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Obama and the Arts

Do we really need -- or want -- a Ministry of Culture?



What the heck is culture anyway? It's a slippery term referring to anything from yogurt to blue fuzzy stuff in Petri dishes to hip hop to classical music. So when Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun stated that "One of the best ways to promote and preserve the cultural health of this country would be to give the arts Cabinet-level status," it begs the question, what is culture, and how can a Secretary for the Arts preserve it?

The whole thing started with a post-election interview with Quincy Jones on WNYC's Soundcheck. Jones stated that, "one of the first conversations I'll have with President Obama, is to beg for a Secretary of the Arts." This was picked up by Jaime Austria of the New York City Opera, who started an online petition in support of this idea. When I first looked at the site there were over 80,000 signatures. That was a week ago. Now, as I finish up this article to send it in, that number has more than doubled. Undoubtedly, it will be over 200,000 by the time you look it up (

The question that comes to my mind is, what exactly would a Secretary of the Arts do? On Dec. 27, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Ferris wrote in an Op-ed piece in the New York Times of his first hand experience with the many federal cultural programs which, while all worthy, can sometimes conflict with each other. "A secretary of culture," he states, would "... provide more cohesive leadership for these impressive programs and assure that they receive the recognition and financing they deserve."

Of course, you come up against the very real problem of deciding what is worthy and what isn't. Whose culture? The culture of Hispanic kids in barrios? The culture of the Appalachians? The culture of SoHo in New York? Humboldt culture, whatever that might be? Perhaps it is to be the culture of all of us, in our overwhelming diversity, but not all of us would agree on what qualifies as culture and what does not. As one person responded to Tim Smith's web posting, "People who want art and music and poetry pay for it. Don't force the rest of us to spend our hard-earned money on sculptures made of urine and huge copper ducks outside of a government building."

The fact that the United States does not have a Minister of Culture or Art is often blamed for the fact that we, as a country, do not value or support the arts as much as we should. Americans tend not to make the connection between artistic expression (a woo-woo, esoteric practice of a handful of odd people wearing dark, grungy clothing and making sculptures out of urine) and freedom of speech (a cherished American right). I try to remind Americans that Hitler and Mao Zedong (among others) used the position of the Minister of the Culture to promote their agenda while ridiculing and suppressing art that expressed dissenting views. That the tyrants of the world recognize and hoard the power of artistic expression is, I believe, a compelling argument for the need to support it.

However, that may also be the strongest argument against the initiation of a cabinet position in our country: the fact that it can be abused. Rugged individualists that we are, many artists would be opposed to the idea of such a position because of the possible negative effects of centralizing support for the arts. Last week, I e-mailed several people chosen more or less at random to ask their thoughts on the matter, and found that hesitation in the responses received. JoAnne Berke is the Art Department Chair and professor of Art Education at HSU. "I think it's a great idea to have a Secretary of the Arts, as long as this office doesn't get bogged down in governmental ineptitude," she states. She also asks: "Can the arts receive support and still maintain the autonomy and freedom artists need to create?" However, she also sees the potential for the position. "We need a spokesperson for the arts that can advocate and educate our nation about the importance of the arts, historically, culturally, economically and spiritually," she says.

Joseph Wilhelm, curator and founder of Meridian Fine Art Gallery and the Umpqua Community Gallery, has similar concerns. While he's in favor of the idea in its ideal, he's not so sure about it if "... such a mechanism had a controlling grip on defining art and what deserved support from the far arm of Washington without regard to community standards and needs."

Others were more wholehearted in their support. Steven Vander Meer is a local artist who makes fine art rubber stamps and hand drawn animation work that he shows at film festivals. "My gut reaction to this is 'sounds good, where do I sign?'" he replied, offering a concrete example of the benefits. "As I compile my list of film festivals that I want to enter, I keep hearing how festivals in other countries (usually European) will actually fly you over and put you up if your film gets in. Most festivals in the U.S. could not even begin to afford that, the difference being that [other] governments [have] more support for the arts."

Don Anton is a professor of art at HSU who can always be counted on for poetry and drama. He puts his thoughts this way: "Without map or rudder, one finds themselves at times in need of a guide, a lighthouse to guide the way. This is how I see this position. It's funny, but so many of us believe it is not necessary until the seas have swelled and we see where a single light can lead."

I realize, of course, that my survey was limited, and certainly does not include all of the possible positions on the question. I still haven't made up my own mind, and I welcome any comments readers might have on the topic. You can even take part in a poll at my blog,

I think most would agree that the arts should be supported, but how best to do that is what is at issue. Americans have always been cagey about leaders from on high telling us what to do, but our current system of disparate entities can make it a real struggle for small organizations to get going. It's survival of the artistic fittest. Does that leave us just with a bunch of artistic bullies?


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