Jan
26

Funny How Narrow Thinking About The Arts Leads to More Narrow Thinking

This article written by David Smith, in my opinion, is rather small and narrow in thinking. Not unlike most of the world (for the moment), David Smith is failing to think about the potency and true capacity of the arts as a tool to help the world in many new ways. What is disturbing is that as senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University, and the author of “Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy” (Ivan R. Dee), you would hope that David Smith might himself be a bit more actively engaged in innovative thinking. (Then again as a history expert can we expect him to be?)

As a society we need to embrace a fundamental and important shift in our thinking about the meaning of art and what value it holds as a potent underutilized resource. Think underutilized David Smith and you might begin to think bigger and be able to see that the arts suffer from desperately needing the care and concern of someone like Quincy Jones to convince an already “for the arts” President Obama to carve out a future for the arts that is all about BIG PICTURE thinking.

Step one to accomplish this, Mr. Smith, is to put the arts center stage in a cabinet position. By doing so the world will explicitly understand that the arts are going to become an integral part of the world and that they just might hold keys to improving our economy as well as how we manage defense. This is how you begin a new conversation on a new playing field for innovation though artistry.

Step two is to use that cabinet post to begin to integrate the arts into conversations where they presently are only being inserted into dialogue by the most elite organizations and branches of military via the Benjamin Zander’s, Linda Naiman’s, and John Cimino’s of the world. Let’s make sure that the work of these three individuals, who represent the work of say a dozen or so more like them around the country, is readily available to everyone to be used as an innovative tool to economic development and defense management. If it is good enough for Starbucks, The World Bank, American Express and The Social Security Administration, to name a few, then it should be good enough for government to embrace as a great new innovative idea to help others innovate and lead.

Through the inherent ability of the arts to act as a catalyst- a transformer of the mind- they bring, through active experiential involvement, new ideas, the ability to join parties to each other- where before there were no alliances- and to open up dialogue in new ways through their common human element. Here lies important resources that need to take root inside government and industries at large.

Start with the big picture and the small stuff we have been sweating over inside the arts will become easy to solve Mr. Smith. Show our world that the arts belong on the economic and military stage as a resource and once this begins to happen it will be an easy “no brainer” for educational systems to understand why they can NEVER EVER do without the arts inside the school day again.

Thank you Sandy Johnson for forwarding this article to me.

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An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts
Why a cabinet-level czar wouldn’t help them
By DAVID A. SMITH appeared in the Wall Street Journal January 23rd, 09

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.

ed-ai906_artcza_dv_20090122130549To 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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