Talk for Talks Sake

Talk for Talks Sake
Once when Winston Churchill had forgotten his iconic cigars on the way to a speech, an assistant rushed to fetch them, but not because Churchill was mad for nicotine. Churchill’s persona required the prop, and he was rarely seen without a stogie mashed into his maw. Though his paintings won him numerous prizes (even when he submitted them under a pseudonym), it was always in the political sphere that Churchill was a master artist.

While it might not be obvious that the world of politics is an art unto itself, it’s self-evident that political leaders—from the Medici family to United States Senators—have always had a powerful impact on the arts. Republican front runner for the 2008 presidential nomination Senator John McCain has yet to provide a platform regarding the arts, but the Democratic candidates have outlined their proposals. Senators Clinton and Obama both support Senator Patrick Leahys (D-Vt.) “Artist-Museum Partnership Act,” which would allow artists to make tax deductions of the fair market value of works they donate to charity—though the bill has died for the seventh time in committee. And while both generally champion arts funding and education, a close reading of their platforms shows that neither acknowledges art as an end in itself. Rather, both candidates’ rhetoric politicizes art and stresses its economic and diplomatic uses over anything else. Obama in particular supports the arts by making practical arguments that downplay the inherent value of art; and yet these arguments are so stylistically appealing—and therefore effective—that they may be appreciated for their own aesthetic value.

According to information available from the Barack Obama campaign, the Illinois senator believes that the arts should be a “central part of effective teaching and learning.” He proposes increasing funding to expand public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations, and he intends to create an “Artists Corps” of trained artists to work in low-income schools and their communities. Obama also hopes to increase funding to the NEA, whose budget has been slashed by $50 million since 1992. All of these are worthy, unobjectionable (from my vantage point) policy goals, but his stated motives are problematic. To quote from his platform at length:


To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children’s creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. …The Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts recently said “The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

While it is not surprising that Obama considers competitiveness a virtue, it is disconcerting that he seems to think the value of arts education is that it creates better workers or citizens, not better artists. By the same token, as much as one is tempted to grow excited about his promise to attract foreign artistic talent to the U.S. (by loosening visa restrictions), his campaign’s motives for sending American artists abroad seem to border on the propagandistic:

Through efforts like that of the United States Information Agency, America’s cultural leaders were deployed around the world during the Cold War as artistic ambassadors and helped win the war of ideas by demonstrating to the world the promise of America. Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, our resources for cultural diplomacy are at their lowest level in a decade. Barack Obama will work to reverse this trend and improve and expand public-private partnerships to expand cultural and arts exchanges throughout the world.
Here Obama makes use of clichéd capitalist and military metaphors: “utilizing” art to win a “war of ideas.” It’s a rhetoric that is likely to offend anyone who believes in the autonomy of the arts, in an art that needs no justification, in the aesthete’s credo of l’art pour l’art. It’s also a rhetoric that Obama might live to regret: Linking political interests with artists, aestheticians, bohemians, and subversives in general could unleash a monstrous arts-industrial complex comparable to Eisenhower’s feared military-industrial complex. Ike had his H-bombs; Barack could arm the U.S. with a brigade of nihilistic installation artists.

In contrast to Obama’s, Senator Clinton’s campaign offers no lengthy justifications. On the NEA, for example, her platform is quite succinct:
Hillary Clinton believes that the NEA is essential to the arts infrastructure in America and understands the valuable role the federal government plays in promoting the arts.

On education, she does not make strongly worded arguments about art as a means to make better workers:

Hillary Clinton understands that strong arts programs are part of a well-rounded education that helps enrich the next generation of America’s leaders and develop their abilities to think creatively and independently.
Still, “enriching leaders” is a long way off from supporting art for its own sake. However, when Clinton does make arguments that politicize art, her language is more understated than Obama’s. She speaks more of exchange, while Obama’s platform concentrates more on imposing American ideas on others or convincing others about our way of life. The Clinton campaign writes:
In her travels, Hillary has seen first hand the importance of the arts and humanities as a way to build bridges among people of different countries, cultures, and faiths. American arts organizations provide an important public service by presenting foreign guest artists in performances, educational events, and cultural programs in communities across the country. Hillary Clinton believes international cultural exchange is an essential to international diplomacy.

With his willingness to make the arts subservient to capital, Obama may weaken their potential as a social force in their own right. And while Clinton plays the same game, trying to sell the arts with political arguments, she does so less insistently, less effectively. She rarely justifies her proposals. When she does, she uses arguments that Obama has made more emphatically. And her rhetoric lacks the flourishes that will make Obama’s platform easily digestible to the public. Where Clinton limply “recognize[s] the value of arts and culture as an economic engine,” Obama forcefully asserts that “the nonprofit arts industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity annual for the U.S. economy, supports 5.7 million full-time jobs, and returns $12.6 billion in income tax revenue back to the federal government.”

In terms of actual policy, the candidates, as always, are very similar. Both support funding for the NEA, implementing better arts education and increasing cultural exchange. The few differences are slight and largely cosmetic. On the level of content, the foregrounding of art’s practical uses feels troubling to an art-for-art’s-sake aesthete. But unless you're posing as some kind of radical, Obama's language makes the more broadly compelling and effective rhetoric. Stylistic artifice not only proves effective politically, it also makes good art: Churchill won the Nobel Prize not for Peace, after all, but for Literature.