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Arts Czar: Yes or No?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 12:11 PM

When composer/musician/producer Quincy Jones joined us on November 14’s Soundcheck, he said the next conversation he had with the newly elected president, Barack Obama, would be to plead for a Secretary of the Arts. (There are no six degrees of separation with Quincy Jones – he knows everybody.) It struck me when he said this that perhaps alone among the world’s “developed” nations, the United States does not have a Cabinet- or Ministry-level position for the arts. No Minister of Culture, as there is in almost every country in Europe, or in Brazil where legendary songwriter Gilberto Gil holds the post. But then I thought – wasn’t the whole point of America not to follow the European model? Isn’t that why we don’t have a monarchy?

(Watch Quincy Jones and band live in Europe in 1960)

I have to say I’m really conflicted about this. At first glance, it seems the right thing to do. Someone with the authority to speak on behalf of the country’s arts and cultural institutions, its artists and publishers and presenters. And perhaps equally important, someone to not only advocate for American culture in America, but in the rest of the world as well. Lil Wayne and Madonna are part of American culture, but a huge percentage of the world would be surprised to learn that Cajun fiddling, tejano music, Pueblo dance, and the Nuyorican poets are also a part of our colorful cultural quilt.

But – the arts are not a monolithic bloc. Is it possible for one person to really represent both the artists and the people who produce, present, or publish them? And isn’t there something American – perhaps uniquely so – about the way the arts happen here? You pay for what you watch, or hear, or read. (At least, that’s the theory, but that’s another blog…) You don’t pay for things you don’t care about. In Europe, you pay for the equivalent of NPR whether you listen to it or not – it’s paid for by taxes. Here, you pay for public radio only if you use it and care about it. Hence our enormously popular and widely anticipated on-air fundraisers. Doing it this way is much harder – for people on both sides of the mic. But there’s something democratic about it

I guess for me the tipping point is the idea that you won’t ever care about things if you don’t know about them. And in this country, where a small slice of pop culture casts such a huge cultural shadow, it’d be great to have someone in a position of real power and authority to make those sorts of introductions.

What’s your take? Do we need a Secretary of Culture, or the Arts? Leave a comment.

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