For two weeks I’ve been reading and re-reading an earnest post called “Please, save me from my cynicism!” on the blog Artistic Discourse, published by American University arts management graduate student Zack Hayhurst. The more I read and re-read it, the more I realize how sadly cynical I am as well. More than anything, I wish I possessed the innate sunniness and sheer optimism that would propel someone like Hayhurst into writing such a post — or, for that matter, for becoming part of an arts-management graduate program at a cultural moment when the nonprofit business model is teetering on life support; when audiences for, and interest in, the arts is either rising or falling or both, depending on your viewpoint; when the pervasive and deadly American joblessness make the arts seem more like a frill even as we know it is precisely anything but disposable.
Hayhurst wrote his post in reaction to reading Art’s Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights by Bill Ivey, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Ivey holds an esteemed spot with the arts-advocacy establishment for good reason: He was not only a superb agency administrator but visionary with regard to funding, organization and, simply, the notion of the arts as the hallmark of a healthy, evolved, sophisticated society. It’s really quite simple, in fact. The flourishing of the arts means we’re doing well. Political and/or socioeconomic fury toward the arts means an irregular heartbeat, a stroke precursor — or something sociologically worse.
Perhaps unwittingly, Hayhurst observes the symptoms of our national sickness in Ivey’s book. The former chair tells a story about “a discussion he had with a Republican senator whilst trying to garner Congressional support for the NEA’s Challenge America Initiative.” In the tale, Ivey took a meeting with the chief of staff of Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ), who, Ivey writes, “was then head of the ‘CATs’ — the secretive Conservative Action Team (now called the Conservative Study Group) that set the informal agenda for far-right Republican members of the House.”
First, Ivey writes that he “patiently explained the changes that had been made at the agency.” Then made his pitch for the Challenge American Initiative.
About fifteen minutes into the meeting I asked what he thought; would his boss support us? As I remember it, he said: ‘You’re doing a great job, but we’re still going to oppose you: you’re just too good an issue for us.’
Yet this is, to me, no shocker. The far-right, as The Clyde Fitch Report has repeatedly warned, considers the arts a weak means to a strong political end. They hunger, I continue to assert, for a fiery, devil-may-care re-arming of the culture wars of the early ’90s.
For Hayhurst, it adds up to a dismaying realization, phrase as a question:
How can we as a country, with a representative republic form of democracy, ever hope to achieve noble causes like quality education, viable healthcare and a burgeoning arts and culture scene, if we have people representing us who only look at these issues as opportunities for their own political gain. Is it too much to ask that they simply be honest and follow what they think is right and not what they think will get the elected?
Later in his post, Hayhurst asks:
How are we, as current and future arts and cultural leaders going to argue our case for support with those who have these types of political attitudes? In a culture that is becoming ever increasingly segmented and niche focused, how can we break through the clutter and garner support for solid and supportive arts and cultural policy? Policies that foster growth and expression rather than limit and obscure it.
How I wish I could ask those questions and not know the answers! Hayhurst is right to ask them. He’s right not merely to ask but, in fact, demand that our representatives examine all issues beyond those of “their own political gain”; to be “honest and follow what they think is right.” Our nation, however, is enduring one of those periods in which that is not just impossible but, some might argue, not even desirable. Is it a cold, clammy, catastrophic civil war we’re living in? When Hayhurst asks in the title of his post to be rescued from cynicism, I wish I could.
In the comments section of his post, I wrote the following:
You are right about all of this, of course, but the problem is – and I know I sound dire – we are headed for a real political crack-up in this country, left vs. right. The fracturing – or should I say balkanization – of the nation is affecting, and will continue to affect, support for the arts just as it affect every other aspect of life. When you ask our political leaders and power-brokers to “simply be honest and follow what they think is right and not what they think will get them elected,” you assume that the right-wing doesn’t actually believe what they say they believe. But they do. And in deep-red states, that is precisely what get them elected. So what incentive have they to entertain new ideas. The arts, as an extension of freedom of speech, frightens the right to death. It’s a gloomy situation, truly.
I, too, yearn to be rescued from the my own pit of cynicism. Any realistic assessment of the state of the arts, though, is predicated on revealing things as they are — like the Congressional chief of staff who would rather preserve the arts as a radical Republican punching bag than preserve and protect the arts as symbol of American democracy.
Perhaps if more people are forthcoming as Ivey is, perhaps if more bloggers explore the emotional devastation of their own corrosive cynicism, we’ll emerge from this time a healthier arts-centric nation. Prognosis for now, though? Slim.