Friday, January 30, 2009

Secretary of the Arts?

This is not a political website, but I have wondered at times whether that is a good thing.
After having seen Yo-Yo Ma, Itzach Perlman, Gabriella Montero and Anthony McGill perform John Williams at the Inauguration Ceremony, I believe it is perhaps time to break down that wall keeping politics out of the arts.
The arts are, after all, the most political of statements. A work of art is a statement, a reflection of the times and an opinion of it. If musicians have rarely been drawn directly into the life of politics, it is perhaps not so much that art has nothing to say about politics, but that politics has rarely risen to the level of discourse of the arts.
There are politics in the internal working of the arts - an organization like a Symphony Orchestra or a major opera house does not survive without political connections and board members who are politically connected. But rarely do the works of art that are presented by such organizations make overt political statements.
Mendelssohn said "It's not that music is too imprecise for words, but too precise". We could paraphrase this to say that “it’s not that music is not activist enough to be political, but too activist.” We see this most clearly in the extreme cases of totalitarian regimes, who knew of the power of music and tried to control it - see the heavy-hand of the Stalin regime, or the cultivation of Wagner’s music by the Nazis, or the crackdown on Western music during the Cultural Revolution in China.
But given the abstract nature of music, it’s ability to symbolize without reference to events, time or place, it is particularly suited to promoting the most essential aspects of politics while leaving alone what is most banal. That most essential element is the engagement, the communication of spirit and energy. Music can empower people, engage them in activities they would otherwise not warm to, and forge connections between individuals and groups that would otherwise never connect. This is the essence of politics, and especially of our democratic kind of politics, which require the involvement of the enlightened citizen.
And the most banal element that music leaves for others is the detail of law, the compromises, the actual materials of guidance that politicians fight for.
What we have seen in this last election was the triumph not so much of one ideology over another, because the actual ideologies of the man who won the Presidency have not been thoroughly expressed yet, have not been forced into clarity through specific policy decisions. The Left thought they had one of their own, then became disappointed with his supposed veer to the center. The Right cried alarmist warnings before crossing party lines en masse to vote for him.
Instead of ideological triumphs, what we really witnessed was a triumph of activism and involvement over laissez-faire and spectator government. More people became involved in the campaign, and in the process became involved in the actual substance of the law, the actual questions of how to govern, how to manage a society and its disparate needs and desires. However President Obama’s policies turn out, his presidency will be a triumph if he succeeds in engaging the citizens for a longer period than just the months leading up to the election.
Music can play a large role in this fortification of the spirit, this bridging of communication gaps, this engagement of the individual to the common causes of society. While it would be silly to suggest that the audience members of any particular concert would leave the concert hall to head directly to a local charity to sign up for volunteer work, or embark on a community organization project, or rush down to Washington to wave signs at a rally, it is not so far-fetched to imagine that people who take the time to participate in live concerts, who leave the hall in a euphoria of sound and ideas, would buy the local paper and spend a few minutes perusing it for information on events in their town, calling a friend to propose an evening out, and then going to the library to browse the history section for a book on the history of Russia. And it is this kind of engagement that, in the long-term, will create a more engaged political individual, one who is more aware of the world around them, and who eventually might even decide to do something to shape their neighborhood, or more.
You may have seen a petition circulating on-line, promoting an idea attributed to Quincy Jones for creating a cabinet-level position of Secretary of the Arts. I signed this petition, and while I don’t have utopian visions of such a position being created soon - no more than the creation of a Secretary of Peace - I do believe the conversation is important.
The symbolism of classical music is easy to create, and I do feel that the current President is aware of that. He has said he wants to bring jazz and classical artists to the White House, to make the White House the people’s house. Not only is this action easy to take, it would also be personally pleasant for the President!
So please sign the petition, and look for a concert you can go to in your neighborhood. Keep your eyes open for the next White House concert, and tell your congressman or woman that you want to support the arts. You will be changing the politics around you, for the better.