Feb
07

Will Act for Food

This article appeared in Newsweek Jan 10th, 2009 and was written by Jeremy McCarter. Thanks James Wilney for passing it along. If you care about the arts, this article is a must read. It speaks to so many of the issues shared here on ETA. After you have read it, please go to the post US Senate Cut Arts Stimulus Support and send off your letter to your senator. It will take you two minutes.
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Since election day, pundits have exhausted themselves trying to locate every last reason for Barack Obama’s win. But the fine-tooth combing has missed something—or, rather, someone: Walt Whitman. Nobody has pointed out that Obama shares his victory with the generations of writers and musicians and painters in the fervently democratic tradition that descends from our national poet.

To understand how the arts prepared the way for Obama, we first need to clarify what it means when people (including the president-elect) say that “only in America” could his story be possible. That can’t be a statement about law or politics, since the election of someone with Obama’s unconventional background is technically possible in plenty of democracies. It’s really a statement about our national imagination: only in America could a majority of voters see a person who is so unlike them—a black man who has an African father, a mother from Kansas, an international childhood, a name packed with vowels—as a fellow citizen who’s capable of leading them. And where did we Americans learn to be so uniquely broad-minded? In large part, from our artists.

Since Ralph Waldo Emerson issued his call for homegrown American creativity 130 years ago, and Whitman answered him with the all-embracing poems that helped shape the psyche of our polyglot young democracy, the arts have offered the various tribes of this country some of our best chances to know ourselves and one another, and to see the pleasures and pain of our interactions more clearly: think of what we’ve learned from Huck and Jim, “Invisible Man,” Alvin Ailey’s dances, “Angels in America,” the blues. Better yet, try to imagine how we’d relate to one another without them.

This isn’t to say the pressure from our artists has been steady or even all in one direction: important strains in our cultural legacy haven’t exactly blazed a new trail of multicultural understanding; others have propagated a gruesome number of demeaning racial and ethnic stereotypes. But at their best, our great artists have achieved in their work the kind of harmony that so often eludes us in life, firing our imaginations with advance glimpses of the more perfect union that the Founders envisioned but made only limited progress in achieving. We know, for instance, that in America, blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, highbrows and regular folk should all coexist in peace. Even if we’re still not sure how that union will look, the catchall beauty of “Rhapsody in Blue” tells us how it sounds.

Serenaded by the cross-pollinating strains of hip-hop and salsa, polka and jazz, the most vibrant stream of our culture has been slowly, fitfully molding us into what Randolph Bourne called “trans-national America.” In his landmark 1916 essay, the great cultural critic grasped that we were not, and should not try to be, a homogeneous nation with a single shared heritage, as in the Old World. We are instead becoming a people among whom even someone as category-defying as Barack Obama can feel at home: “a nation of nations” in which a “spiritual welding” among men and women of diverse traditions will make us “not weaker, but infinitely strong.” An America this generous and accepting—this absorbent—is the one for which Martin Luther King and the other heroes of the civil-rights struggle fought and bled and died. And only an America that has made real progress toward those ideals could dream of making the presidential choice we’ve just made.

Cultural issues, which aren’t a top priority for new administrations even in the best of times, will have trouble climbing very high on the Obama agenda. But in light of what this election has helped us to understand about the potency of the arts in our national life, the new president would be wasting a glorious opportunity if he failed to give them his attention. Partly it’s because the overlapping crises we face at the moment give him a rare chance to dream big. Partly, too, his singular story gives him a unique ability to make connections among people that might change the way we think about culture. But it’s also a question of his larger vision for society, which the arts could help him to realize. If he treats them wisely, he might foster a climate for creativity as unprecedented as his election.

Though Obama hasn’t made any arts or humanities appointments yet, he has signaled that he regards culture seriously. During the campaign, he took the unprecedented step of forming an Arts Policy Committee, which produced a thorough list of policy objectives. (Rare are the campaigns that can boast a statement of principles drafted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—in this case, Michael Chabon.)

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