In the half century since its founding, the National Endowment for the Arts has been an island of creativity in an ocean of indifference. Even President Obama took more than a year to nominate the estimable Jane Chu as the NEA’s next chair. If confirmed, Dr. Chu will be the latest in a baker’s dozen of American arts czars since 1965. But the sea is rising around her, and the beach is eroding at an alarming rate.
In today’s movie theaters, George Clooney and Matt Damon may be saving the world’s art treasures from the Nazis, but in Washington we’re still arguing over Big Bird vs. Bad Art.
Welcome aboard Jane. I don’t envy your task.
By the time we pull out of Afghanistan later this year we will have scrapped, destroyed or left behind $7 billion worth of taxpayer-funded military vehicles and equipment — in less than one year.
Think about that for a second. Half a world away, over the next nine months, America will dump into some desert hole — voluntarily and largely without debate — literally billions more tax dollars than the total amount of money the NEA has spent in the last 50 years.
Out here in the hinterlands, we have become very clever and practiced in the art of couching our cultural advocacy in the language du jour. You know what I’m talking about: “economic development,” “community revitalization” and my personal favorite, “R.O.I. (return on investment).” Nobody bothers to ask about the R.O.I. on $7 billion worth of equipment that we’re handing over to Afghan President Hamid Karzai as we hightail it out of his country. But I digress.
One of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary films is called “The Square.” It’s a fascinating account of a revolution that began in the heart of Cairo and resulted in the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This Egyptian-made film is banned in Egypt.
A few weeks ago in Sochi, during the Olympics, the Pussy Riot punk group gave an impromptu public performance -- one that probably would have gone unnoticed in Times Square. In Russia, however, six group members — five women and one man — were horsewhipped and pepper sprayed in broad daylight by Cossack militia.
Because artists speak truth directly to our hearts and souls, they are under relentless assault around the world. Truth-tellers are the most vulnerable and yet the most essential members of any society. Their unique gift as artists is to remind us of our common humanity. With every note, brushstroke, word or gesture, they transcend all artificial barriers of nationality, race and religion.
doubling down on the artist as truth-teller is the single most important thing the NEA can and should be doing.
The NEA was originally established in America to “encourage and assist artists and enable them to achieve wider distribution of their works.” As arts advocates, we are quick to celebrate the individual artist as both creator of beauty and catalyst for community development. We readily acknowledge their work as both food for the soul and fuel for the economy.
But in today’s America — where the loudest voices with the deepest pockets dominate most discussions, and fear of retribution leaves too many citizens with no place to turn — doubling down on the artist as truth-teller is the single most important thing the NEA can and should be doing.
In a speech to students at Amherst College two years before the NEA was even created, and only one month before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy gave us perhaps the most cogent rationale for a robust national arts agency in any democracy:
"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 ... But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may."
Truth as a return on investment? That's good enough for me.