That cloud of energy that enveloped the National Mall this morning, the vapor of an simultaneous exhalation synchronizing the breathing of millions to the beat of one brave and honorable man’s heart! Hope was in the air and relief soared alongside, like two birds in flight: we survived eight years of George W. Bush and look what we got instead!
The tears I shed watching the inauguration on television had a complicated, confusing taste. I kept flashing back and forth between the scenes I was watching and Keith Olbermann’s amazing video that portrays 8 years of Bush in 8 minutes. I breathed in Bush and breathed out Barack.
For the last month or so, I’ve been having a sustained deja vu experience, a nostalgic trip, with some of the same companions I joined decades ago, to a time of intense possibility. I’ve been obsessed with the notion of a “new WPA for artists,” a new public program that, as in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, put artists to work in community service, placing their gifts at the service of recovery, not just of the economy, but of the spirit of true democracy.
I’ve been writing about it, scheming about it, having innumerable excited conversations about it, waking up in the middle of the night with new ideas for how to go about it, working on it instead of blogging or even doing the laundry, and corresponding like mad with people I’ve barely seen in thirty years who were allies in our nation’s last great experiment with public service jobs for artists in the 1970s. (I invite you to help: see the links at the end of this message.)
All this fresh energy of hope is so unaccustomed after a long time of downsizing any sense of public possibility—of reluctantly learning how to resign oneself, of merely hoping to do it without resigning from the human race—I feel a bit like the sedentary person who suddenly decides to run a mile. This morning, in a confusion of tears in front of the TV, I had to let myself inhale the reality that it has been a full thirty years, ever since the election of Ronald Reagan, that anyone committed to cultural democracy has had the merest hope of seeing our democratic ideals reflected in the public sphere. Then I saw the grace and generosity with which Barack and Michelle Obama bade farewell to George and Laura Bush, and exhaled hope.
I would like to be able to convey this experience of my generation, that we were given an opportunity in the sixties to align ourselves with a potent energy of reinvention and renewal that convinced us that society could be remade along much more colorful, humane and equitable lines. Every day for years, I was able to feel something I then imagined was natural to young minds: that everything in life was available for questioning, and that the ideas that arose in response to our questioning truly mattered, not just to ourselves, but to the world. This kind of thinking was a perpetual motion machine, intellectual excitement feeding its own voracious appetite for more of the same.
We encountered opposition, to be sure, some of it from police batons. But too young to truly learn from history, it seldom occurred to us in those days that questioning everything might be so offensive to very powerful people that they would bury us. The feeling of disbelief that followed Reagan’s election, our astonishment at the truncation of a presumably unstoppable process, lasted just about as long as the sixties had. Many of us continued to question, propose and yearn, but without much hope. To reignite hope, it took enough time passing for a leader to arise who was not annealed in the high-temperature hope of the sixties, who saw history and tradition less as obstacles than as part of the big picture, for whom consensus has more value than victory.
Breathing in doubt, I breathe out hope. I don’t know if my dream of a new WPA will come true in the Obama administration. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan unveiled last week is a singularly unimaginative piece of legislation, leaning entirely on the simple-minded approach of adding more money to existing programs, as if they were so great all they needed was bigger budgets. The downside of consensus is that it relies on people staying close to their comfort zones, privileging the done thing. All social policy entails risk, but social imagination embraces it. Yet we have four years—eight, I hope, with another progressive administration to follow—to depict, polish and promote the dream, making the new familiar.
One step at a time. Right now, there is an essential action priority, and that’s where you come in. The substantial employment and training funds in the recovery bill could support public service jobs for artists, but only if Congress adds language promoting that use of the funds. Otherwise, the regional and local agencies that administer the eventual jobs programs will simply conduct business as usual, leaving artists and arts organizations out. To secure a foothold, members of Congress must include language in the bill that specifies “hiring artists to work in schools and communities” as a legitimate and worthy use of these funds.
The National Campaign to Hire Artists to Work in Schools & Communities is asking people to contact their representatives right away, especially anyone who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which will mark up the recovery bill on Wednesday. The goal is to make this one request: include language in the bill that specifies “hiring artists to work in schools and communities.”
If you want to ask for more jobs or funds, too, that would be great (the $200 million in CETA arts job funds of 30 years ago would translate into over $900 million today; the 40,000 arts jobs supported by the WPA of the 1930s would translate into 100,000 today).
Right now, the volunteer group of artists and activists is dedicated to this simple, winnable, short-term aim. They need a little money to help with promotion, including a soon-to-be forthcoming YouTube video featuring accomplished artists who got their starts in public service jobs. So you can also help by making a donation through PayPal, writing in “National Campaign to Hire Artists.”
Please see my new essay at communityarts.net, calling for new WPA! Breathe in business as usual, and breathe out a new WPA!