Obama and the Arts

Since election day, pundits have exhausted themselves trying to locate every last reason for Barack Obama's win. But the fine-tooth combing has missed something—or, rather, someone: Walt Whitman. Nobody has pointed out that Obama shares his victory with the generations of writers and musicians and painters in the fervently democratic tradition that descends from our national poet. (Article continued below...)

To understand how the arts prepared the way for Obama, we first need to clarify what it means when people (including the president-elect) say that "only in America" could his story be possible. That can't be a statement about law or politics, since the election of someone with Obama's unconventional background is technically possible in plenty of democracies. It's really a statement about our national imagination: only in America could a majority of voters see a person who is so unlike them—a black man who has an African father, a mother from Kansas, an international childhood, a name packed with vowels—as a fellow citizen who's capable of leading them. And where did we Americans learn to be so uniquely broad-minded? In large part, from our artists.

Since Ralph Waldo Emerson issued his call for homegrown American creativity 130 years ago, and Whitman answered him with the all-embracing poems that helped shape the psyche of our polyglot young democracy, the arts have offered the various tribes of this country some of our best chances to know ourselves and one another, and to see the pleasures and pain of our interactions more clearly: think of what we've learned from Huck and Jim, "Invisible Man," Alvin Ailey's dances, "Angels in America," the blues. Better yet, try to imagine how we'd relate to one another without them.

This isn't to say the pressure from our artists has been steady or even all in one direction: important strains in our cultural legacy haven't exactly blazed a new trail of multicultural understanding; others have propagated a gruesome number of demeaning racial and ethnic stereotypes. But at their best, our great artists have achieved in their work the kind of harmony that so often eludes us in life, firing our imaginations with advance glimpses of the more perfect union that the Founders envisioned but made only limited progress in achieving. We know, for instance, that in America, blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, highbrows and regular folk should all coexist in peace. Even if we're still not sure how that union will look, the catchall beauty of "Rhapsody in Blue" tells us how it sounds.

Serenaded by the cross-pollinating strains of hip-hop and salsa, polka and jazz, the most vibrant stream of our culture has been slowly, fitfully molding us into what Randolph Bourne called "trans-national America." In his landmark 1916 essay, the great cultural critic grasped that we were not, and should not try to be, a homogeneous nation with a single shared heritage, as in the Old World. We are instead becoming a people among whom even someone as category-defying as Barack Obama can feel at home: "a nation of nations" in which a "spiritual welding" among men and women of diverse traditions will make us "not weaker, but infinitely strong." An America this generous and accepting—this absorbent—is the one for which Martin Luther King and the other heroes of the civil-rights struggle fought and bled and died. And only an America that has made real progress toward those ideals could dream of making the presidential choice we've just made.

Cultural issues, which aren't a top priority for new administrations even in the best of times, will have trouble climbing very high on the Obama agenda. But in light of what this election has helped us to understand about the potency of the arts in our national life, the new president would be wasting a glorious opportunity if he failed to give them his attention. Partly it's because the overlapping crises we face at the moment give him a rare chance to dream big. Partly, too, his singular story gives him a unique ability to make connections among people that might change the way we think about culture. But it's also a question of his larger vision for society, which the arts could help him to realize. If he treats them wisely, he might foster a climate for creativity as unprecedented as his election.

Though Obama hasn't made any arts or humanities appointments yet, he has signaled that he regards culture seriously. During the campaign, he took the unprecedented step of forming an Arts Policy Committee, which produced a thorough list of policy objectives. (Rare are the campaigns that can boast a statement of principles drafted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—in this case, Michael Chabon.)

Yet in the months since then, the cultural ground has shifted. Calamitously. Thanks to the recession, the customary sources of nonprofit arts revenue (single-ticket sales, individual philanthropy, corporate and foundation support, state and local governments) have begun to decline, even as the stock-market collapse has caused many endowments to shrivel. A round of interviews with artists and leaders of arts advocacy groups didn't turn up many calls for a Detroit-style bailout of cultural organizations—not yet, anyway. But with the arts section of the newspaper beginning to feature almost as many bankruptcies as the business page, you get the sense that if Obama wants to sustain our cultural traditions, he'll need to think in very broad terms about the role government can play. In other words, he may need to brush up on his FDR.

When President Roosevelt signed the Works Progress Administration into law in 1935, it included provisions for four arts programs: theater, writing, music and art. The $418 million (in 2008 dollars) allocated in the first year was a tiny slice of the agency's total, but, as Nick Taylor relates in "American-Made," a new history of the WPA, it was extremely effective. Arts organizations such as theaters and symphonies tend to be highly labor-intensive, making them a quick and efficient way to help put many people back to work. (Take note, you writers and artists threatened by new media and the Death of Print: part of the rationale for the program was to find jobs for talented people left unemployed by industrial shifts that predated the Depression, such as vaudevillians being put out of work by the movies.)

