Saturday, March 14, 2009 Leave a comment
Originally published January 22, 2009.
People have spent the last two and a half months since Election Day making suggestions. Barack Obama’s transition team hosted the Citizen’s Briefing Book through Change.gov, allowing visitors to put their ideas on the table regarding the coming four years. Equal Rep, a national GLBT grassroots organization, encouraged citizens in a recent press release to contact the new president to demand the creation of a Cabinet position: Secretary of GLBT Affairs. Users on Change.org voiced their desire for a Department of Peace and Non-Violence, headed by a Secretary of Peace.
And finally, there’s the movement for a so-called Secretary of the Arts.
American musician Quincy Jones’s interest in the creation of the position has already inspired an online petition to President Obama (oh – the newness still hasn’t worn off yet), which currently boasts over 76,000 signatures.
Admittedly, we already have a National Endowment for the Arts and another for the Humanities, both established in 1965 by Lyndon Johnson. As early as the 19th century, federal politicians discussed the possibility of establishing some sort of national body or chair to support fine arts and humanities in the U.S.
In 1955, President Eisenhower put this burgeoning desire into very clear words, according to the NEA’s own provided chronology: “In the advancement of the various activities which would make our civilization endure and flourish, the Federal government should do more to give official recognition of the importance of the arts and other cultural activities.”
This statement clarified what the U.S. government had been thinking about since getting Antonin Dvorak (the guy who composed the New World Symphony) on board as the first artistic director of the federally established National Conservatory of Music in 1892. Namely, America was caught up in the growing global obsession with the establishment of a national identity, which would eventually include music, theater, dance, visual arts and literature (and history, and anthropology … but that’s what the NEH is for).
Basically, Eisenhower outs the government’s real desire, making it very clear that federal funding devoted toward the arts is a big pro-America campaign push. After building up since the turn of the century, all of this cultural conflict came to a head generally during the World War II era and slightly after – a time during which nationalism was arguably the biggest motivating factor in any country’s political behavior.
So where do Quincy Jones’s interest in a Secretary of the Arts and the already-established NEA intersect?
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Jones mentioned his dismay at the lack of cultural, specifically musical, knowledge among American youth. What he didn’t talk about, however, were any of the serious results of youth arts education – like the fact that musicians typically have the highest SAT scores, something my old voice teacher stressed on a weekly basis. And that’s just one benefit of many.
Specifically, what got Jones going was the fact that a student he spoke with in Seattle didn’t know who Duke Ellington or John Coltrane were. Mr. Jones can say all he wants about how invested he is in arts education, but he’s still talking about presiding over and instructing on American culture versus getting kids into creating art and playing instruments. What culture gets taught, of course, is totally arbitrary. Having a Secretary of the Arts means taking one more step in the direction of letting the government decide what fine arts and artists are “truly American.”
After all, in 1989, a combined House-Senate conference committee disallowed the funding of any art by the NEA that could be viewed as “obscene.” The government doesn’t want to fund anything that will make it look bad.
As much as I agree that arts education in K-12 schools should be federally supported, a Secretary of the Arts will not achieve that end. All we would be doing is tempting the government to restrict what has always been one of its greatest adversaries rather than putting money where it should be – schools.
Community arts programs are important, but establishing a Cabinet position and a department to decide what artist most deserves funding leads us to a place where creativity is censored indirectly by the ability to withhold funding from “unpatriotic,” nonpartisan and controversial work. If Quincy Jones really wants to make a difference in the culture of America, maybe he should be directing his pleas at Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for better school arts programs instead.
Chelsea is a senior in English and creative writing and is geared up for Blago’s impeachment trial next week.