Anyone who has been abroad knows all about crazy street performers, artists selling their works in crowded squares and music wafting through quaint alleys. But walking around Ann Arbor, the only music to be heard (save for that guy by the UGLi) is confined to our individual iPods. What’s more, this phenomenon isn’t just local; Europe has over 20 times the number of publicly funded symphony orchestras per capita than the United States. It’s clear our country falls far behind the rest of the world in the area of public arts — but why?
As usual, the answer comes down to politics, money and long-standing cultural differences perpetuating this dichotomy. Europe, for instance, harbors a more collectivist culture than the United States, which draws people to participate in and support public arts. Success in keeping such a culture alive has come about via employing artists — however humbly — through the public sector.
This is made plausible by (gasp) heavy government spending in the area of arts and culture. Such spending is a luxury allowed for in European governmental models, but not in the United States. Here, funding for the arts is handled mostly on the state level and through several separate federal institutions, the largest being the National Endowment for the Arts. Regrettably, the NEA’s budget has been cut over the years, from $175 to $125 million annually. But more problematic is the lack of cohesive goals among such public cultural institutions as the NEA, National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service.
Most nations solve this confusion by establishing an arts-and-culture cabinet position to guide government spending and offer the overarching guidance these organizations need to make substantial changes. Such a position provides the authority and resources required to effectively impact the way the country approaches the arts in the long run. This is just what several arts enthusiasts are hoping President Barack Obama will do — and they have history on their side.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt funded (through the Farm Security Administration) photo documentation of America’s strife and strength. The great works generated through this program are still heralded today as triumphs in American art. Struggling through the Civil Rights Movement, Lyndon B. Johnson created the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Obama could continue this national tradition of overcoming daunting times, not only in tax plans, defense strategy and diplomacy — all imperative components — but also by invigorating the American spirit through a strengthening of our common bond: our culture.
It’s also worth noting that, historically, some of our most celebrated artistic works emerged from times of strife. “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” two of Hollywood’s highest rated masterpieces, were released in 1939, a trying time for an America suffering through the end of the Great Depression and possibly on the verge of war.
Many argue that, in these troubled economic times, the arts should be the least of our worries. But it should be duly noted that cultural products are some of America’s most valuable exports. American movies, music, books and art (as well as our actors, actresses and musicians) have become cultural commodities and are extremely marketable abroad.
Creating a position in the presidential cabinet for arts and culture would allow public cultural institutions to work together more easily and efficiently. More scholarships could be awarded to budding artists. More theaters and performance spaces could be built, and more community orchestras, choirs and theater companies could be funded.
America is often known as the world’s cultural center. We have the potential to cultivate a great arts culture, but we’re missing the boat. With a little guidance and a decent effort, the benefits to be reaped could be just what we need.