From the vantage point of our current crisis, new employment may be the least interesting result of the arts programs. Without trying to be a latter-day Medici, FDR sponsored some impressive creations, including Orson Welles's trailblazing, voodoo-inflected, all-black staging of "Macbeth," as well as countless dazzling murals and posters. These achievements weren't merely esthetic. The WPA's investment in the arts also helped bring about a change in values—one that's especially evident in the work of the Federal Writers' Project. The agency published state guidebooks that were far more ambitious than itineraries for tourists on car trips. Contributors—including the young Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright—collected stories about the history, people and day-to-day life of cities and towns, making the books part essay collection, part encyclopedia and part vehicle for exploring a certain ideal of Americanness.

As Jerrold Hirsch writes in "Portrait of America," his history of the Federal Writers' Project, many writers in the field, particularly in the South, automatically belittled or stigmatized black and immigrant communities. But the editors in Washington, inspired by the writing of Whitman and Bourne, imposed a modern, pluralist sensibility on the books. "The common element in all the guides," writes Hirsch, "is that ethnic groups are viewed as a dynamic factor in American culture, not as a social problem."

These cosmopolitan tendencies didn't escape the notice of the New Deal's nativist enemies. Martin Dies, the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, saw the egalitarian FWP as a hotbed of radical subversion, which is not surprising or even particularly irrational from a man who thought that immigration was a "great alien invasion." By 1939, Dies was wreaking havoc on the WPA, but not before it showed that a substantial investment in artists, under enlightened leadership, can all at once yield benefits to them, the art forms in which they work and their society.

Even if some wild recovery spares Obama the need to stage an FDR-style rescue of the country's nonprofit arts sector, he'll still need to find ways to achieve some of what the WPA achieved, only within the limited means of the National Endowment for the Arts. When Dana Gioia steps down as chairman this month, he will leave a firm foundation for his successor, and can look back with some justifiable pride on what he's done for the agency over the past six years. Specifically, he has persuaded America's leaders to stop kicking it.

Gioia says his most important achievement was to change the conversation about arts funding in America "from a bitter argument to a consensus." Long gone are the bad old days of Jesse Helms pillorying some avant-gardist and threatening to shut down the entire agency. Gioia has charmed legislators by emphasizing education; rolling out new programs, including a Shakespeare in American Communities project; and stretching the agency's geographic reach. According to Gioia, the NEA previously hadn't funded projects in a quarter of the country's congressional districts; today, they're in all 435. "The advice I would give my successor," he says, "is to remember that this is not an elitist organization, this is a democratic one."

Actually, this is—or ought to be—both. For all its laudable success at spreading cultural programs to every corner of the country, the NEA lately seems uncomfortable talking about excellence or masterpieces. It's telling that the fact sheet outlining his accomplishments doesn't mention any actual new plays or operas or symphonies. Bear in mind that government patronage is an arrangement with a considerable pedigree: the Parthenon, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, "King Lear."

The NEA's recent success in arts outreach is reason enough to hope that Obama asks for a substantial increase in its budget (currently $144 million, which is well off its all-time peak, but higher than during the ugliest stretch of the culture wars). But if congressional pressure limits the NEA's ability to speak the language of both elitism and democracy, then regardless of whom the next chairman may be, it becomes all the more important for Obama to act as more than simply the arts patron in chief. For culture to have the prominence and recognition it deserves, he needs to ascend his very tall soapbox and be its champion.

In that sense, the precedent to follow isn't FDR's—it's JFK's. In 1962, President Kennedy commissioned August Heckscher to compile a groundbreaking report on government's relationship to the arts. Kennedy was assassinated before the programs could be fully implemented, so what everybody remembers, with good reason, is Camelot, the unofficial and glittering constellation of talent that swirled around the White House. These were evenings of Pablo Casals and Leonard Bernstein entertaining the room, of the First Lady chatting up Lionel Trilling about the novels of D. H. Lawrence.

On a recent "Meet the Press," Obama seemed interested in maintaining that tradition, telling Tom Brokaw that he and his wife want to host "jazz musicians and classical musicians and poetry readings in the White House, so that once again we appreciate this incredible tapestry that is America." That sounds attractive, though a little hard to imagine. For all the elite glamour of his Inaugural lineup—Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Aretha Franklin will perform, and Elizabeth Alexander will read an original poem—neither of the Obamas has shown a burning desire to keep up with, say, the operas of John Adams or the fate of the Chicago Symphony. Plus, things being what they are in this world, President Obama will be busy.

Who, then, will supply the visibility that America's cultural traditions—high, low and everything in between—deserve? Quincy Jones has said in recent interviews that he wants Obama to appoint a secretary of the arts, and last month a dozen-plus arts organizations issued a joint statement making a similar call for a new "senior-level administration official." It's true that the United States is rare in not having a minister of culture, but a cabinet-level post is still a bad idea. For one thing, it's just asking for some Republican administration to kill it—or, worse yet, to bend it to the right's own wishes. Better to leave the cultural programs safely decentralized in many hands.

