by JL Wall

H.C. Johns at The Other Right details the complicated concern that would be the suggested “Arts Czar.”  I suppose that in the end the matter depends a good deal on what, exactly, this post would aim to do: merely more centrally coordinate present federal programs (not so unreasonable, when you think about it), or to be the Department of Agriculture of the “arts industry” (and yes, I shiver when I type that in a way I imagine is related to how Wendell Berry shivers when writing “agribusiness”).

In fact, that concern is probably of greater importance than whether we’d be running the risk of a Cabinet-level meltdown over whether we should be teaching Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye (those arguments, at least, would have the virtue of amusing me — and it’s not like they don’t already happen elsewhere).  In short:

The second issue is the balance between things gained by a department level post, i.e. greater representation and organizational coherrence, and things lost, i.e. local autonomy, the risk of bureaucratic incompetence, monied interests coming to dominance, etc. To someone who follows the really atrocious behavior of the Department of Agriculture, those concerns must be the central question, particularly given the scale of the art market these days. (How many billion, exactly?) Though there is no art-world equivalent of Monsanto, its not out of the question that an art Czar could become a puppet organization for some concerns over others.

That is to say, I look at the risk of doing to the artistic aspect of culture what we’ve already done, more or less, to that aspect defined by place, and want to run away screaming.  Maybe I’m being less than rational in that, but nature abhors a monoculture, after all.

But if we’re looking purely at the arts, innovation and oftentimes what we’d define as “genius” are tied to the subversion of the established.  (Not that every great artist has been subversive, or the first to use a form, but this is the tension that keeps things alive.)  Such subversion  is, by nature, hard to do — and it should be.  But the arts, without such innovation and requisite subversion grow still.  And art, I’d propose, can’t stay still and stay alive.  If the model for such a post is anything like our cabinet-level Department of Agriculture, I think we’d likely see more power given to the established than there ought to be: more weapons, that is, with which to keep the arts standing more still than usual.  Not enough to kill art, of course, but possibly enough to harm it.

Setting all of those worries aside, I think the proposal (and even what I just wrote, then) very likely misses the forest for the trees.  Quincy Jones is worried because American schoolchildren don’t know much about their artistic and cultural history — that’s a valid concern.  But my school did all it could for me, and I’m still musically illiterate: two to three “music” classes a week from second through eighth grades, and all I learned was how to look like I could play the recorder and how to pass our notation quizzes without ever learning to read music.  I didn’t learn anything about music because I didn’t want to learn anything about music, and I can’t be the only one.  (In my defense, I’m furious at myself today for failing to learn anything back then.)  What I learned about art and music history first came in high school history, by the simple luck of having the same fantastic teacher freshman and senior years.  I pick things up from my friends (I have musically talented and literate friends who make me feel inferior by accident), and by reading.  But my school didn’t fail me; I failed to take advantage of what was presented.  And I was the nerdy one who actually sat still!

I imagine that not every school/school system even presents that much in the way of music, but the point is: even if you force the kids to sit through classes on music and music history from the time they’re able to read, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to listen.  I share with Mr. Jones a general overriding concern about cultural illiteracy, but I don’t think this proposal is in any way an actual solution to it.  Something more than just resources is needed, and it’s not a cabinet post or an Arts Czar.  I don’t have any solutions to offer, short of expelling every trace of vocationalism from education.  And that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

If we’re truly becoming more culturally illiterate, then that, in its way, has become part of our present-day culture and very much related to why it is such a difficult problem to do anything more than diagnose.  Culture — even just the arts — is too big to be wrestled into line by a government program.