Saturday, January 10, 2009

Secretary of the Arts

by Geoffrey M. Kam

"A nation in which artistic excellence is celebrated, supported, and available to all Americans."

--Vision Statement of the National Endowment for the Arts.
. . .
"[S]everal weeks ago, I began to receive a number of letters, phone calls, and postcards from constituents throughout the Senate concerning art work by Andres Serrano. They express a feeling of shock, of outrage, and anger.

They said, "How dare you spend our taxpayers' money on this trash." They all objected to taxpayers' money being used for a piece of so-called art work which, to be quite candid, I am somewhat reluctant to utter its title. This so-called piece of art is a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity. The art work in question is a photograph of the crucifix submerged in the artist's urine.

This artist received $15,000 for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts."

--Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-NY) in the May 18, 1989, Congressional Record
. . .
I got an interesting e-mail this morning:

Subject: Petition to Obama for a Secretary of the Arts

I just received this from a friend in NYC and think that it is important to pass along. Please, please sign this petition. At the very least, you can feel good about some effort to be heard. O.K.
Quincy Jones has started a petition to ask President-Elect Obama to appoint a Secretary of the Arts. While many other countries have had Ministers of Art or Culture for centuries, The United States has never created such a position. We in the arts need this and the country needs the arts--now more than ever. Please take a moment to sign this important petition and then pass it on to your friends and colleagues.

I was intrigued for two reasons. First, because I had not realized how unusual it was for the United States to not have a Secretary of the Arts. And second, because I wondered whether protecting the national heritage of a country and promoting cultural and artistic expression are important government concerns on a par with, for example, maintaining streets and sewers. Many other countries think so (see, for example, this list). And, for that matter, in Hawaii we have the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the City and County of Honolulu's Mayor's Office of Culture & the Arts.

At the Federal level, there is the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, which includes the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA is an independent agency, not attached to any particular department or office. It is perhaps best known for the controversy over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," in which detractors questioned the grant of $15,000 of taxpayer money to fund a work which many found patently offensive. (Here's a link to wikipedia's version of the matter; if you're sensitive, or think you might be, don't click it.) While we may support broad governmental support for the arts, does that general support at some level translate into support of specific artists, and, if so, are we willing to accept the possibility that our tax dollars are used to fund things that we think are of no merit whatsoever. Or, circling back to my original thought, should government fund art/artists at all?

The NEA's vision statement (quoted above) and its slogan, "A great nation deserves great art," are aspirational, but should the United States make arts and culture a cabinet level priority? Quincy Jones' suggestion that it should prompted an on-line petition drive. From Jones' website:
"During his travels Quincy has observed that people in other countries seem to have greater appreciation for American music than Americans. He hopes the creation of a secretary of the arts in the U.S. will help preserve American music and other U.S. arts and ensure that they remain a vital part of our schools’ curriculum."
Here's video of a subsequent interview: Quincy Jones on

As I write this, the petition has 42,861 signatures. For those interested in signing, here's the link: Note that you can add comments to your e-signature.

(All views expressed herein (to the extent that there even are any views expressed herein) are the author's and are not those of the AHA. The author would love to have a lot of responses and comments to this post and welcomes and invites the discussion.)

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