Besides, the arts don't need another superintendent in Washington—they need an evangelist. So Obama might be wiser to follow the lead of the first President Bush. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was named chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, he became a headline-generating dynamo on behalf of good health and the Bush administration. It's possible to imagine Obama multiplying this example by five or 10, enlisting the help of some talented and highly regarded people who will do anything for him—Jones, George Clooney, Andre 3000 (why not?)—and dispatching them as special emissaries to draw attention to various expressions of American creativity around the country. Along these lines, it's also possible to imagine Obama kicking off, with a single phone call to Oprah, the literacy project to end all literacy projects.

Following through on these proposals would make Obama a worthy steward of the American arts, as Roosevelt and Kennedy were. But he is not FDR or JFK, and his times are not their times, and the differences ask him to do more.

The most important of these differences isn't race or age or ethnicity: it's Obama's unique understanding of community. "Dreams From My Father," the coming-of-age memoir that earned him a small but honorable spot in the transnational tradition, follows a self-described "misfit" as he searches for a place where he can thrive. Organizing communities, he comes to find, means "a promise of redemption." Obama developed that theme when he told Wesleyan's class of 2008 that he hoped they would perform public service not because they had a debt to other people—though they did have that debt—but "because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation … Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next great chapter in America's story."

What Obama describes here is the ideal of the "Beloved Community"—not as Dr. King used the term, as a society bounded together in peace by Christian fellowship, but the way that, of all people, Randolph Bourne articulated it, and in the very same essay that he introduced the idea of "transnational America." According to Bourne, we express our fullest selves only through working together at a purpose larger than we are: "All our idealisms must be those of future social goals in which all can participate, the good life of personality lived in the environment of the Beloved Community."

Obama organized his campaign around that principle, trusting people to come together and work from the bottom up to elect him. If he means what he says about bringing the same approach to Washington, where he will draw people together to remake the world, the arts offer him just what he needs. A 2006 report from the NEA shows that participation in the arts correlates strongly to volunteerism, playing sports and contributing in other ways toward something like a Beloved Community. Yet under No Child Left Behind, state and local school officials cut funding for arts education, the most effective way of fostering in children a taste for culture. Obama has talked about sending artists into schools to make up some of this deficit. It should be at the top of his cultural agenda.

Even as education programs could get more kids involved in the arts, Obama seems almost certain to preside over a significant expansion in the number of grown-up artists, too. If his health-care plan gets enacted in anything like its current form, it'll be the government's greatest gift to culture in a generation. The security of Obamacare wouldn't just make it easier for existing artists to focus on creative work, it would swell their ranks, as plenty of part-timers would have less need to keep day jobs for the sake of a dental plan. The only question is whether Obama will see fit to celebrate the passage of a health plan as (among other things) a great day for the arts in America: will a young filmmaker or composer be in the crowd onstage at his signing ceremony?

But if Obama really values American creativity and wants to encourage it wherever it's found, he'll need to be the first president to address how technology has given us new ways to invent and interact. In his new book, "Remix," the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig notes that "just when technology is most encouraging of creativity"—thanks to, say, the suite of digital tools that allow us to make, remake and distribute remixes and mash-ups online—"the law [is] most restrictive." Obama seems to recognize the limits of the current copyright regime, as when he used a less restrictive Creative Commons license to share his Flickr photostream on election night. Lessig hopes this means that the new president will make the appointments and undertake the policy reviews that might lead the government to stop criminalizing a creative impulse shared by many of the young users of the Internet and start encouraging it.

The goal of these reforms wouldn't be to flood the Web with pop-song mashups (though the just-posted Jay-Z/Radiohead mix is amazing). Like a broad-based arts-education initiative and a health-care plan, copyright reform is a way to revive an idea about culture that we lost amid the mass entertainment of the 20th century—namely, that culture is what an active people builds together, not what they're fed by media conglomerates. The term "couch potato" didn't exist in 1916, but Bourne understood how easy it is to turn people into an indolent mass. If the Beloved Community means anything, it's a place where men and women express themselves and cease to be mere passive consumers. Through working together for some greater cause, they realize their fullest individuality—a paradox Whitman would have loved.

Obama hasn't indicated that he thinks of the arts in quite these sweeping terms; you won't find a bullet point in his arts platform that reads "American Creativity Will Make Us More Engaged and Liberate Us From the Marketers, Even as It Continues to Wear Away Our Prejudices." But if you seek a final sign that he understands how the arts can unite and inspire—and if the habit of hope instilled by the Obama campaign has carried over to the early days of the Obama presidency—you might take heart from a revealing episode on election night. At the pivotal moment of his victory speech, with the whole world watching, he didn't turn to Scripture, or the Founders, or any of the other places where you'd expect a politician to turn for a resonant allusion. When he said, "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America," he was riffing on a Sam Cooke song.