[JPL] OPINION: IN THE FRAY An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts

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http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123274950159811407.html

OPINION: IN THE FRAY

JANUARY 23, 2009, 10:06 P.M. ET

An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts
Why a cabinet-level czar wouldn't help them

By DAVID A. SMITH

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.

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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