While Big Bird has surprisingly become Mitt Romney's bete noir in his quest for PBS, NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting scalps in recent campaigning, Romney long ago announced his decision to put an emphatic end to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This is back-page news for most people, but it should be seen as the canary-in-a-coal-mine moment for a coming final ideological assault on the American social compact and civic values that most of us share. A nano-percentage of the federal budget these agendas may be, but the arts and humanities have long been seen as targets of opportunity in the values and choice wars of the past 30 years, easy red flags to wave in the mugs of talk radio hosts, convenient distractions while the more serious business of women's and minority rights and freedoms are flanked by increasingly sophisticated (and deadly serious) political forces.
Well over a year ago, I was asked to add my voice to the useful noise of HuffPost bloggers. At the time I said yes, but then decided I was a reader first, an opinionator second, and that my voice could wait while I absorbed the contributions around me.
That said, and with the highly vocal exception of Kennedy Center chief Michael Kaiser, I have watched the traffic come and go by only to learn that the arts (and/or the humanities and other members of the immediate family) are to the national debate and coming election as Route 66 is to the busy U.S. interstate highway system -- a wind-blown vestige of a past national mythology that, like the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, finds its roots in the Kennedy administration, and later and deeper in that of LBJ.
Enough of the cultural silent majority.
The federal budget, however large or small, represents the social contract of the shared values and strategies by which we settle down together, negotiate the differences among us, vote up or down those who can improve or refine it, and ultimately maps the path we are following to arrive at our next developmental cusp of community-building. That map is Ground Zero for the border wars between Right and Left, the coveted terrain to be captured in each and every national election, and then sliced, diced and gerrymandered to the ideologues who win.
I run The Yard, a 40-year-old artist residency and performance center devoted to contemporary dance and related performing arts on Martha's Vineyard that has nurtured myriad important American artists in the pursuit of their imaginative goals. During The Yard's summer season, one of my favorite places to grab a breakfast is the Art Cliff Diner in Vineyard Haven. I like it so much that last summer I decided to add an Art Cliff baseball cap to my usual order. I ate, I left, and I tossed the cap onto the dash of my car as I headed up-island to work.
Perhaps because my day job is fine arts, I counter-intuitively follow macroeconomic news and its battlefield reporting the way some people follow sports. As my gaze drifted over the ball cap, I momentarily imagined there a logo for the fiscal cliff rather than the local diner, notable as much for the fact that my glance had eliminated the word "art" entirely as that it had replaced it with budgetary Armageddon.
What's real is the arts and their peers are well on their way to Armageddon no matter what may take place on or in lieu of the fiscal cliff coming to a government near you in early 2013.
There is a lot more to say here, and I plan to continue to do so as the election approaches and its aftermath settles in. But all of us, whether artist or non-artist, parent, child, teacher, health care provider or city planner, know that we live day-to-day in a shared culture, with the arts and artists among our most useful, adaptable tools and civic problem-solvers, editorialists and educators.
Know this: Your, our, vote is the only defense of last resort that we have to protect that fragile ecosystem of negotiated values and common landscape, and maneuver around the Art Cliff to the next critical front in the 30-years-war. Come November 6 (or sooner where early voting is possible), don't you forget it!