Obama and the arts

As Obama now moves from political aspiration to policy implementation, the question suddenly occurred to me yesterday: what the heck does he think about the arts in America? With all talk focused on the economy and Iraq, I can’t recall a single reference to American arts/cultural policy within election discourse over the past year.

Fear not, for the internet reveals all– behold the Obama/Biden platform on the arts!

Although I’m somewhat dubious that publishing 2 best-selling books demonstrates an appreciation for the arts (as the document claims), the main planks of the arts platform are worthy of inspection:

Reinvest in Arts Education: ‘To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children’s creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.  […] To support greater arts education, Obama will:

  • Expand Public/Private Partnerships Between Schools and Arts Organizations
  • Create an Artist Corps
  • Publicly Champion the Importance of Arts Education’

I dig 1 and 3, but the ‘Artist Corps’ idea sounds like a poorly considered version of the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Placing ‘young artists’ in underprivileged schools with the hope they can help improve test scores seems a waste of money, and more seriously, contributes to the perception that the arts are valuable only insofar as they elide with social policy objectives.

Support Increased Funding for the NEA: I have some doubts about the wisdom of highlighting the NEA as a flagship agency for the arts, particularly given the tendency for its opponents to use NEA funding decisions as a soapbox for tedious moral tirades. I don’t believe abolishing the NEA is the right step, but I think its function within American public policy should be one of advocacy and strategic resourcing as opposed to individual, piecemeal grant-giving. Recent steps the NEA has taken to bolster research in the sector and strategically target its funding towards key public services and initiatives seem a much better approach. In any case an increase of the NEA’s tiny budget (it’s requested just under $129 million for 2009) would essentially be a symbolic gesture, and is probably unlikely in the current economic climate.

Promote Cultural Diplomacy: hmm… I’m not convinced that artists ‘can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism‘ — the instrumentalisation of the arts for propagandistic purposes is a dangerous road to go down…

Attract Foreign Talent: now we’re talking. The draconian visa measures which have affected international students and touring artists has been a serious thorn in the side of the arts community. Obama’s promise to streamline the visa process would be widely welcomed, unquestionably, across the international arts community.

Provide Health Care to Artists: this seems to me a convenient way of restating Obama’s healthcare agenda, and not particularly an ‘arts’ concern when one considers the millions of Americans who are also self-employed. Clearly fixing US healthcare will be a major challenge of the new administration, but it doesn’t really belong in an arts platform.

Ensure Tax Fairness for Artists: ‘Barack Obama supports the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The Act amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow artists to deduct the fair market value of their work, rather than just the costs of the materials, when they make charitable contributions.’ This is a bill with bi-partisan support that’s been passed twice in the Senate but has yet to be made into law. What gives? Fair enough if Obama assists in passing it into law, as it will benefit in particular public institutions looking to acquire donations of important work from living artists. But not exactly a revolutionary tax initiatve…

Final verdict: on the whole the arts platform is weak and underdeveloped; perhaps not surprising when so many other issues are crowding the political agenda at the moment. Still, I’d be interested to hear Obama’s own views on the role the arts and culture have to play in his vision of American society, as so much of his rhetoric is fuelled by the ideals of a civic and cultural democracy. Even as the pundits repeatedly recall and compare FDR’s challenge in reversing the Depression, one is also reminded that Roosevelt’s handling of the Depression included some of the most progressive and influential arts programmes (like the WPA) ever devised by a federal government. I can only hope that Obama’s new administration will likewise recognise the transformative potential of the arts and understand them as a vital form of social investment.