As mentioned here a few days ago, there’s a petition going around, now up to nearly 200,000 signatures, advocating that the United States create a Cabinet-level position in charge of the arts and culture industries. This “Secretary of the Arts” would….well, I’m not exactly sure what it would do, but the main idea is to create a more robust infrastructure for the field in government and combine it with more high-profile advocacy for and public support of the arts. Surprisingly, though, there are a number of prominent people in the arts who want nothing to do with a new cabinet-level position, and no arts policy topic has inspired as much debate and newspaper ink as any other I can remember in the brief time I’ve been following such things.
Here are some of those in favor of an Arts Secretary position:
- Matthew Guerrieri of Soho the Dog (from comments):
It’s not necessarily a bigger bureaucracy, just one on a higher level of the pecking order. And what makes you think that such a department would “police” artistic expression any more than the market already does? The censorship in the “NEA Four” days came from Congress, not from within the NEA. And it came because the NEA was an easy target. There’s a reason Congress doesn’t gang up on, say, the Department of Commerce that way.
Here’s another concrete example: if there had been a cabinet-level advocate for the arts, No Child Left Behind probably wouldn’t have gone through without at least a consideration of how much it screws over arts education.
(See also this post from 2006.)
- William R. Ferris:
But as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1997 to 2001, I learned firsthand that these institutions, though united by a shared goal, can sometimes run into conflict with one another. There were bureaucratic tangles, overlaps and missteps that, with foresight, could have been avoided.Which is why I believe the president should create a cabinet-level position — a secretary of culture — to provide more cohesive leadership for these impressive programs and to assure that they receive the recognition and financing they deserve.
- Quincy Jones:
Jones, who has been promoting the idea for at least 10 years by his count, said yesterday that he has specific responsibilities in mind for the office. He wants an education system that teaches the history and personalities of the arts, particularly music. “I have traveled all over the world all the time for 54 years. The people abroad know more about our culture than we do,” he said.
- The 23% of NPAC attendees who voted for “Create a Department of Culture/Cabinet-level position which is responsible for implementing a national arts policy” as their top strategy to communicate the value of the arts on a national level
Then there are those in the camp of appointing a National Advisor or some other high-level administration official whose job would be to coordinate arts themes across various agencies, but without bringing those agencies under his or her control. Adherents include:
- Isaac Butler (though he kind of equivocates on Cabinet or not-Cabinet):
There are people out there (including myself) already trying to find ways to creatively conceptualize and agitate for integrating the arts throughout the Federal Government. What we don’t have is someone organizing this and making it work in a comprehensive fashion, we don’t have someone coordinating arts policy across the federal government. Someone who does things like set arts policy and help coordinate (for example) comprehensive arts education with DOE. We need someone to do those things.
That person does not necessarily need to be a Cabinet Officer.
- Tyler Green:
The nation would benefit if Congress and the White House created a new office for a White House arts adviser, a humanities-driven sister-office to the White House science adviser. Increasingly policy is made in the White House and not at cabinet-level agencies, which generally administer policy. Putting a federal arts adviser in the West Wing would ensure that the arts is a part of many White House policy, not a frivolous, forgettable island unto itself….Just as science has an impact on most Cabinet-level departments and other agencies, many executive branch entities have cultural issues within their purview. (This is a reason why an arts-specific cabinet department is the wrong solution.)
- Americans for the Arts advocates a “senior-level administration official with an arts portfolio”:
The president should name a senior-level administration official in the Executive Office of the President to coordinate arts and cultural policy, guiding initiatives from federal agencies responsible for tourism, education, economic development, cultural exchange, intellectual property policy, broadband access, and other arts-related areas.
And finally, we have Team Nuh-Uh. These folks believe that a Secretary of the Arts position is a disaster waiting to happen:
- Jeremy McCarter:
Quincy Jones has said in recent interviews that he wants Obama to appoint a secretary of the arts, and last month a dozen-plus arts organizations issued a joint statement making a similar call for a new “senior-level administration official.” It’s true that the United States is rare in not having a minister of culture, but a cabinet-level post is still a bad idea. For one thing, it’s just asking for some Republican administration to kill it—or, worse yet, to bend it to the right’s own wishes. Better to leave the cultural programs safely decentralized in many hands.
- Drew McManus:
For an incoming administration that recently appointed a chief performance officer (CPO) with a mandate Bloomberg reported as “scour[ing] the budget, wring inefficiencies out of federal programs and establish more accountability in government,” it seems creating a new White House level office dedicated to arts issues may inadvertently reduce cumulative Federal arts spending. Assuming the government’s new chief performance officer is as capable as she seems, it won’t take very long for her office to uncover redundancies in spending programs between the new White House Arts Office and the National Endowment for the Arts.
- David Smith, Professor of History at Baylor University in Waco, TX (quoted on NPR):
Maybe the greatest thing about the arts in America is their decentralized nature, and I think the perception would be detrimental to that decentralized vibrancy if you wound up with something as ponderous as a Department of Culture and a Secretary of Culture.
(UPDATE: Smith has an op-ed in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal expounding on his argument.)
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.
- Not surprisingly, Reason Magazine is not a fan either:
What an absurdly stupid idea! Is the U.S. suffering from a lack of artistic production? Not enough movies, popular music, dance troupes, community theatre productions, books published, operas, and so forth?
So what’s my take? For the record, I do see some merit in the concerns of the naysayers, particularly in the notion that it would be very easy for the benefits of a Cabinet-level position to be neutered or even corrupted later on down the line by an administration that was less friendly to the arts than the current one.
Despite my concerns, earlier this week I went to petitiononline.com and I added my name to the list of supporters. I think you should too. Here’s why:
- I am not one to pooh-pooh the symbolic significance that a Cabinet-level position would have for national recognition of, and yes, pride in the arts, and this moment in history seems like the best opportunity we’ll have in a while (arts-friendly administration + sense of urgency about change) to convince those in power to recognize the arts in a big way.
- More importantly, though, even if there were to materialize a significant movement around creating a Secretary for the Arts position, I very much doubt it would happen in Obama’s first year — or anytime soon after that. Creating a new Cabinet position is not something that just happens; it would require an Act of Congress, which means it would generate some significant debate from both sides of the aisle. Given that one of the prime motivators for establishing the department seems to be a lack of championship from inside government, I’m not sure exactly where people think the support that will be needed to establish a whole new Cabinet post is going to come from.
- What pushing the Cabinet position idea does do, then, is move the Overton window on the concept of federal support for the arts closer to our side. The Overton window is a theme oft-mentioned on political websites like Daily Kos, many of whose members believe that their role in the political discussion is to make progressive policies previously deemed radical seen as acceptable, and previously acceptable ideas sound sensible. They do this by centering discussion on the extreme; by making a lot of noise about the dream scenario, so that the compromise that is their actual target is more likely to happen. This is what skilled negotiators do: they anchor high so that there’s room to come down to where they actually want to be. By moving the Overton window on government support for the arts, we might not get a Cabinet position out of it. But we might get that federal advisor position. We might get a significant increase in NEA funding. We might lay the groundwork for a future Cabinet post that manages the arts along with other creative industries like film, software, and video games. All of these would be good things–perhaps better, even, than a Secretary of the Arts.
So, team, I say let’s move the Overton window a little to our side. The more noise we make, the more they know we’re out there and that we care. Quincy knows what he’s doing.