Obama: “Cultural Shift from the Top”?

A number of arts advocacy groups across the United States believe that the incoming Obama administration possesses an innovative government plan for the arts. In part this is based upon the fact that the Obama campaign publicly released its “Platform In Support Of The Arts” nearly a year before the national elections. Conversely the McCain campaign made public its arts platform – a four sentence long document – just 33 days before the elections. However, a number of questions are raised by a close reading of the Obama arts platform, not the least of which involves the uncertainty that any of it will actually be implemented. Maintaining the occupation of Iraq and escalating the war in Afghanistan will be costly propositions for the new administration, and coupled with what the incoming President himself has called “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression”, it seems unlikely the arts will be anything but a low priority.

The Los Angeles based arts advocacy group, Arts For LA!, represents a good case in point when it comes to overly optimistic Obama supporters. In the organization’s December 9, 2008 newsletter, under the heading of a “Cultural Shift from the Top“, it was excitedly noted that; “Last Sunday on Meet the Press, President-elect Obama spoke about his plans to address the country’s economic crisis, foreign policy, tax cuts, and his intention to ‘open the White House up to inspire innovation and imagination.’ He wants to remind people that ‘the White House is the people’s house.’ He also intends to host poets, artists and musicians because ‘art, culture, science is the essence of what makes America special.'”

Arts For LA! should be reminded that “The People’s House” is a colloquial term that has long referred to the White House. What is more, the conservative administrations of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush have all spoken of the White House as “The People’s House”, so the designation as used by Mr. Obama does not necessarily indicate a new, groundbreaking stance. While the Bush administration represented the most retrograde policies, it cynically understood the arts as part of state craft. In 2006 the first lady launched the Bush State Department’s, Global Cultural Initiative (GCI), a well financed program of international cultural exchanges backed by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Film Institute, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. GCI is the type of arts program that Mr. Obama may well feel comfortable maintaining and expanding; which would represent yet another instance of outright continuity with the Bush administration.

Tom Brokaw conducted the Meet the Press interview with the President-elect, and the brief dialog concerning cultural matters that Arts For LA! found so stirring follows in its entirety (from the official transcript);

MR. BROKAW: “Who are the kinds of artists that you would like to bring to the White House?”

PRES.-ELECT OBAMA: “Thinking about the diversity of our culture and, and inviting jazz musicians and classical musicians and poetry readings in the White House so that, once again, we appreciate this incredible tapestry that’s America. I – you know, that, I think, is, is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we’re going through hard times. And, historically, what has always brought us through hard times is that national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward, that, that sense that better days are ahead. I think that our art and our culture, our science, you know, that’s the essence of what makes America special, and, and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House.”

Inviting artists to perform at the White House does not sound like a government arts program – not by a long shot; and Mr. Obama’s remark about how “our art and culture” represents the “essence of what makes America special” is facile rhetoric utilized by every politician no matter what their party affiliation.

In Dec. 2007 President Bush signed an appropriations bill that provided $144.7 million for the National Endowment for the Arts for fiscal year 2008. It was the largest funding increase for the NEA in 28 years. Does Mr. Obama intend to increase that expenditure? He has stated that he “supports increased funding for the NEA”, but by how much? The highest level of funding for the NEA came during the George H.W. Bush years in 1992 – $175.9 million. Will Obama top that allocation? Will he work towards reinstating NEA grants for individual artists? – a program that was terminated under President Clinton’s tenure in 1994 due to attacks from the right wing. Rather than eagerly awaiting the next pronouncement from Obama, the arts community should be organizing itself to make specific demands upon the incoming administration.

Laura Zucker of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, wrote a guest column for Arts For LA! on the subject of the arts in hard economic times. In the opening paragraph of her article titled, “Can the arts weather the recession tsunami?” Ms. Zucker wrote; “Every challenge presents new opportunities. Or as Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Obama’s new chief of staff, said in an interview recently, ‘Rule One: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.'”

