Eight years ago, as President Barack Obama was about to be sworn in for his second term, I noted that in the crush of inauguration activities he had forgotten something. Obama inadvertently omitted naming a new Cabinet member to be sent to the Senate for confirmation. Where was his Secretary of Culture?
You might question whether I was the one who had forgotten something. Oh, right, we don't have a Cabinet-level post for culture like they do in England, France, Germany, Albania (yes, Albania) and more than 50 other countries that count themselves civilized.
My proposal for creating such a post was not new: The arts were of enormous economic benefit, and the country was still recovering from the Great Recession of four years earlier. A shared culture is supposed to be what unites us as Americans, but we were increasingly divided. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, through which the U.S. government supports arts and culture, have pitifully ungenerous budgets and had become dishearteningly large political footballs. Standing outside politics (at least in principle), a Secretary of Culture could bring a broad social, economic, environmental and human perspective to the discussion of national policy in Cabinet meetings and in public forums.
It was time, but it wasn't going to happen. President Obama had to choose his battles. We all knew that. But in the aftermath of Donald Trump, the argument seems to have caught on around the nation. New York Times critic-at-large Jason Farago has examined the ins and outs of a cabinet post for culture. Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks has settled for the second-best thing, a Dr. Fauci for the arts. San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman has called for a new WPA, the Works Progress Administration that employed many artists as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris might well be open to such notions. The pandemic has provided a potent blow to the cultural life of this country, creating tremendous financial hardship. That alone should be reason enough.
Another argument commonly given for a Department of Culture is the role the arts play in our understanding of, our participating in and our responsibilities toward our humanity. The arts are engines of empathy. I gather politicians like to hear such things.
Farago employs Aristotle's advocacy of catharsis for further justification. What you take away from hearing a symphony, taking in an opera, attending a play, seeing an exhibition, reading a poem can elevate your psychic well-being. I suppose they can, but that is not so common as you might think. Just attend a rapt performance at the Metropolitan Opera and watch as New Yorkers fight their way out to be first for a cab.
Indeed, I've spent my life at concerts and operas. How many have provided an actual catharsis? Very few, to be honest. Were it otherwise, you'd lose your mind in no time.
Moreover, we hardly need the arts and culture to tell us how to feel. We've already got politicians demonstrating just how easily feelings can be manipulated. Witness the recent riot at the U.S. Capitol in the name of patriotism. Art, too, is easily manipulated. Wilhelm Furtwangler led a shockingly stirring performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," that celebration of universal brotherhood, to celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday in 1942, while Leonard Bernstein conducted it as an authentically stirring ode to freedom to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall 47 years later.
Instead, let the point of art be nothing more than the pointing out of something you hadn't noticed before. That something might matter or not. It might be a good thing or a bad thing, a big deal or nothing at all. But the act of noticing connects us with the world around us, our environment and all that inhabit it.