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Secretary of the Arts: Q Needs You

Quincy Jones, Secretary of the Arts?

At a time of financial bailout, mortgage crises, healthcare quandary, and rising unemployment, the upcoming inauguration still promises at least a short vacation from our national woes and a day to revel in feelings of hope and the promise of change. Despite the continuing fiscal drama, a bill has been submitted that calls for the creation of a Secretary of the Arts who, according to the job description, will increase knowledge of the arts on a national level and exposure of American artists on an international level. Musician, composer, and producer Quincy Jones [aka Q] wants you to sign a petition to urge soon-to-be-President Obama to appoint a cabinet-level Secretary of Arts. Would this ultimately elevate the arts in our society or would it just renew old controversies about artistic freedom?

The idea of a Secretary of the Arts has captured the imaginations of my people-art, dance, music, and other creative and expressive arts therapists-and artists, art educators, arts administrators, and others who have placed their hopes in a possible national focus on the arts. Last fall, a petition began to circulate after Quincy Jones stated on November 14th, 2008, that he intended to ask Barack Obama to establish this position in the cabinet. In case you missed it, you can click here to sign the online petition created by Jaime Austria in response to Q's appeal. And if you want to hear from Q himself, here is short clip of a recent interview:

It's hard to say if the intent of this petition is being taken seriously, although there are recent reports that the number of signers is approaching the 100,000 mark. The obvious and central arguments against the idea of a new cabinet position include the current state of the nation and the economic challenges that Barack Obama faces as he takes office. While detractors are amused by the idea of creating a "Department of Art," it is true that many states have demonstrated that there is a positive economic impact from investing in the arts [see Americans for the Arts]. Florida Department of State, for example, provides a well-known study that concludes economic spin-off in the billions annually and significant job creation and generation of personal income. While these figures come from pre-recession times, there are identifiable and definable financial benefits to growing the arts in communities.

For me, there is one niggling issue about any Federal plan for the arts: artistic freedom and

censorship. I was a young faculty member of an art department at a university in a conservative city when an exhibition of Andres Serrano's work, including the famous photograph of a crucifix in urine, spurred national controversy. Not long after a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe's work scheduled to open the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC was vociferously labeled as morally reprehensible trash. Senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D'Amato publicly denounced Serrano's work, followed by thirty-six other Senators who expressed their outrage to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) for providing funding to exhibits that they and their constituents deemed offensive. Suddenly, any Federal or state funding of the arts became suspect. As an artist-in-residence supported by state and Federal grants, I suddenly became conscious of what it meant to be an artist amid a culture war and what was at stake when artistic freedom was threatened.

So in a Department of the Arts, just whose definition of "art" would be used? As early as the 1920s, government funding and influence on the arts was questioned for this very reason. We now have a National Endowment for the Arts [NEA], but it has been under funded since at least 1994; the current budget equates to about 50 cents for each American citizen. Obama, in fact, presented a very detailed arts platform during his campaign [in contrast to McCain who offered none] and is a supporter of increasing arts education, possibly through the NEA and the Department of Education. This will be a major step forward for the arts in decades, if it is pulled off by the new administration.

So what's point of all this with regard to the healing arts? The idea of a Secretary or even a National Advisor on the arts is a hopeful notion for this nation, generating dreams for what could be and renewing excitement for the arts as a transformational force in society. The late Rudolf Arnheim, art theorist and perceptual psychologist, once proposed that art inevitably appears during times of trouble. I will add that art inevitably is also needed at times of hardship and, for that reason, will be essential in the months and years to come in this country. The arts and what they represent will help us all to heal the pain, find hope and inspiration, and rediscover the wisdom to create a life that is better for all. Let the dreamers wake the nation.

© 2009 Cathy Malchiodi

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