How Obama Should Boost the Arts

Should President Barack Obama create a cabinet-level post for an arts administrator? Music producer Quincy Jones has promised to beg the new president to create a "Secretary of Arts" the next time they speak, while an online petition to similar effect currently claims more than 200,000 signatories. But John Adams, one of America's most-performed living composers ("Nixon in China," "Doctor Atomic"), says he isn't so sure. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Seth Colter Walls. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you think President Obama owes America's artistic community, if anything?
John Adams: Poor Obama! The last reporter who talked to me was asking me about Obama, too! You know, I've seen several people circulating e-mails [encouraging the president] to create a cabinet-level position for the arts. My attitude is: let's get the really critical things done. I'm just hoping the guy doesn't get destroyed.

But it's not as though past presidents haven't bolstered the arts from the bully pulpit, like Kennedy and his "New Frontier in the Arts," for example.
How many billion people were watching, the moment [Obama] took the oath? And what did they see right before that? They saw Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman and this young guy from the Met [clarinetist Anthony McGill]. That's pretty thrilling, even if the performers were lip-syncing. What they could do would be to give a tiny amount of funding to the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] or something. That's one of the great disgraces, that our federal budget for the arts is laughably small.

In the current version of the stimulus bill, there's $50 million for the NEA—a fact that has already become a talking point for House Republicans and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
That, again, just reflects this great distrust of the arts in this country. Anti-intellectualism has great prestige!

How should concert halls go about attracting new listeners? Does government play no role in this?
Well, the one and only way to interest people in classical music is to get them to play it as children. People who grow up not having learned an instrument or not having been exposed to playing Bach on the piano—or playing, as I did, clarinet in a concert band—they have no understanding and no exposure to it. When I was a kid, we all had music lessons as part of the school program.

Isn't that changing, to some degree? Aren't composers who cross streams with "indie" or experimental rock—people like Nico Muhly or Caleb Burhans—bringing non-instrumentalists into the concert hall?
But both of those guys, they're highly trained musicians.

Yes, but their fans aren't, necessarily.
Possibly. But there's another side to that. Some of the music that these composers are producing is so simple that it's in danger of dumbing-down. Not necessarily Nico and Caleb. But there are a lot of young composers in their 20s and 30s who are very anxious to appeal to the same audience that would listen to indie rock. But they are creating a level of musical discourse that's just really bland. I don't think it will have a very long shelf life. The bottom line is art really can't be made easy and palatable without simply losing its meaning and importance. I had this conversation with the new executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We all went out to dinner and this fellow said, "I think we should make concerts interactive." Here I am, someone who's always been the renegade. "Wait a minute," I said. "You can't listen to a really important piece of music and have people banging on their BlackBerrys."

In terms of allowing repeated exposure, I like what the Metropolitan Opera is doing—not just simulcasting performances into movie theaters, but also offering free audio streams from time to time, via its Web site. Shouldn't more concert halls be doing that kind of thing to promote newer works, especially American ones?
Yeah, I agree. However, remember that there are a lot of important operas that took many decades to become repertoire. When I was your age, you hardly ever heard Benjamin Britten, you certainly never heard Janacek. [Alban Berg's] "Wozzeck" was a real specialty item. No one had ever done the Shostakovich operas. It was all just Puccini and the same old stuff. I even remember when Mahler symphonies were a rarity. Growth and awareness in the more lofty forms of artistic creation can be a slow thing. With my stuff, you can't just perform an opera anywhere without a really big budget. That's why I've written some smaller pieces, which are getting done a lot. On the other hand, I am distressed about my CD sales, which have completely tanked. I talked to the head of my label about this, and he told me, "No one's buying CDs." In effect, he said, "What makes you think you're special?" Everybody's collapsing.

The budget-label Naxos label seems to be doing well.
Yeah, they do [all right], but their product is so mediocre. They must have made … seven or eight CDs of my work. They're poorly produced. In some cases, the performances are OK, and in some cases the performances are disgraceful. It's like going to Costco and buying toilet paper with no brand on it.

Which recordings would you steer people away from?
Well, I wouldn't say it for the record.

So what should people be listening to, besides the recordings you've approved for release by Nonesuch?
I think people should just be exposed all the time to great art. That sounds like a really simple, grandiose statement, but I think it's really true. One of the deepest relationships I have in life is with [stage director and librettist] Peter Sellars. He has this thing that he says all the time: "Art is not a sound bite." That is the problem with this whole interactive this, indie crossover that. Hoping that consuming art can be as painless and simple as watching a sound bite. [Pause] I'm really sounding like an old crank now. All I need is a wheelchair! [Laughs]