Whether she is in Rahm’s camp or speaks solely out of political naïveté, Ms. Zucker’s citation of Obama’s chief of staff is revealing. Since Ms. Zucker choose to bring up Rahm Emanuel, allow me to point out a few facts about his career. Emanuel was Obama’s first appointee, a pick that raised eyebrows among progressives given that Emanuel was a leading member of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) – a grouping within the Democratic Party known by critics as the “Republican Wing of the Democratic Party.” Rahm not only backed the congressional resolution that authorized military force against Iraq, he supported the 2003 invasion of that country. In a January 2005 interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, Rahm said that if he could do it all over again, he would still back an invasion of Iraq – even knowing that the country possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, Rahm worked to keep anti-Iraq-war candidates off the Democratic slate. His belligerent attitude and right-wing stance on foreign policy matters has earned him the nickname of “Rahm-bo.” A Nov 5, 2008 report from Reuters quoted Republican strategist John Feehery, rather gleefully declaring that Rahm “is going to spend most of his time cracking Democratic heads, getting them to move from the left to the middle. Mr. Obama is going to need a bad cop to his good cop. Mr. Emanuel fills that role nicely.” That same Reuters article quoted Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner, commenting that Rahm was “an ironic and controversial choice, to say the least, for a presidential candidate running on a promise to change Washington.”

If the remark made about Emanuel in the Arts For LA! column seemed a bit incongruous, at least Ms. Zucker had the where-with-all to broach the subject of the depression era Works Progress Administration (WPA), and how we are in need of such a program today. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the WPA in 1935, providing relief to over 8 million jobless Americans. A large portion of WPA funding went to painters, writers, actors, musicians, and directors, who were put to work on projects that enhanced the cultural heritage of the nation. But Zucker’s comment seems excessively optimistic;

“On the federal front, as discussions about big construction projects to generate jobs and stimulate the economy becomes (sic) a real strategy, let’s not forget the tremendous legacy of arts projects created through the WPA projects of the depression. How about including a mega-investment in the arts this time around as well?”

While I certainly welcome a WPA-style “mega-investment in the arts” providing work for thousands of artists in communities across the U.S., I am at a loss to think of a single reason why Obama would support such a program. At present he is under absolutely no political pressure to do so, and in any event his centrist predilections seem to bar such a contingency. If he were to mount an effort at massive arts spending, I can imagine the organized right blocking his every attempt at implementing the policy for multiple reasons, and with his striving for a bipartisan approach to governance, it seems unlikely he would take a combative stance. At any rate, Obama’s “Platform In Support Of The Arts” appears to be little more than a mix of volunteerism, corporate sponsorship, and a minimal amount of government spending. If we are to have a “mega-investment in the arts”, it will only come about because the arts community and its allies apply unrelenting and effective pressure on the upcoming Obama administration.

To a large degree Roosevelt created the WPA in response to a mass-movement of workers, a situation Obama does not (yet) face. The economic collapse in the 1930s was so severe that it presented nothing less than the preconditions for revolt. Bands of organized looters stealing food became a nation-wide occurrence. “Unemployed Councils” provided direct material aid to tens of thousands of the unemployed, organizing them to fight for government relief, resist forced evictions and carry out rent strikes. By 1934 a huge wave of labor militancy had swept the nation, with strikes by hundreds of thousands of workers taking place from coast to coast. The circumstances described here only in part, forced FDR to implement massive emergency relief projects, including the Federal Art Project, which created over 5,000 jobs for artists.

For artists there are a great many parallels – and differences – to be found when comparing the Great Depression to our present situation, topics I will continue to examine on this web log. Currently there are very high expectations of changes taking place in our society, and when that frame of mind is shared by millions, societal transformation is close at hand. But individual leaders are not to be relied upon. Millions of people in motion are the engine of history – that is the only force capable of bringing about real change.