Since November 5, 2007, I’ve been excited and energized by Barack Obama’s election as the next President of the US. After suffering eight years of anti-arts and anti-LGBTQ Bush initiatives, I’m hopeful that the tide will turn favorably for those of us committed to the arts and progressive social change.
During the campaign, I searched out the Obama campaign’s arts policy statement. Although the statement reads with the sweeping generalities typical of stump-speech rhetoric, the drift of his plan is notable for its emphasis on the arts and education. The platform trumpets Obama’s dedication to “nourish[ing] our children’s creative skills,” and quotes current NEA chair Dana Gioia, who says, “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.”
Well, yes and no. Yes, of course, arts education attunes people to the expressive possibilities of daily life, as well as exposing us to cultural practices through which we learn about our own and our society’s potential. With luck, arts education also teaches us to critique social restrictions on equity not just of expression but of existence.
At the same time, I wonder why we shouldn’t make it a public goal to “produce more artists.” This country needs more people capable of not just reflecting a range of values and norms but of helping us reinterpret present reality for new visions of possible futures. Artists’ unique ability to use images and metaphors and to demonstrate critically, emotionally, and spiritually how human relations move through time provides much more to the nation than just “byproducts.”
In addition to its focus on arts education, Obama’s arts platform proposes the creation of an “Artists Corp” “trained to work in low-income schools and their communities.” This, too, is laudable and important (and sounds much like Clinton’s AmeriCorps program), but it makes art an instrument of the economy and education. The platform cites studies that “show that arts education raises test scores” at the K-12 level, relying on arguments about the functionality of arts education. These rationales skirt the intrinsic and even aesthetic importance of the arts, as well as the need to support a vision of artists and their work as vital for free and creative, diverse and even contradictory national expressions.
Obama’s emphasis on internationalism is heartening. He wants to reinvigorate the cultural diplomacy the State Department championed during the Cold War, this time to “help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism.” Clare Croft, who’s writing her dissertation on dance and Cold War cultural diplomacy at the University of Texas at Austin, points out the complications of asserting American nationalism through the arts. She describes how artists meant to stand in for the nation at the same time asserted their own agency in ways the State Department neither intended nor could ultimately control. I’m pleased by Obama’s interest in pressing the arts back into the service of the nation’s relationships abroad, but wary of the kinds of xenophobic chauvinism that might be invoked in the process.
On the other hand, the platform promises that Obama-Biden will “streamline the visa process to return America to its rightful place as the world’s top destination for artists and art students.” Those of us who’ve invited international artists to conferences and festivals in the dark years since 9/11 know how difficult it’s been to bring people across the borders. Obama’s plan to ease restrictions and increase efficiency will help significantly, and make global artistic exchange feasible again.
But on still another hand . . .
Let me interrupt myself here to note how ambivalence seeps into my ruminations about our future under Obama’s leadership. I am deeply moved by the prospect of an African American president, and love the proliferation of images of Obama and his family looking toward the White House. Yet the same night Obama changed history, Prop 8 passed in California, representing a huge step backwards for LGBTQ civil rights by revoking same-sex rights to marriage that citizens of the state already enjoyed.
Most progressive activist organizations that pushed so hard for an Obama win are now turning their attention to redressing this discriminatory insult, as well as the anti-gay marriage votes in Arizona and Florida and the prohibition against gay adoptions in Arkansas. This one-step-forward-two-steps-back trajectory of social change frustrates me and makes it difficult not to see the lead interior in the silver lining of this election.
As performance artist Tim Miller has been explaining for many years, without marriage rights, he and his Australian partner, Alistair McCartney, will have to leave the country when Alistair’s visa runs out if they want to stay together. So while Obama might want to make it easy for international artists to visit, it will still be impossible for those who wind up in committed same-sex partnerships to settle in this country to pursue their emotional desires and needs. Gay and lesbian concerns aren’t even listed under “issues” on Obama’s web site, nor do they show up under the subsidiary inventory where the arts are housed. Under “civil rights,” Obama-Biden indicate they will “expand hate crimes protection by passing the Matthew Shepard Act.” No where else does the site even so obliquely mention LGBTQ issues. The platform includes a detailed statement on women’s issues, which are desperately important. But LGBTQ folks are pretty much invisible as you scroll through the site.
Once Obama takes office, he’ll have to prioritize as he moves deliberately and surely (one hopes) through the promises he made during his campaign. For “yes we can” to really gather force as the Obama administration enacts a new vision for the country, the arts and civil rights for LGBTQ people need to move to the top of his agenda.
Filled with a wary kind of hope that yes, we can,
The Feminist Spectator