From Obama's Arts Policy, Expecting 'No Drama'

Obama dances at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

He can move... and look for Obama to dance around any controversial aspects of support for the arts in coming months. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais hide caption

itoggle caption AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

by Marc Acito

We shouldn't be surprised that President-elect Obama has proposed an arts platform for his administration. After all, this is the man who busted a move with Ellen DeGeneres and then accepted the Democratic nomination while wearing a magenta tie that matched the dresses of his wife and two daughters.

But the last time the country had a conversation about the arts, the arts lost. That was in the 1980s, when Republicans sought to kill the National Endowment for the Arts over a handful of controversial artists.

So before the arts community gets all excited, we need to remember that Obama's also the guy who chose Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. So I'm thinking that performance artists who smear chocolate over their naked bodies while reciting the Lord's Prayer should prepare to be disappointed.

Don't get me wrong. I love controversial performance art. Quite recently, I paid good money to see a dancer dressed as the moon plant an American flag in an orifice I don't care to mention. But the word avant-garde means "advance guard," as if they were the foot soldiers leading the way into enemy territory, expanding the boundaries of culture. And, like foot soldiers, they are always going to be the first casualties in America's ongoing culture wars.

So here's what's going to happen. President Obama will put increased funds and attention toward the arts, supporting politically safe ideas such as arts education. And the avant-garde will cry censorship and talk about how European countries fund opera companies where Mozart is performed in leather with whips.

But the United States ain't Europe. This is a country founded by English Puritans and Dutch capitalists and some things never change.

Back in April, Obama recalled his childhood when even the poorest school districts had an art teacher and a music teacher: "People understood that even though they hadn't done all the scientific research, children who learn music actually do better in math and kids whose imaginations are sparked by the arts are more engaged in school." This is sound logic, but also safe.

So, at the risk of raining on anyone's parade, the best thing the artistic community can hope for with the new president's proposed arts platform is an increase in spending on arts literacy. If we get an "Artists Corps," as Obama's campaign platform suggested, it will focus on teaching the basic artistic skills that have disappeared since Obama went to school.

On the other hand, with arts funding drying up in our current recession, even that modest proposal sounds pretty "advanced."

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