American art institutions shouldn’t give up their independence for crumbs. Especially with the pandemic easing, the more pressing task is to promote richer cultural offerings at the local level. A nimbler and more practical solution to this is a White House office for cultureSimilar to the National Economic Council or the Domestic Policy Council, which could research and coordinate art policy throughout the federal government.
An arts center in the President’s Executive Office – run by a “Dr. Fauci of Culture “- could be sharper and faster than a complete department. This team could help the Treasury Department develop cultural tax policies, advise the education department on music lessons, and liaise with Congress on arts incentives. It is important to ensure that economic funds for states and municipalities whose budgets have been burdened by tax deficits caused by stoppages support and ultimately strengthen the local arts organizations. (“Almost no one has been more injured by Covid than our artists,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said this week as he announced a public-private partnership supporting state arts organizations.)
The new administration should too re-establish the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, whose members resigned en masse in 2017 following Mr Trump’s reaction to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Artists who stepped down included director George C. Wolfe, writer Jhumpa Lahiri, actor Kal Penn, and architect Thom Mayne.) To use a metaphor that I detest but that politicians seem to like, this committee should Be the hiss of steak that is the bureau of culture. Any transformation this big requires a sales pitch. Well-known actors, writers, and musicians should be the pitchmen who connect Broadway and Hollywood to the city library and school theater.
During last year’s election campaign, Mr. Biden had one sentence that he called almost musically on a regular basis: The election, he always said, was a “fight for the soul of America”. As a piece of political rhetoric, it could just have been a platitude. However, how can I deny that the Capitol’s near-sacking – in a week when the daily Covid-19 death toll hit an unbearable 4,000 Americans for the first time – suggests the United States has seen these last few years some kind of soul death? And if you were treating a patient whose soul was curdled, what kind of medicine could you prescribe?
I have always been careful with arguments about the “necessity” of art. But a mentally ill nation is unlikely to recover if it loses fundamental parts of its humanity. Without actors and dancers and musicians and artists, a society will indeed have lost something necessary – for these citizens, these workers, they are the technicians of a social catharsis that cannot come soon enough. A respiratory virus and riot have left the country breathless in their own way. Artists can teach us to exhale if they’re still with us for years to come.