Among the Intellectualoids

The Art of Cabinet-Making

Will arts, peace, and tourism be the next cabinet posts? 

By 2.12.09

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Less than a month into the Obama Administration and there is already talk of enlarging the president's cabinet -- and I don't mean his liquor cabinet. Among the proposed new posts are a Secretary of Peace and a Secretary of Arts. I can easily imagine Yoko Ono as Secretary of Peace, but Secretary of Arts is a littler trickier.

Legendary record producer Quincy Delight Jones -- himself not a bad choice for the post -- says he will personally "beg [President Obama] for a secretary of the arts." Meanwhile New York City Opera Orchestra bassist Jaime Austria has set up an online Secretary of Arts petition, which has nearly a quarter of a million signatures. Former NEA chairman Bill Ivey, a member of Obama's transition team, is also calling for a senior White House staff arts liaison. And last year the U.S. Conference of Mayors offered a 10-point plan on how the president could assist American cities, nine of which basically said "give us more federal tax dollars." A final point argued for "the creation of a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture and Tourism charged with forming a national policy for arts, culture and tourism." Want to know why our cities are in such bad shape? Attend a planning session of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

A Secretary of Arts is probably the next logical step on the yellow brick road to the Wonderful Land of Change. Whenever new government departments or programs are approved they tend to take on a Romero-esque life of their own and are nearly impossible to kill. Not that I'm comparing Washington politicians and bureaucrats to zombies. That would be an insult to zombies. Expect the only objections to new cabinet posts to come from small-government conservatives and libertarians and their voices seem very weak and small these days.

But wait, don't we already have a large federal bureaucracy for the arts? The State Department frequently sends cultural icons on ambassadorial missions. State's most popular program is its jazz diplomacy project called Rhythm Road, run by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Rhythm Road sends 10 bands to 56 countries a year. But that program is dwarfed by the National Endowments for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities whose combined budgets in 2007 were $265 million, and rising, thanks the Obama stimulus package.

But evidently this pittance leaves unfunded too many deserving performance and multimedia artists like the lovely and talented Tracey Emin, who might have to dip into her trust fund to finance her nude performances of a "menstruation ritual in a shower."

ONE MIGHT THINK state control of the arts would be the last thing an artist would want. What business is it of some anonymous philistine to withhold his imprimatur, or government seal of approval, from a lovely and talented performance artist in San Francisco because of what she wants to smear on her naked body? (There seems to be a theme here.) One might think that rebellious artists would cherish free expression more so than people who don't defecate on canvases for a living.

I am not alone in believing the arts would be better off without government involvement. "The most significant cultural diplomacy events that we've had," is what Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert Lynch called the New York Philharmonic's tour of North Korea in February 2008. And, yes, that tour was funded privately. Whether you think Americans should be entertaining the friends of the World's Craziest Dictator is another issue. Whether you find it ironic that Americans are trying to spread culture in the form of classical music to Asians is also another issue. (A quarter of the musicians that play professionally for the New York Philharmonic are Asian or Asian Americans.)

The issue at hand is what's best for arts and culture in America. And without question the free market is the best thing that ever happened to the arts. It isn't cash-strapped governments, but wealthy capitalists, who build museums, hire great architects to design them, and fill them with the works of artists both good and bad. In my hometown the two newest art museums -- the Pulitzer and the Contemporary -- were funded by donations from rich capitalists like Emily Pulitzer, large donations from area businesses like Anheuser-Busch, and by tens of thousands of middle-class art lovers.

I can imagine the greatest obstacle a Secretary of Arts might face is trying to decide what is and what isn't art. The Secretary of Treasury and the Secretary of Agriculture at least know what they are supposed to be advising the president about: money and dirt. But what politician is so wise as to know whether something is or isn't art? Here's a radical idea. Let the free market decide.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.