NOTE TO READERS: My essay “Living Into The Questions,” leads off the Americans for The Arts’ blog salon about “The Beauty in Change: Considering Aesthetics in Creative Social Change Work.” Please read it and let me know what you think!
This is the talk I delivered last night at Bowery Poetry in New York City, on the occasion of the inauguration of the first 22 members of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s National Cabinet.
It is my honor and privilege tonight to welcome and inaugurate the first 22 members of the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a citizen-led, policy-oriented leadership group whose members have made themselves experts not just by studying but also by living the relevant knowledge.
We’re still building the Cabinet. Unlike typical presidential cabinets, we don’t ask one member to represent the entirety of an interest or issue—a secretary of defense, a secretary of state. We recognize that it takes the awareness and wisdom of people from many parts of the nation, many types of work, many cultural backgrounds, to bring the necessary knowledge to a subject as complex and encompassing as the public interest in culture. And it will take even more of us to activate the shift that needs to happen now, from a consumer culture to a creator culture, from a society swamped by fear, isolation, and competition to one based in equity, empathy, and interconnectedness.
Let me start by telling you a little bit about the Cabinet’s work, then introduce you to these remarkable individuals, some of whom are here tonight.
I’ll begin with the most important question: why are we doing this?
Now, we didn’t invent the idea of artists and their allies standing for the democratic principles of pluralism, participation, and equity and calling for attention to and investment in the public interest in culture. The USDAC may be going about it in a new and different way, but there’s a lineage to this work.
I could start back in 1936 by quoting the painter Stuart Davis who, opening the American Artists Congress said, “In order to withstand the severe shock of the crisis, artists have had to seek a new grip on reality.…in times such as we are living in, few artists can honestly remain aloof, wrapped up in studio problems.”
But I’ll just mention a few efforts I know from personal experience.
I co-authored the first-ever “California Comprehensive Cultural Policy” in 1978: “The overall goal of this policy is to develop cultural democracy, based on public participation in the cultural activity of a pluralistic society.”
I co-authored a new cultural policy proposal for the U.S. in Winning America: Ideas and Leadership for the 1990s, published in 1988 by the Institute for Policy Studies and South End Press: “The new democratic cultural agenda should promote diversity where government, market forces, and other powerful interests have discouraged it.”
Along with other activists, I co-authored the “Artists Call for Cultural Policy 2004,” addressed “to all candidates:” “We the undersigned artists and arts organization representatives come from all parts of the United States and reflect the heritage cultures of every corner of the globe. Our fundamental values are freedom of expression, diversity, equity, and a belief in art and culture as a means of building mutual trust and understanding, which is our best guarantee of peace and security.”
Following on an artists’ delegation to the White House I co-led in 2009, we authored “Art and Public Purpose:” “America needs a bold new investment in culture, a policy recognizing that culture holds the key to a future we can believe in. This Framework calls on Congress and the Obama Administration to support art’s public purpose.”
All of these efforts were serious, deep, and hopeful that someone in power would listen to us and respond. I’ll just say that our hopes were a little premature.
Now, I’m not giving up on influencing the powers that be to recognize the truth that art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for positive social change. I’m not done asking the questions that occur to me every time I consider that our nation is spending more than two annual National Endowment for the Arts budgets on war every single day, every time I see that we have the largest prison population on the planet, that comparing our spending on Incarceration Nation to our spending on education puts us to shame. I ask:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered, for our stupendous ability to punish, or our vast creativity?
And then I recognize that we cannot afford to wait for answers, to wait for a response from that listening ear in the halls of power. We need to do it ourselves, to awaken a grassroots creative change movement, engaging millions in envisioning and enacting a world rooted in empathy, equity, and social imagination. Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, said that
There are only two kinds of power in America. There’s organized money, and there’s organized people. For the last thirty years, organized money has had its way with policy and legislation in our economy. The only possible solution to the predicament we’re in is that organized people find their voice and demand a different path.
I was talking the other day with a Cabinet member who—like all of us—is thrilled to be part of this great adventure. He’s an activist for social justice, using his skills as an artist—he performed on the streets of New York City as part of the recent Climate March, for instance. He told me that most of his work is about calling people’s attention to what’s wrong so it can be addressed. It feels really different and really good, he said, to live into the future we want to help create.
We call the USDAC an “act of collective imagination.” Back in the day, we called it “prefiguration.” The idea was live as if the social order of justice tempered by love was already here. We would organize ourselves and behave toward others as we wished everyone to do. We would show what could be done by doing it ourselves, inspiring others to do the same.
And that’s why we are forming this august Cabinet, to live into our dreams.
The Cabinet’s purview is cultural policy. When we say “cultural policy,” we’re talking about support for artists and institutions, education, communications, the built environment, leisure, immigration, social inclusion and the right to heritage—and much, much more. How do economic development policies affect the cultural life of rural communities? When policymakers choose to spend large portions of our commonwealth on the world’s largest war and incarceration systems, how does that statement of national priorities affect our collective culture? Where in the cultural landscape do tax breaks and subsidies go? What cultures are valued for preservation? How do education policies affect our creativity and therefore our future?
One of the initiatives the USDAC is working on is a “Cultural Impact Study” process, for example. This is analogous to the environment assessments that have been required for federal projects since the passage of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. This is one of the most powerful and influential tools of environmental policy, because it forces us to consider the impact of our actions on the environment before we take steps that might do damage.
Right now, for example, if a local authority is asked to approve the destruction of homes, parks, and businesses in a deeply rooted neighborhood so that a sports arena or freeway can be built there, NEPA mandates research into environmental harm such as possible destruction of endangered species habitat or potential pollution. If negative impact is found, the project can be disallowed or steps to mitigate the impact can be required before anything can be approved.
But what about the impact on cultural fabric? What about the sense of belonging, the sites of public memory, the gathering-places, the expressions and embodiments of heritage cultures that would also be destroyed? Every community should be authorized to assess, study, and act on these too. The purpose of a CIS would be to help public officials make informed decisions that reflect a deep understanding of negative cultural consequences and the positive alternatives available.
Kind of a no-brainer, hm? And that’s just one example of the policies we need. Cabinet members will be on the alert for all kinds of opportunities to call public attention to important cultural issues. They will take part in USDAC Action Calls such as the People’s State of The Union you’ve heard about tonight.
A year from now, they will turn the crowd-sourced vision of a 2034 infused with the transformative power of art and culture that has been built through three rounds of Imaginings—they will turn it into a roadmap, rolling out the policies and initiatives we need to get there, and they will help us ensure that organizations, local governments—everyone who can help it get traction—will endorse and support it.
In the history of cultural activism, there has never been a body like this, equipped with this knowledge, charged with this responsibility. Everything that is created must first be imagined. Here we are tonight, witnessing this historic event: We have imagined the USDAC’s National Cabinet, and together we are making it happen!
Are you excited to see what will come from the Cabinet? You will be even more excited when you meet these 22 individuals. (Here they are.)
Join me now in inaugurating these stellar founding members of the USDAC National Cabinet. Please repeat after me:
By the power vested in us by countless generations imagining a future they want to inhabit and moving heaven and earth to make it real;
And by the power vested in us through our creativity, integrity, and commitment to cultivate the public interest in art and culture and catalyze art and culture in the public interest;
We hereby welcome these 22 founding members of the USDAC National Cabinet and duly authorize them to take office and fulfill their collective mission with honor, beauty, and success.
The amazing Yolanda Wisher, a USDAC Cultural Agent, kicked off the inauguration with a remarkable poem I hope to be able to share with you soon. In tribute to that love song, here’s the late, great James Booker’s version of “Something You Got.”