What is American about American art? Or American music? Or American literature? These venerable questions--to which there are certainly no simple answers and probably no definitive answers--have been on my mind for the past few weeks, since Barack Obama, on "Meet the Press," announced that "our art and our culture, our science, that's the essence of what makes America special." Skeptics might say, and say with good reason, that Obama was offering nothing more than a platitude. Is American culture more special to America than Russian culture is to Russia or Chinese culture is to China? And yet the very bluntness of Obama's statement--its platitudinousness, if you will--had a drama. There are times when a platitude is a wonderful thing--a crude version of the truth. And this could be one of those times.
Frankly, I was surprised to hear Obama commenting on the arts at all. In the midst of a deepening recession, he was taking pains to argue that culture is part of America's "national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward"--another platitude, some might say. In raising these issues, however, Obama may be signaling his willingness to take hold of what has become a grievously wounded relationship between our arts and our sense of national character. While I would never want the federal government to be responsible for the state of the arts, people in government do need to be aware of art's power to shape our collective identity. In the century just past, the federal government from time to time took a very active, a very positive role: The WPA gave substantial support to many artists and writers, Washington became home to a half-dozen splendid national museums, the National Endowment for the Arts did a great deal of valuable work, and, since 1985, the National Medal of Arts has been given to artists of high achievement every year. But, in the past two decades--through Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II--Washington has not exactly shown much enthusiasm for the arts. I think it's safe to say that high art--classical music, Old Master paintings, lyric poetry--has received a bipartisan vote of no particular confidence. The arts, many of us have been forced to realize as we watched Clinton and Bush pass the buck, are not necessarily of much importance either to Democrats or to Republicans.
Nobody need wonder why, in Washington, the arts have become something of an embarrassment. The city--and the country--have never really recovered from the controversies that exploded around the NEA beginning in the late 1980s, when some Republicans decided to save the world from Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photographs and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, works which many liberals, while determined to defend the NEA, did not particularly care for, either. If there is any lesson to be learned from those hideous debates, it is that the danger when we talk about the relationship between the arts and the nation is that everybody all too rapidly descends into parochialism. There are the utilitarians, who are convinced that art education is important because it improves children's more general cognitive skills; there are the populists, who think that government is best off supporting bluegrass music and quilting; there are the cultural leftists, who believe that the government should embrace individual artists because they are society's renegades and outcasts; and there are the traditionalists, who want to give money to museums and symphony orchestras and thereby uphold canonical values. The main trouble with all these viewpoints is that they deny the inner integrity of the arts, which in truth are neither populist nor elitist, neither progressive nor conservative, but are in some mysterious way a part of the fabric of the nation. Which is a thought, come to think of it, not entirely different from Obama's argument that we are not a nation of red states and blue states, but we are the United States. I am reminded of Ralph Ellison's observation, in a discussion of his friend the painter and collagist Romare Bearden, that "we are a collage of a nation, and a nation that is ever shifting about and grousing as we seek to achieve the promised design of democracy." The challenge, for a president who wants to lead in the arts, is to show how the variegated forms that the arts take in a democratic society can suggest, if not a finished pattern, then at least the beginnings of a design.
In politics, symbolism can sometimes further policy, and, when it comes to Obama and the arts, symbolism really matters. Symbolism, at least at the outset, may be all we have. Government funding for the arts, always a pittance, is unlikely to rise. Corporate support has been declining for some time now. And private patronage is surely going to be hard to find, only adding to the pain that creative people feel as they confront a shrinking marketplace. When Obama speaks of making the White House a place that is welcoming to artists and writers and scientists, he can be accused of merely making a gesture, but who can doubt that this is the right gesture in the right place at the right time? This is one area where all the talk of Camelot redux and Barack and Michelle as the new Jack and Jackie may actually make some sense. In the long ago days when JFK invited the artists and the intellectuals to Washington, he was met in certain circles with a not entirely unwarranted skepticism; Tom Wicker commented that the president "did not seem to suffer from a great personal involvement in drama, music, art." Be that as it may, it was no small thing to hear Robert Frost at the inauguration, to know that Mark Rothko and Franz Kline had been invited to attend, and to be able to go to your local record store and buy the LP of a recital that Pablo Casals had given at the White House. JFK must have understood that in a democratic society the popular arts can pretty much take care of themselves. It was high art--the art that is by its very nature less commercial--that needed a helping hand in the 1960s. This is all the more true today.
Let's see if Barack and Michelle, like Jack and Jackie before them, can put culture back on the national agenda. The early signs are encouraging. Aretha Franklin, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma are performers who will do honor to the inaugural festivities, and it is good that Obama has invited a poet, although not everybody will agree that Elizabeth Alexander is the right choice. We need to remember that what mattered in the early 1960s was not what JFK knew about Casals or the music of Schumann and Couperin and Mendelssohn. What mattered was that Casals was performing at the White House, a great day for the arts in America that also served to remind Americans that art has no borders, that a Spaniard playing German music in Washington was indeed part of the American experience. Here was a lesson in the importance of art, a lesson that might help to jump-start music education in the public schools and inspire more adults to turn to the classical station on the radio and go to record stores and concert halls. For Obama, who is constrained in so many ways by the ever-darkening economic situation, the symbolic possibilities of the arts are one arena in which he can act with real freedom. Imagine if he organized an evening at the White House in honor of Elliot Carter's hundredth birthday--not just an event, but a grand event, with an elaborate dinner, legendary performing artists, and much pomp and circumstance. The president might even find a moment to ask Mr. Carter about the Americanness of American music, and receive from the centenarian modernist a suitably complex and utterly unplatitudinous answer.
Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.
By Jed Perl