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“United We Serve”: Should the Arts be Politically Exploited?

Kalpen Modi, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement

I fear that my fears about a culture czar are being realized.

Thankfully, we still don’t have a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture, but we do have Kalpen Modi, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, who, in a conference call last week, sought to rally the artworld troops behind President Obama’s call for Americans to engage in public service.

It’s a worthwhile objective, to be sure. But government exhortations for artists to join the United We Serve brigade makes me more than a little uneasy. Many, if not most, of our most important and influential artists and cultural institutions are impelled by self-driven creative imperatives, not external political ones. That’s the way it SHOULD be.

As I commented when the controversy over Quincy Jones‘ call for a Culture Secretary briefly surfaced:

More government oversight will inevitably lead to more government interference and control.

During last week’s conference call (on which I was a lurker, after a waiting period rendered nearly unendurable by our being a captive audience for three clunkers from Kenny G‘s “Greatest [or Worst] Hits” album), there was much talk of finding ways to “get the arts community engaged in a sustainable way” and “leveraging federal dollars” to get artists and cultural organizations involved in social-service projects.

Americans for the Arts, whose president, Robert Lynch, played a leading role during the conference call, has launched a United We Serve arts website, where you can “share your story” on how “arts make change happen.” Among the highlights: “The Ultimate Happy Hour at Gap, Inc.” and the “United We Serve Arts Idea Kit.”

This was the second such conference call: In a post on the Big Hollywood blog (excerpted yesterday by the Wall Street Journal), Patrick Courrielche, who reported that he was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in the first telephone discussion on Aug. 10, came away fearing that the arts were at risk of “becoming a tool of the state.”

Courrielche wrote:

It sounded, how should I phrase it…unusual that the NEA would
invite the art community to a meeting to discuss issues currently under
vehement national debate. I decided to call in, and what I heard
concerned me….

Throughout the conversation, my inner dialogue was firing away questions….Is this truly the role of
the NEA? Is building a message distribution network, for matters other
than increasing access to the arts and arts education, the role of the
National Endowment for the Arts?

At the beginning of the second conference call, last Thursday, Modi informed us that “unfortunately our colleagues from NEA and NEH [the National Endowment for the Humanites]” were tied up in meetings and couldn’t participate, as had been planned.

Could it be they were having second thoughts about commandeering their constituents for this political adventure? We can only hope so.

One of those who added personal comments to the webpage announcing Thursday’s conference call said it best:

Am I the only one creeped out by this? The White House is asking the arts community to produce propaganda for its agenda—as if that was not already happening to an alarming level in a democracy….By saying this, am I gonna get on the “bad list” at the White House?

I’m “creeped out” too…even though, like many on the call, I supported and (with reservations) still support the agenda of the new President.

an ArtsJournal blog