Our House of Representatives just recently approved $330 million for the purchase of executive jets, but responding to public outcry backed down at the last minute. The Senate is yet to be heard from. Congress' currently authorized an annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (N.E.A.) of $155 million. Priorities speak for themselves.
On Friday, Mr. Rocco Landesman, appointed by President Obama, was confirmed as the new Chairman of the N.E.A. In a New York Times interview, he made it abundantly clear that he had little patience for the disdain with which politicians still seem to view the Endowment. Landesman was particularly angered by the debate and haggling over whether or not to include $50 million for the N.E.A. in the multi-hundred billion dollar federal stimulus package. He would note incredulously, "artists don't have kids to send to college, or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay?"
He further gave full measure to the role of the arts in the economy. Landesman was outspoken, "We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession... there has to be a place for us in domestic policy."
As significantly, Landesman talked of bringing the N.E.A. back to its original mandate, that of supporting and nurturing excellence in the arts, nurturing the best and most creative the nation has to offer.
With that focus. comes a profound appreciation of the towering significance of art to our society, especially as we, our nation and our civilization are engaged in a existential global struggle pitted against the deep antipathy of radical and fundamentalist Islam, its jihad pathology, despising our openness, our common values, ready to vanquish our liberties and turn women to child-bearing chattel.
Permit me to quote from a previous post, "Obama, The Arts, and Soft Power" 11.01.08:
As never before in this century of instant communication and the dissemination of information, it is the culture of a people that projects its influence and its' standing throughout the world. Yes, armaments and weaponry still count, as does economic might, but who we are and what our values are will have far greater impact in the minds of friend and adversary alike. And it is our art, our culture of today, playwrights and actors, our song writers and musicians, our choreographers and dancers, our poets and writers, our artists and museum curators, our film makers and art visionaries of every kind. This is the America the world is keenly interested in learning more about, seeing, feeling, experiencing. It is also one of our great strengths. This is a talented and gifted land with vast reservoirs of energy to create and dream.
Just one last point on how well Mr. Landesman understands the exigencies of his new mandate. In the NY Times article he is quoted that he would immediately reinstate the grants awarded to individual artists known as the "Artists Fellowship Program". The program was expunged from the N.E.A. by Congressional mandate in one of Congress' more triumphal feckless moments, at the height of the cultural wars some 20 years ago. Though seemingly arcane, this program of awarding individual grants to artists selected by panels of peers was the heart and soul of the N.E.A. and since its absence the Endowment has been but a shadow of its former self. Back in 2002 as the Bush administration's new Endowment Chairman was to begin his mandate, an Op-ed appeared in the New York Times arguing the case for reinstatement. Sadly, nothing came to pass. Mr. Landesman would be doing a great service to the N.E.A., the arts and the nation if the Artist's Fellowship Program were indeed reinstated.