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Saw this on the NEA web site, www.arts.gov under Endowment news. Thought it
Remarks by Bill Ivey, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
America's Creative Legacy: An NEA Forum at Harvard
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cultural Collision: America's Creative Center
Feburary 17, 2000
Despite the great accomplishments of your Arts Endowment, it is clear that
over the past thirty-five years, those who care deeply about the importance
of art to American society have been engaged in the nearly Sisyphean task of
moving cultural concerns from the perimeter to the center of community and
family life -- the task of placing art and art making in public policy. As
Chairman Alexander has said, the arts are not yet "thoroughly integrated
into our lives."
Our struggle continues.
And, there is irony here. Even as the Endowment's successes have never quite
translated into an understanding of the role of creativity and cultural
heritage in the vitality of our democratic experiment, even as "the Arts"
have remained on the margins, something recreational, reported in the Style
or Living section of the newspaper, these very same arts, and our federal
investment in the arts, have been the battleground for sharp ideological
infighting. The paintings, performances, music, and photographs that are
collectively viewed as peripheral, as entertainment, have been, at times, a
lightning rod attracting charged rhetoric surrounding religion, sexual
identity, subversive political activity, youth violence.
So, art is marginal, secondary, "a frill." Except when it's not.
Art is not yet fully established in public policy, but we frame some of our
deepest beliefs and debate our most pressing social concerns around art and
Now, there's more than the germ of a serious and valuable idea here. More
than the hint of an important challenge in this ironic distance between the
way our society devalues art in the abstract and how important it suddenly
becomes when it gets under our skin.
The serious and valuable idea, of course, is that political controversy
about art can -- and should -- be taken as irrefutable evidence that what
we're about is important. And, the equally clear challenge is to distill the
energy that attaches to art when it irritates, and direct that energy toward
centering music, painting, and dance in community and family life.
Can we look to history for the underpinnings of an invigorated engagement in
our creativity and cultural heritage? I don't think so.
For Washington and some other founding fathers, an investment in culture
--for example, Washington's dream of a national university -- could have
become a triumph for America's newly created central government, but those
dreams foundered on the shoals of states rights.
Arts programs of the New Deal subsumed art beneath an agenda dedicated to
worker relief, and our Depression-era commitment to culture buckled easily
under the weight of economic recovery and partisan political attack. In
fact, Michael Straight, Deputy Chairman to Nancy Hanks, argued that WPA arts
programs ultimately "left a bitter legacy."
In the 1960s, rhetoric surrounding the creation of the NEA extolled the
overarching, universal value of the arts, while at the same time, advancing
the American artist as a unique symbol of America's democratic freedoms. A
solid argument, but in retrospect, we can see that Claiborne Pell, Sidney
Yates, John Brademas, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, and others seized a
wonderful, and perhaps unique, opportunity to bring a federal arts agency to
For, as critic Michael Brenson, scholar Alan Levy and others have observed,
East-West, Cold War conflict served as a vivid, if unacknowledged, backdrop
to the construction of a federal investment in culture. In a Cold War
wrestling match, art and art making mattered. What context, short of an
international cultural war, could have placed pianist Van Cliburn's victory
in the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition on the front page of virtually every
newspaper in the nation? A victory in a piano competition!
It's no accident that the notion of the artist as a unique symbol of our
democracy faded with the fall of the Iron Curtain. And, it should surprise
none of us that a decade long attack on the NEA began just as the Cold War
ended. That carpet of support -- art and artists as democratic symbol, as a
metaphor for democratic values -- was quietly slipped out from beneath our
feet. And we took quite a fall.
So, it's clear that part of our task in locating a firm foundation upon
which to build an expanded investment in creativity and cultural heritage,
is to try to place our argument outside what might be called "the tyranny of
context" -- Washington's states rights-federalist debate, the New Deal's
relief agenda, the artist as Cold War symbol.
We can't even view American culture as a unified cultural stream.
History, tracking the growing complexity of diversity of America's
democracy, long ago rendered untenable the assertion formulated by Harvard
scholars like F. O. Mattiessen, Perry Miller, and their students, that we
could assemble a distinct national character out of our plural, regional
heritage. But if we cannot possess a single cultural stream, perhaps we can,
at least, identify a lasting metaphor.
I'll note here something written, almost in passing, by Chairman John
Frohnmayer in the months just after he left the Endowment. "...America may
not have a culture at all, but only a great cultural process." Frohnmayer's
observation takes us part way. He moves us from a search for a central,
permanent cultural identity toward a metaphor that embraces change.
