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The Pope, The Arts, A Nation in Crisis

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Never in my lifetime have I witnessed an America so filled with self-doubt. Doubt about our governing institutions, our schools, our health care, our industrial complex, our financial institutions, of who we are and who we have become. The spirit of fairness and shared destiny has descended into rancor and bitterness. For so many what had been a secure future, a decent home has turned into grim unemployment and loss of home and hearth.

The miasma that has descended on the land is palpable. Our sense of unease about the future has virtually done away with the sense of optimism that was the core of the American spirit.

This Saturday, in Vatican City, the Pope spoke before an audience of contemporary artists, but loudly and clearly enough for all of us to hear, to listen and take note. There he issued a clarion call to the assembled artists from all over the world to "be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty", continuing , "Do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who like yourselves consider they are pilgrims in this world and in history".

Who has not been greatly responsible is we, as a nation and government, to the deep spiritual healing and life force that the arts can bring us. Its joys, its shared experience, its sense of what and who we are. Just words? Not really, these are profound issues of a culture and a civilization.

Consider what little we have done to encourage the arts. Even this, under the guise of "helping the artist" as all too frequently being the frame of reference in which this issue is couched. Rather it is time for us as a people to call on those gifted with the vision and the creative impulse to help us once again to dream. To enlist and to engage them fully toward helping us achieve a renewed sense of nationhood and sense of pride.

To pinpoint the little we have done through our government:

  • Our national budget, now in the multi-trillions, has set aside for the institution most directly entrusted with the support of arts and the arts community, the National Endowment of the Arts a proposed budget of 161.3million. This, but a pittance of the monies that have been funneled to the multitude of other government programs.
  • Most tellingly, our 'stimulus package' of over $700 Billion set aside, almost grudgingly and with endless strings attached, but some $50 Million to help the arts community.

The sums speak loudly for themselves. It speaks, sadly, of a lack of understanding of what the arts are, and the ways they can assist us in this moment of melancholy.

It was not always this way. During the Great Depression the government had the vision to create one of the most effective government agencies in the nation's history, The Works Progress Administration (WPA) to carry out public works projects that included the construction of public service buildings, roads and fully integrating the arts by operating and commissioning large arts, drama, media and literacy projects. Almost every community in the United States has a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. The budget provided the then enormously princely sum of $7 Billion from 1936 to 1939. Not all for the arts of course, but the arts played a vital and leading role in the program.

If then, why not now? With a meaningful budget the NEA could reconvene its artists peer panels, panels that were so shamefully dismissed during the 'culture wars' of the early 90's, to review and act on public art submissions and the like. We have great, underutilized talents that could respond to such a mandate and make it flourish.

It is both ironic and sad that the Pope should speak almost at the moment of the passing of a great artist and visionary, Jeanne-Claude who together with her husband Christo collaborated on what was perhaps the greatest, most wonderful, and most healing art project since the end of World War II, an example of what art can do for a nation and its people.

The work, "The Wrapping of The Reichstag" (1995) probably more than anything else brought East and West Germans together. Before the "Wrapping" and after the fall of the wall there were still two Germanys. One disdainful of the other, somewhat resentful of the enormous cost of rebuilding the East. The other unsure of itself, adrift in a new world of new rules and priorities for which they had neither been schooled and were sadly unprepared. Suspicion, mistrust bordering on enmity reigned.

And then Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to wrap the Riechstag. It was an event of such staggering imagination, such immensity and so communal that all of Berlin came to see and mingle on the Reichtag's grounds for weeks on end. First from East and West Berlin, and then from all over the Eastern and Western parts of the new Germany. The air was festive and the hard experiences of adjustment of the years since the fall of the Wall seemed to lift as people rejoiced in the sheer wonder of the wrapped Reichstag, their Reichstag. And for the first time in many, many decades one could justifiably say, East and West Germans shared a common sense of nationhood. What happened there and then could not have been bought nor paid for. It was the vision of two artists and the support of far seeing government agencies that permitted it to happen. And it changed the spiritual landscape of Germany forever. And our spiritual landscape badly needs some TLC!