Politics is an art-free zone For months now, we’ve had the chance to watch as a virtual baseball team of politicians has campaigned to determine the Democratic Party’s next candidate for president of the United States. These ambitious individuals have been called upon repeatedly to answer questions regarding their views on a wide array of issues, from the most effective way to wage asymmetric warfare to the appropriateness of snowmobiling in national parks. Indeed, at one such forum — on National Public Radio, no less — each candidate in turn was required to reveal whether they had ever ridden on a snowmobile. One subject that hasn’t been on the radar screen during this election season has been the arts. While it’s probably safe to say that no current candidate, including the incumbent, President Bush, would say that they’re against them, finding out what the candidates might be planning for the arts and public policy over the next four years hasn’t been easy. If you go to the various candidates’ campaign Web sites, you’ll be lucky to even see the word “arts,” let alone find anything like an articulated view on how the arts might be used to, say, improve public education or revitalize communities.
Dennis Kucinich, at least, has something on his site called “Culture Corner” (mercifully avoiding the obvious temptation to top each word with the letter K). But this section has to do with songs, poems and pictures people are making in support of his candidacy. This situation would have been at least slightly different during the election cycles in 1992 and 1996. In those days, the so-called “culture wars” were raging. Candidates on the right, Pat Buchanan in particular, were eager to use the National Endowment for the Arts’ grantmaking to a few, individual artists as an opportunity to flog what they saw as wasteful, even unpatriotic, use of taxpayers’ money. A lot of smoke was blown about the white wine and croissant crowd back then. Unfortunately, arts advocates appeared to be struck dumb by the gleeful vociferousness of these attacks.
That might help to explain why today politicians seem ready to talk about anything but the arts. The sad fact is that unless they reference hobbits or hip-hop, candidates who show an interest in the arts are afraid of being branded elitist — either by the public or, more likely, by the press who seem hellbent on knocking candidates for interests that extend beyond sports and fast food. Not long ago I heard a political commentator — again on NPR — saying that Howard Dean’s correct pronunciation of the word milieu was bound to be a misstep since it revealed his patrician, East Coast roots.
That’s a far cry from John F. Kennedy’s Camelot era. People in those days might have had worries about the candidate’s Catholicism, but they dug the ease with which he and his wife flaunted their taste for the good life — meaning a life that understood that truly good things, like Robert Frost’s poetry or Pablo Casals’ musicianship, were worth learning about. The Kennedys, to use the parlance of the time, had class when class was still something to aspire to.
Over time, class has become less about what you know how to enjoy than about what you got. This, of course, has always been a tendency in American life. F. Scott Fitzgerald called it in the 1920s when he observed that he who dies with the most toys wins. But the triumph of mass media and the contemporary predominance of a celebrity culture based more on attracting attention than any other form of accomplishment has overheated our always simmering cultural stew.
Ironically, it’s the conservatives among us who would seem to have the greatest stake in trying to bring the arts back into mainstream public discourse. They are the ones who groan the loudest about our society’s lack of values. You’d think they would be keen to bring art’s timelessness and individualism before as many eyeballs as possible. The hitch is that their belief in market-based solutions hasn’t led people to the classics, but to the R-rated multiplex. So we get a political campaign like the one we’re now enduring, which suggests that the arts are, at best, incidental to what politicians care to address.
Some would have it that this means the arts are less important than the issues outlined on the candidates’ Web sites. But maybe it’s something else. Something to do with empty suits and soulessness — the stuff that low voter turnout is made of.