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An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts

Why a Cabinet-level czar wouldn't help them

By David A. Smith
January 24, 2009

As the economy struggles, one inevitably hears more and more about the very real problems facing the arts. It seems that every time one opens the paper, there’s a new story about a museum having to cut its hours or a symphony canceling performances. New York’s Metropolitan Opera has seen its endowment fall by a third, and at institutions from Boston to San Francisco ticket sales and donations are down. The outlook is bleak almost everywhere.

But despite the severity of the troubles facing arts institutions, they’re nothing new. Nor is the call for a cabinet-level office for the arts. In 1952 the head of the American Federation of Musicians said that “the sad and declining estate” of the arts required nothing less than the establishment of a Federal Department of the Arts. Shortly after, screen legend Lillian Gish appeared before a star-struck Senate committee and all but demanded a Department of Fine Arts. The calls continued periodically, even after the National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965.
[arts czar] David Gothard

Renowned composer and producer Quincy Jones is the most recent artist to throw his support behind an effort of this nature starting back in November (though he claims he’s been in favor of it for 10 years), and his concerns—particularly about the state of arts education in the country—are well founded. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition requesting that President Obama create a cabinet-level post for arts and culture, apparently believing that such a step is the best way to arrest the decline of the arts in our broader culture. But this is simply not the case.

To oppose this post is not to oppose the National Endowment for the Arts or a government role in the culture of the nation. The arts are important, especially in a democracy. But it’s a fallacy to move from that idea to the prescription that all government arts policy should be centralized and placed within a cabinet-level Department of Culture.

The primary false assumption at play here is that more centralization is the best way for the government to address a problem and signify its importance. Accompanying this is the belief, stretching back to the Progressive Era early in the 20th century, that efficiency and better advocacy flow from such centralization.

Many will say (often in a testy voice) that the arts deserve a cabinet-level presence because they are just as important to the country as the Defense Department. While that’s something of an apples and oranges comparison, the deeper problem is that it assumes that the country’s defense and its arts can be furthered via the same sort of bureaucratic means. But while our nation’s defense would collapse in the absence of the centralized power of our Defense Department, having a Department of Culture—or even a “Cultural Czar,” to use that awful label we’ve apparently become so fond of—would be neither an effective nor necessary way to guarantee the health of cultural expression in America.

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.

Mr. Jones is spot on, however, when he laments the sorry state of arts education in the U.S., and it is true that the NEA is not the best means to address this problem. But the Department of Education should handle the matter if we seek a national remedy. Having a Department of Culture be responsible for advocating arts education would create the impression that the arts are less essential to becoming an educated American than are math, history and science, an idea I suspect far too many people already have. If Mr. Jones decides to direct his energies toward lobbying the Department of Education to make the arts an fundamental part of public education, I’ll gladly and enthusiastically join him in that effort.

Mr. Smith, a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University, is the author of “Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy” (Ivan R. Dee).

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