A Secretary of Unamerican Art

by Fitzroy on January 19, 2009

Creating a cabinet post for “Secretary of the Arts” is an idea born of a bad understanding of the cabinet and a worse understanding of the arts.

The idea is gathering steam, and I have been asked by several friends and colleagues to sign a petition supporting this new cabinet position. I decline.

The idea seems to have been advanced by well-meaning people, notably Quincy Jones, who believe that the creation of the post of Secretary of the Arts will somehow raise awareness of the importance of the arts. But other than the pure symbolism of elevating the arts to cabinet status, what is the purpose of a new cabinet position and what would be the government’s role?

The cabinet is not a collection of lobbyists. It is comprised of the heads of agencies and certain administrative offices, each with a mandate to further certain policies of the United States. These cabinet posts were not created to make a statement about what we think is important. The Secretary of Defense exists to manage the United States Military, not to advocate militarism. The Secretary of State is charged with conducting diplomacy, not simply reminding us to be diplomatic.

A cabinet position is not about symbolism, but power. Government agencies have rule-making authority. Agency rules have the force of law and are given great deference by the courts. In order to justify a position pertaining to the arts, Congress would necessarily create an agency and give it a mandate. What purpose would Congress espouse, and what rules would a Department of the Arts make?

Rules affecting the content of arts would likely run afoul of the First Amendment. The new agency might well venture into the funding of the arts, but that is already being done by NEA and NEH. Would it be a grand curator? The United States already boasts the largest repository of artistic creations in the world, The Library of Congress. Any new agency, unless it is totally ineffectual, would have some effect on commerce in the arts and would necessarily boost some artistic efforts while placing others at a relative disadvantage.

One advocate suggests that we need to bring our various artistic and cultural agencies under one umbrella – the NEA, NEH, Library of Congress, Copyright Office, etc. Other countries, he says, have ministers of culture, and we have nothing equivalent. So? Centralization may be prevalent in other countries, but is it better and is it appropriate for the United States? David Smith makes the counterargument that one of America’s greatest cultural strengths is, in fact, its decentralization.

Our artistic heritage is very much a product of our political and geographical history. It was not created under any centralized process, and I don’t see anyone making a coherent argument that either preserving what we have or creating something new would be better accomplished under some central authority.

Art reflects its patronage, whether the patron is the early church, the courts of Louis XIV or Frederick the Great, or the NEA. It responds to historical events. The harpsichord fell from favor as the guillotine fell on its owners’ necks. The individualism of the Romantic era did much to break the bonds of institutional patronage, and America came of age in this same spirit of individualism.

The cultural richness of American art owes much to decentralization. Cities like New Orleans, San Francisco, San Antonio, and Nashville revel in local arts that could never have been created with a central office overseeing things. Our art reflects the migration of new ethnic groups in distinct regions. The pioneers moving west took the bare necessities in their small wagons, which usually meant sacrificing the piano. The instruments of American music tend to be portable.

The greatest influence on American music over the past century has been a scientific one – our growing ability to reproduce, preserve, distribute, and commercialize it. We made an unfortunate transition from a music-producing society to a music-consuming one. Our latest great patron was the entertainment industry, the gatekeepers of commercial success, under which music was canned and distributed efficiently but without much concern for aesthetics. The industry is now undergoing catastrophic change as previously unfranchised individuals find it much less expensive to produce and distribute music on their own, and we seem to be entering a far more diverse and democratic era in music and film.

So this seems like a curious time to call for a national “czar” for the arts. Government is ponderous, not creative. It can patronize, but it cannot create, and what it patronizes, it owns and controls.

American art is like Americans – freewheeling, frequently brash and bumptious, revolutionary and democratic in the best sense. We attempt to coral it at our peril.

Any new agency can be expected to go the way of all bureaucracies. It will be populated initially with a combination of artistic luminaries and hacks, and we can be sure the hacks will take over in short order. The agency will become sclerotic and dysfunctional.

And so, if this proposal for Secretary of the Arts wins out, it will be a very enfeebled art, an art unmoored from its American uniqueness, that sits at the cabinet table a few feet down from the Oval Office.

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{ 1 comment }

Perry Rossi January 28, 2009 at 8-6:07 am

Fantastically thorough retort of the suggestion of instituting an American Secretary of the Arts. This clearly addresses the concerns of artists which would drive this suggestion, and plays out why this is not what we are looking for, from all angles.

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