25 January 2009

A Secretary of the Arts?

I know that quite a few of my fellows and friends in the theatre community are quite excited about the prospect of the President appointing a Secretary of the Arts. There is a petition online for people to sign with the hope that enough people can persuade the President to create a cabinet-level post for a Secretary of Art. However, it's a prospect that is far from certain; President Obama has far more important matters to attend to.

I haven't felt the need to speak out on this subject myself. I should probably keep my fool mouth shut on the matter. As this touches on an area near and dear to me, I feel that I must throw my two cents out there for the seven people who read this blog to consider. (Hi, mom!)

I do not think President Obama should appoint a Secretary of the Arts.

Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
-- JFK (emphasis added)

I place a high value on art. It borders on religious expression for me, as many of my past collaborators may attest. I don't expect art to change the world, but I have known it to change the lives of individuals, if only for the moment. I know that in my own life, the right song at the right moment has roused me from the depths of depression. Whenever I feel washed-out emotionally and physically a trip to the Getty Museum recharges my batteries.

I found the above quote from President Kennedy in the body of a speech entitled "The Separation of Art and State." This speech was delivered by David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute to the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts in 1995. It sums up my feelings on the matter of a "Secretary of the Arts" with near perfection. Actually, the title sums it up nicely.

Imagine for a moment that someone were proposing a Secretary of the News Media or Secretary of Peaceable Assemblage. It's a no-brainer, right? Freedom of expression, as well as the freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble is guaranteed by the first amendment. Why would we want to petition for bureaucratic centralization of the Arts? There is a quote from the above mentioned speech that speaks to this very issue. It's kind of long, but worth the read:

The latest newsletter from People for the American Way identifies a lot of threats to free expression. Some involve an actual assault on private actions--such as censorship of the Internet, a ban on flag-burning, a denial of tax exemption to groups that support ideas some congressman doesn't like--and fortunately the First Amendment will protect us from most of these. But most of them involve restrictions on the way government funds can be used. Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger, now a member of the Clinton White House, warned recently that such rules are "especially alarming in light of the growing role of government as subsidizer, landlord, employer and patron of the arts."

Keep in mind that this speech is concerned primarily with the National Endowment for the Arts, and was delivered during the Clinton presidency -- a very arts-friendly administration! Multiply this scenario by an executive department on par with the Department of the Treasury, the Justice Department, the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce ... are you beginning to see the problem?

Bureaucracies must create work for themselves to justify their very existence. This means regulation. Don't get me wrong, some regulations are good. Protect the little guy against entrenched power -- please! I'm that little guy. But I also believe, "That government is best which governs least." In short, if they don't regulate it, they can't take it away. Fewer cages means more freedom, plain and simple.

"But this is the Obama administration," you may say. "President Obama would never allow something so diabolical as regulation of the arts to occur!" True, but Obama will only serve at most eight years in office. Are you willing to run the risk that the next president won't regulate the arts? What if the country swings hard-right and elects a Pat Buchanan? What if it swings hard-left and elects a Tipper Gore?

So that's worse case scenario: a government agency which regulates art. It's not the likeliest scenario. But how likely was it that torture would become a sanctioned approach to interrogation?

It is not lost on me that the appointment of a Secretary of the Arts would be a largely symbolic gesture. Why in God's name should we pay $193,400 a year for the highly symbolic job of Secretary of Art? And that's just the salary for a cabinet-level position. It does not include the expenses of such an office, including the staff and overheard. It would certainly cost more than the budget of the NEA, which will top out at just over $144 million this year. The Department of Education is the smallest cabinet-level department, and it has an annual budget of nearly $69 billion. You can figure a Department of the Arts would have a budget somewhere between those two numbers, which would be a lot to pay for symbolism.

This is a matter of politics, and I understand how passionately people may feel about this. I am open to differences of opinion, and would be happy to hear other points of view.