Arts, Culture, Entertainment Are Made in America, Too

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Photo: Joey Kyber on Unsplash.

Armor, baseball bats, Stetson cowboy hats, Bully Tools, beer, crab pots, colonial flags and helicopters manufactured by a Lockheed Martin company: These are some of the products featured in the West Wing Reads recommended articles regarding the White House’s recent Made In America Week, which was from July 16 to July 22.

You might notice that these items also hold a certain cultural tone. They, individually and collectively, send a message of bravado perpetuated by Trump’s speech that following weekend at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree. This tone was rough and ready, verging on misogynist and unapologetically appealing to a Rockwellian America.

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I don’t have a problem with salted pretzel balls, fire trucks, tractors, golf clubs, Gibson guitars and Campbell soup on display at the White House; these are quality products designed and produced by American companies. What I want to question is:

The President voiced his appreciation and attributed much of America’s success to the determination and ingenuity of its entrepreneurs, workers, and farmers, who drive our economy and support our military strength.

What was missing from the President’s notion during Made in America Week was the critical role the arts have in building the 21st century skills of those entrepreneurs, in educating and inspiring those workers, in connecting neighbors and those farmers, and in healing our military.

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Beyond contributing to other sectors, arts and culture are jobs. Arts and culture are income generators. Arts and culture contribute directly to local economies and the gross domestic product. Artistic products and arts and culture experiences are made in America and by Americans; they are, undoubtedly, wonderful examples of the “Buy American and Hire American” priority expressed in the President’s Executive Order.

According to Americans for the Arts,

Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $166.3 billion of economic activity during 2015 — $63.8 billion in spending by arts and cultural organizations and an additional $102.5 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. This activity supported 4.6 million jobs and generated $27.5 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments (a yield well beyond their collective $5 billion in arts allocations).

American arts, culture and entertainment offer unique strengths to our reputation around the world and, indirectly, to our national security. This is with one caveat: the arts supported in America must exemplify American values, such as risk and innovation, freedom of expression, health, empathy and diversity.

Buy American and Hire American.

Unfortunately, this is not the direction of the current administration. Whereas the Obama White House promoted cultural equity through hosting events, such as a celebration of African dance with Debbie Allen, a performance by the cast of Hamilton, jazz and country music concerts, and by engaging science fairs, the Trump White House has been mostly producing events on economic matters while promoting a cultural nostalgia featuring mostly white Americans. I believe their programming thus far is dangerously close to catering, openly, to racial bias.

Those in power must also inspire urgent and thoughtful social action. Whereas First Lady Michelle Obama was swift to marshal campaigns that encourage regular exercise, healthy eating, access to college and girls education, First Lady Melania Trump has yet to launch her one promised campaign against cyber bullying. I honestly hope it is effective, once it exists.

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I love America and hope the nation increasingly thrives in its artistry, critical thinking and service. May our economic prosperity be towards those ends and not toward greed or isolation. The next generation deserves quality messages, role models and resources in that regard as well. So while we Americans can subscribe to West Wing Reads to read what the White House wants us to read, we can also go to other sources. We can be reminded of statements by President Obama including:

The arts are central to who we are as a people and they are central to the success of our kids.

That said, reflecting on the prior administration and pining for the hope, progress and enlightenment it represented won’t get us anywhere. As the great Babe Ruth once said:

Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.

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Shawn Lent

Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post “Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?,” went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith’s College.