April 8, 2012

Government and Art: Whither the U.S.A.?

U.S. Capital Building, Washington D.C.
Round Three of the Great American Arts Blogger Challenge finds me battle-worn and bloodied, but still standing; dazed and wobbly, but undaunted; scarred, but grittily determined to...

Oops - got a little over the top there, didn't I? Sorry, lost my head -- won't happen again.

Now to wax eloquent on the latest assigned topic doled out to us Survivors: Should the U.S. have a Secretary of Culture/Arts? 

I'll be honest: I haven't really perused the blogs of the other remaining competitors in this online tournament - I don't want to be influenced by what I might read.  So, although it seems unlikely, I can't be 100% sure that one of them is NOT authored by legendary music producer Quincy Jones, or "Q" to his friends.

If it happens that Q is angling to establish himself in the blogosphere, (Ooo!  I know what he should call his blog: "View from the Q".  Pretty good, huh?) I wouldn't need to read his post to know his take on this issue, as for the past decade he has been the leading proponent of a Cabinet position for the Arts.  When President Obama took office, Jones took the action of circulating a petition urging the Obama administration to act on this proposal.  To date, the petition has collected 231,198 signatures -- but to what end?  In the current political climate, with Mitt Romney (and the handful of Republican hopefuls still nipping at his heels) bringing out the heavy artillery to make the case that Obama is driving the U.S. economy into the ground, and with unemployment still hanging over the President's head like the perpetual rain cloud hovering over Joe Bthsplk, there are two chances that a new Cabinet position for the arts will appear on the White House radar screen anytime soon:

None and, um, none-er.

However, let's put the reality of an election year on the shelf and have some blog-tastic fun examining the subject in some detail.  I promise to weigh in with an opinion by the end (no fair skipping down to the bottom to see), although as a left-leaning Centrist and a Libra, I must warn you: I am notorious for being able to see both sides of any issue other than, say, genocide.  (For the record, I'm against that.)

Now, the mere mention of a possible new federal bureaucracy involving a Secretary of Arts is enough to provoke the full spectrum of partisan rhetoric from crazed right-wing conservative wackos to delusional left-wing liberal wing-nuts. It's just the sort of topic, tied to Washington D.C. as it is, to punch every button in existence. You know the drill:

A) "We can find the money to invade countries to conduct illegal wars and slaughter innocent women and children all for the sake of their oil, but can't find money to fund BEAUTY?? What kind of world do we want for our children? *sniff* *sob* WAAAAHHHHH"

B) "Roads and bridges are crumbling into dust, terrorists want to destroy America, and we're drowning in debt, but you want to spend my hard-earned money on ladies hopping around in tutus and pictures of flowers?! America is going to the DOGS, my friend! It's the end of times! It's the Fall of Rome! My tax dollars are going down the TOILET!!! GRRRRRRR" (You can behold a banquet of variations on these two themes in an online discussion of the issue on a website called, for some reason, "Plenty of fish".)

Perhaps a reasoned approach lies somewhere between "wah" and "grr". This issue, however, is sufficiently layered with sub-issues that the resulting murkiness appears to allow compelling arguments with nothing in common other than a general tone of convincing reasonableness. For example:

John Silveira, writing in Backwoods Home Magazine (I never miss an issue; their tips on scoring beaver pelts are da bomb), reminds us of that "We create bureaucracies to solve problems. But that’s not why people become bureaucrats. What motivates the bureaucrat is the promise of a career, not public service. And once created, bureaucracies have a need to expand their power, and that has nothing to do with the political system of the country. The need to expand power is simply its nature."

This dovetailes nicely with the views of Dr. David Smith of Baylor University, who despite likely giddiness at the undefeated season of the 2012 Baylor women's basketball team, soberly warns that a Department of Culture would be "ponderous" and that, since "the greatest thing about the arts in America is their decentralized nature", any such governmental oversight would "create the wrong impression."

What, exactly, would a Secretary of Arts and/or Culture do?  You know, if Lithuania or South Africa or Ireland has a Minister of Culture, the presumption is that the nation is struggling to preserve key elements of their culture which are in danger of being swept away in the tsunami of globalization.  But is the United States in a similar position? Actually, it's our culture which tends to do a lot of the "sweeping away" when you stop and think about it. American rock and roll; American jazz; American films and film stars; American TV shows; they are everywhere. I once visited the city of Osaka, Japan, which instead of a "Chinatown" district, has an area called "Americatown".

And in terms of preserving our language, Quincy Jones himself is on record as raising the subject:  "Every country can be defined through their food, their music and their language. That's the soul of a country." All well and good, but our language is a mongrel dog carrying the DNA of German, French, and many other tongues.  Breeders at dog kennels don't tend to preserve mongrel blood.  In addition, before our culture can be defined by our language, we need to define... our language! The subject of language has become a political football in recent years. Is Q a proponent of the "if'n youse don't wanna talk English, then go back where ya came from" school of culture, or would he promote further multi-lingual services and education? This is a different case than, say, Portugal or Myanmar striving to preserve and promote their language.

So for argument's sake, let's dispense with Culture and proceed with Arts alone: what's the job description for our first-ever Secretary?

He (male gender used for convenience) could pow-wow at international conferences with his counterparts from other nations.  There could be value in that; currently when such meetings occur, we aren't represented appropriately.

