Two weeks ago I posted about an online petition in support of a cabinet-level arts official, along with a link to an article quoting arts leader Michael Kaiser, who is in favor of this. Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article by David A. Smith, who sharply opposes the creation of a cabinet-level position. Although he recognizes that arts institutions are struggling now more than ever, Smith states that centralization is not the best way to address the problem. He writes, “It’s a fallacy to move from that idea to the prescription that all government arts policy should be centralized and placed within a cabinet-level Department of Culture.” Furthermore, he argues that comparing a department of culture to other existing departments is futile:
“Many will say (often in a testy voice) that the arts deserve a cabinet-level presence because they are just as important to the country as the Defense Department. While that’s something of an apples and oranges comparison, the deeper problem is that it assumes that the country’s defense and its arts can be furthered via the same sort of bureaucratic means. But while our nation’s defense would collapse in the absence of the centralized power of our Defense Department, having a Department of Culture – or even a “Cultural Czar,” to use that awful label we’ve apparently become so fond of – would be neither an effective nor necessary way to guarantee the health of cultural expression in America.”
I agree with Smith that art is a “more individualistic enterprise” than many other activities, but Kaiser points out that “leaving the arts organizations to themselves”, as is currently the case, results in too many divisions “among many offices”. An arts official with a policy role would serve as a spokesperson for organizations, promoting increased support and cultural diplomacy. We need someone to ensure that the arts aren’t continually placed on the back burner, but, as Kaiser rightly notes, Congress is unlikely to create another department because of the cost. So, how do we save a struggling and neglected cultural environment?