Jeff Jacoby / July 26, 2021

No Ministry of Culture, Please, We’re American

Bad things can happen when art and culture must answer to the government.

On Aug. 18, 1787, at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed nearly a dozen powers with which he thought the new federal government should be invested. Among them: the authority “to establish seminaries for the promotion of literature and the arts and sciences.”

Pinckney’s list was referred to the Committee on Detail, and some of his suggestions, such as federal responsibility for patents and copyright, were incorporated into the Constitution. But his idea of empowering Congress to promote the arts was ignored.

The delegates were learned and cosmopolitan men who understood the value of literature, music, and art. They knew that in the Old World it was normal for artists to be sustained by royal benefaction. Indeed, King George III was an avid cultural patron, whose largesse had made possible the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts. But the men in Philadelphia intended the government they were fashioning to steer clear of such involvement. Consequently, nothing in the Constitution so much as hints that overseeing art and culture is a job for the federal government.

For most of American history, the wall of separation between art and state was kept intact. But pressure to get the national government into the business of fostering the arts intensified in the 20th century, especially after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration put 45,000 painters, writers, actors, and musicians on the federal payroll as a temporary relief measure during the Depression. In the 1960s, the National Endowment for the Arts was created to underwrite excellence in the arts. Though its definition of excellence has frequently proved controversial, the NEA has become a permanent feature on the federal landscape, with a current budget of $167.5 million.

But for some activists and critics, a mere federal agency, even one with tens of millions of dollars to hand out, isn’t enough. Every few years there are exhortations to establish a full-fledged federal Department of Arts and Culture, with a Cabinet-level secretary and a budget to match. Early in 2009, composer-producer Quincy Jones told interviewers he intended to approach the newly-inaugurated President Obama “to beg for a secretary of arts.” Jazz musician Herbie Hancock said he would fill the post if it were created.

Now the Biden administration is being urged to elevate art and culture to Cabinet status.

Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks, calling for “a Dr. Fauci for the arts,” contends that the United States should emulate the many countries that have ministries of culture, in order to “confirm what is unarguably true: that the arts are essential.” It’s a curious claim — the purpose of Cabinet departments is not to confirm truths, unarguable or otherwise, but to coordinate and regulate crucial functions of the national government. “One could wish,” Marks writes, that “the Biden administration would add a portfolio to make the US government as culturally savvy as Lebanon’s and Croatia’s.” Does anyone really imagine that that’s what the federal government is missing — cultural awareness on the Lebanese and Croatian model?

Many of those insisting that America needs a department of arts and culture make an economic argument. According to the NEA, the creative and performing arts generate $877 billion in direct and indirect economic activity and account for 4.5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. With so significant an economic footprint, the argument goes, it is vital to elevate the arts to Cabinet rank. But by that reasoning, the fashion and apparel industry also needs a Cabinet department dedicated to its interests. After all, it too has a vast workforce and adds hundreds of billions of dollars to GDP each year.

The importance of culture and the arts — painting, music, sculpture, literature, museums, theater — goes far beyond dollars and cents. At their best, they touch hearts, change lives, and broaden minds. They deepen civilization. They offer a glimpse of transcendence. They enable us to infuse enduring meaning into our mundane and all-too-short existence.

Of course the same is true of religion, which has had an extraordinary, far-reaching, and ongoing impact on American life. Yet no one is urging Congress or the Biden administration to put a department of religion in the Cabinet. Advocates aren’t clamoring for America to imitate the dozens of nations that have ministries of religious affairs. Everyone understands that government, at least in this country, should play no role in overseeing, coordinating, or promoting religion. That isn’t because religion isn’t important. It’s because it is far too important to be entangled with government.

So is art.

Bad things can happen when art and culture must answer to the government. “Sure, it would be fine to have a Ministry of the Fine Arts in this country,” growled the early 20th-century American painter John Sloan. “Then we’d know where the enemy is.”

Was he wrong? Vaclav Havel went to prison for writing plays the Czechoslovak government resented; in North Korea, musicians have been arrested for enjoying American music. The Cold War is over, but in too many countries, culture ministries continue to function as “instruments of political wrath,” to quote The New York Times’s critic at large Jason Farago. “The Hungarian government has used its funding rules to control what appears on theater stages,” he wrote in January, while “in Brazil, the last culture minister parroted the rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels.”

In the nearly two and a half centuries since the delegates in Philadelphia rejected Pinckney’s proposal, American art and culture have flourished. Mark Twain’s novels, Miles Davis’s jazz, Walt Whitman’s poetry, Lorraine Hansberry’s plays, Edward Hopper’s paintings, George Ballanchine’s ballet, Patti Smith’s rock — Americans have been producing world-transforming art for generations without requiring Washington’s guidance or money or directives. Whatever might be wrong with arts and culture today, more government won’t improve it. The framers of the Constitution had the right idea when they insisted on keeping art and state separate. A ministry of culture may work in other countries, but it has no place in America.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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