Would he work to prevent public schools from eliminating arts education in their curricula?  Hmmm... we have a Department of Education... dunno, seems iffy...

Would he be a figurehead, making ceremonial appearances like throwing out the first pitch at arts festivals?  Nice, I guess.

Would he dole out money for projects?  Well, there presently exists a whole network of funders for the arts; my own wife has been a member of the Newport News (Virginia) Commission for the Arts for the past several years.  These are found at municipal, state and national levels.  Would the Secretary have oversight over.... all of them?  The bigger ones?  The national ones? Would all funders of arts and humanities now be regulated by the federal government?

Whoa!  Back up the truck, Sparky.  That last sentence scares me.  Do conservatives want an Arts Czar appointed by a liberal president approving which projects get funded? Or vice-versa?  Suppose Richard Strauss was an American composer in our own time, going to seek federal funding for his proposed new opera Salome -- you know, the one in which a princess dances buck-naked for her step-father-slash-uncle to get him to agree to give her the severed head of John the Baptist, after which she makes love to it, so grossing out step-dad that he has his guards crush her to death on the spot.  You reckon Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum would give a thumbs-up to that?  "Mr. Strauss: in response to your proposal, we at the Department of Arts recommend that Salome retain at least three strategically-placed veils throughout her 'Dance of the Seven Veils'."

Let me get to the bottom line, meaning that I will limit my remarks to the sphere of my field: professional opera.  Is creativity languishing in the American opera scene?  Is a Secretary of Arts needed to re-vitalize the production of new works in our opera houses?  Are we stuck with nothing but operas by Dead White Europeans for lack of funding and oversight?


The past two decades, in fact, have been something of a golden age for contemporary American opera.  A continual stream of commissions from opera companies large and small has produced a fluid body of work that expands with every new season.  Even my Virginia Opera, in partnership with the Virginia Arts Festival, has accounted for two new commissioned works in the past few years:  Ricky Ian Gordon's Rappahannock County (2011) and  Linda Tutas Haugen's Pocahontas (2007).  Here is a sampling of the feast of American opera from the past two decades -- by no means a complete list:
  • Robert Aldridge (Elmer Gantry)
  • Jake Hegge (Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair, Moby-Dick)
  • Ricky Ian Gordon (The Grapes of Wrath)
  • William Bolcom (A View from the Bridge; McTeague; A Wedding)
  • Mark Adamo (Little Women, Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess)
  • Daron Hagen (Amelia, New York Stories)
  • Jorge Martín (Before Night Falls)
  • Lewis Spratlan (Life is a Dream)
  • Tobias Picker (Emmeline)
  • John Corigliano (The Ghosts of Versailles)
  • John Adams (Doctor Atomic)
  • Carlisle Floyd (Cold Sassy Tree)
  • Philip Glass (Orphée, L'Enfants Terribles, Appomattox)
  • Rufus Wainwright (Prima Donna)
  • Bernard Rands (Vincent)
  • Glenn Winters (Tales from the Brothers Grimm) (Hey - what am I, chopped liver?!)
And more are being created all the time.  Of these, some have been extraordinarily successful, earning ovations and repeated hearings; others were received with respect, but have struggled to see the light of day following first productions; still others, frankly, stink and will sink from view to no one's regret.  However; despite fretting from some critics such as the Washington Post's Anne Midgette, this rate of success is typical of opera's track record since the days of the Florentine Camerata; after all, only about 10% of the operas of Gaetano Donizetti remain in the standard repertoire.  Opera: it's not so easy!

Would a Secretary of Art increase the flow of commissions for new American Opera?  Would he somehow upgrade the quality of the works produced?  Would his promotional efforts make new operas find greater popularity?  Are France, Germany and Italy producing contemporary opera at a comparable rate and with comparable success?

Doubtful, doubtful, doubtful, and no.  Mario Tutino's La Lupa is unlikely to be seen at a major American house; Wolfgang Rihm and Olga Neuwirth have composed sparingly for the stage; and French opera appears to have died with Francis Poulenc.  These are nations with Ministers of Culture, yet their production of contemporary opera is dwarfed by the United States, which has no such position.

On the other hand (trying for balance here), there are many who point to the need to deal with artistic problems of the Digital Age, including copyright infringements and the piracy of films and music.  The argument has been made that these issues rise to the level of being best served at the federal level by a Secretary of Art.

SO: here we are at the end of a long post ('fess up: you didn't skip stuff and just scroll down here, did you?  DID YOU??) and I promised you an opinion.  Look, I'm not saying that a Secretary of Art would have no role to play; that it wouldn't create a boom of interest in Art, with a possible trickle-down effect for arts at local levels; that a charismatic, inspirational Secretary with real chops in the arts wouldn't send the message to the international community that, like the priority Winston Churchill placed on British art even during World War II, we Yankees value art as much as we value the military and the Stock Exchange.

But my distrust of bureaucracy and my positive assessment of the State of American Opera have me leaning towards punching that "NO" button.

(Don't tell Quincy - I hate to get on his bad side...)

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online from amazon.com or at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.


  1. You make a rather good point. Perhaps the U.S.A. needs to develop a respect for the arts before risking political control of the arts.

  2. "But my distrust of bureaucracy and my positive assessment of the State of American Opera have me leaning towards punching that "NO" button."

    -Congratulations on joining the conservative wing of the Republican Party. I won't tell your friends. Good luck with the contest.