And, I would assert that we do possess a defining metaphor. America has, in
a sense, tilted Europe 90 degrees, laying out, side-by-side, races,
nationalities, ethnicities, and artistic traditions that other societies
position hierarchically, atop one another.
Of course, our civil society hasn't fulfilled the ultimate political and
social promise of this egalitarian dream. But the process of democracy has
bequeathed a kind of "border culture," in which Americans live in the
perpetual state of confrontation, transfer, and opportunity that define real
and metaphorical boundaries.
For more than two decades, folklorists and anthropologists, like Richard
Bauman, Roger Abrahams, James Clifford, Amerigo Paredes, and others have
mapped the landscape of border life. Focusing on geopolitical boundaries,
like the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and great migrations, like the
spread of African peoples throughout the Americas, these scholars have
labeled borders as "society constructed by difference," an "environment of
opportunity," a "region of intensification of commerce and social
Borders are "contact zones" that provide "the constant reminder of our
otherness." They are crucibles in which "crossing" and "mixing" facilitate a
"struggle for survival" and "a new synthesis."
And, if we add a third sense, a metaphorical or conceptual definition of
"border," if we see the process of making culture, making society, in a
democracy as essentially a borderland activity, then we can begin to advance
art as central to the border process of conflict and recombination.
Significantly, the language of border conflict is everywhere applied in
discussions of American art. So, in a sense, we've already adopted the
notion of border as metaphor for art making.
Here's Peter Watrous, reviewing a Keith Jarrett CD:
"The piano, in jazz, has always been the meeting ground between European and
American musical practice."
Bernard Holland, writing of Marc Blitzstein's opera, Regina:
"The Broadway show, a cultural collision of East European Jewry and the
descendents of African slaves, is fresh food packed with energy, just
waiting for more upscale tastes."
Paul Simon, writing about music and culture:
"...Music is sometimes the only benign avenue of communication between
"Meeting place," "cultural collision," "benign avenue." These "border words"
could easily be drawn from Clifford, Abrahams, and Paredes.
So, the border, our nation's perpetual "border lifestyle" -- which can be
simultaneously seen as the central burden and the principal opportunity of
our democracy -- this same central metaphor is employed, almost reflexively,
to characterize the unique vitality of America's art and art making,
America's cultural heritage and creativity. And, the metaphor can be
extended or compressed to characterize the collision of artistic traditions,
borderland collisions, facilitated by technologies, old and new, that force
borrowing and accommodation, and give us jazz, film, modern dance, and
Borders -- geopolitical, cultural, and metaphorical.
To me, it's an extraordinarily useful way of looking at our society: a
useful way to place art at the center of the American experience, safe,
perhaps, from the tyranny of context.
If border, as metaphor for civil society, and art, as the currency of border
exchange, together offer us a firm starting point for asserting the
importance of a federal role, how do we proceed? How do we convert thought
into action as we begin this century and move forward from this Endowment
We must, of course, insure that the unique alliance that supports the
Endowment -- artists, educators, arts organization boards, civic and
political leaders, universities, entertainment executives -- remains strong
But, we must also target those segments of civil society in which art in
public policy can make a real difference.
I can think of three:
First, in education -- the centrality of art to civil society, the
importance of art to the establishment of a new, high-tech literacy, and the
value of art as a vehicle for enhancing the brain skills of young people --
insights and evidence must be marshaled to place art in its appropriate
central position in our educational system.
Second, we must address the needs of artists as a unique class of workers
and citizens by conducting research on the career paths of artists, and by
asserting the central role of artists as "ambassadors of the border,"
bringing heritage and creativity to truly livable communities.
And, finally, we must place art and art making at the heart of America's
diplomacy. Joseph Nye has identified "soft power" in international
relations: the ability to "get what we want through attraction rather than
coercion." Art is the "soft power" of our diverse society. It can be a
centerpiece of our diplomatic agenda.
These tasks will not be easy.
If art is going to be this important, this central to education, community,
and diplomacy, we must engage other actors, other agendas. We must continue
to move beyond the era of entitlement, in which the arts simply assumed a
moral claim on the public wallet, toward an era of community service, in
which support is earned.
This is the right time to move ahead, to build upon the work that so many
have completed in the past thirty-five years. A vision less dependent on
context, and a program grounded in evidence and research will flourish
together in a strong economy, a strong society. Both will flourish in a
society that rallies wealth and technology to enable art and artists to
resolve, perhaps for the first time, the borderland collision of cultures
that is the burden and blessing of our democracy.
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