (Institute for Museum and Library Services), Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, NPR, PBS, and the cultural programs of the State Department, just to mention the main ones. The NEA, for instance, has transformed itself over the past six years and is enjoying the greatest success and influence in its history. To think of the government's widespread and variegated cultural programs as the proper responsibility of something as bureaucratically ponderous as a single department is, I think, a way to damage the way people ought to think about art.

Smith is correct, in that the government shouldn't be responsible for the basic machinations of cultural production and it's circulation. But, in citing the multitudinous agencies and beaurocracies of existing government cultural programs, Smith misses a point that Ferris missed as well: the nitty-gritty, day-to-day operations of the arts and humanities are sorely neglected in this country. And, as Tyler Green, prolific captain of the must-follow Modern Art Notes, argues, a cabinet-level position isn't what's necessary; we need an senior arts advisor in the White House (emphasis his):

Similarly, the arts are not one thing, they are a part of many things. Furthermore, the arts have long suffered at the federal level because of a lack of prioritization and coordination. The nation would benefit if Congress and the White House created a new office for a White House arts adviser, a humanities-driven sister-office to the White House science adviser.

The comparison to the White House science advisor is apt in relation to Smith's main argument. The science advisor doesn't centralize the government's position on sciences; he acts a crucial crossroads for the various departments and committees that deal with science to one degree or another (Seed recently interviewed Bush's science advisor here).

Yes, Green waxes ideallic over the role of art and culture in the valuation of a civilized nation, but I have to say I agree with him, and I agree that an arts advisor would be much more preferable to a cabinet-level position. Green mentions something that I posted a few weeks agao: Our National Mall is crumbling. Who should deal with this? DC CIty Council? Park Police? An arts advisor would have the flexibility to negotiate with various departments and the authority of the West Wing to deal with such an embarassment —and this one, too:

In fact, this is another example of a domestic issue with repercussions that can impact our standing in the world: One museum-on-the-brink, the Detroit Institute of Arts, has one of America's half-dozen-greatest art collections. Its solution to its budget problems may be to rent out its collection abroad. The failure of so great a cultural institution would be a national embarrassment.

So how 'bout it? This would be taking the notion of "soft power" to one of many logical conclusions.

  • maybe the government should create a position for advertising business, and its goal would be to generate new formats to accommodate ads in various forms of media. that way print can stay in business, ad firms can keep thriving, and people will keep spending. although i have no idea how that would work, a concentrated effort might help. although i reiterate, i know little about business and economics. also, yes i want the government to give me money to make art. i don't care if the art somehow has a weird government-y flavor. if it created jackson pollack's career, it is good pr for the country.

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  • I think that's a good way of putting it, "good PR for the country." The State Department has been pretty good at sending "music ambassadors" on tour throughout the world, which is more PR-style work. To turn a phrase, making sure the fundamentals of our economy stay strong is key. And while I can't imagine a business advertising adviser ever seeing the light of day, the semi nationalization of banks and the financial sector is, sort of, close enough.

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