On inauguration day, Tom Brokaw was moved to compare Barack Obama's election to Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution. At the eye of each storm, of course, was an icon who merged the political and the aesthetic—Václav Havel, the rock-star poet and prophet, and Barack Obama, the post-soul master of his own story. Both struck down eras of monocultural repression with their pens.
Artists played a largely unheralded role in Obama's victory. But they had been tugging the national unconscious forward for decades, from the multiculturalist avant-gardes of the 1970s and '80s to the hip-hop rebels of the '90s and 2000s, plying a fearless, sometimes even unruly kind of polyculturalism. By the final months of the election season, these artists had secured Obama as the waking image of change.
Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Political transformation must be accompanied not just by spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk but by an explosion of mass creativity. Little wonder that two of the most maligned jobs during the forty years after Richard Nixon's 1968 election sealed the backlash of the "silent majority" were community organizer and artist.
Obama was both. So why haven't community organizers and artists been offered a greater role in the national recovery?
During the transition, arts advocates floated some big ideas—including the creation of an arts corps to bring young artists into underfunded schools, the expansion of unemployment support and job retraining to people working in creative industries and the appointment of a senior-level "arts czar" in the administration. But in practice, they faced the wreckage left by a nearly three-decade culture war.
In January they lobbied for $50 million for the NEA in the stimulus package and prevailed over Republican opposition. The one-time allocation will preserve more than 14,000 jobs, allow for new stimulus grants and leverage hundreds of millions more in private support for the arts. Two million Americans list "artist" as their primary occupation. Nearly 6 million workers are employed in the nonprofit arts-and-culture complex. In the words of the NEA's Patrice Walker Powell, the stimulus vote finally "dignified [them] as part of the American workforce."
The victory reflects how notions of the value of creativity have changed. During the past decade, discussions advanced beyond the dead-end debates about the limits of government-funded free expression. Boom-era theorists like Richard Florida and Elizabeth Currid, not to mention Hollywood bulls like Darren Star (Sex and the City) and Doug Ellin (Entourage), helped make creatives sexy again. Groups like the US Conference of Mayors dreamed not just of expanding cultural tourism or fostering postindustrial innovation but of attracting new chai latte-sipping bourgeois into decaying parts of town. The economic value of creativity was so firmly established by the mid-'90s that it helped drive the ravenous appetite for global corporate consolidation once the Clinton administration began sweeping aside ownership caps and deregulating markets.
For decades, the de facto policy has been to confuse the culture industry with the source of creativity and largely to abandon the production, promotion, distribution and enjoyment of arts and culture to the dictates of the boom/bust marketplace. The result has been the spread of "lifestyle economies" that are merely new forms of monoculturalism and the rise of an environment increasingly antithetical to creativity. A wave of deregulation in the culture industry has consolidated distribution channels and destroyed local scenes, locked away sources of inspiration behind fences of "rights management" and copyright and favored a "blockbuster or die" approach that raises barriers to entry and creates diseconomies of scale. Call it the privatization of the imagination.
So it is important to restate the case for public funding of culture. President Obama recently signed into law a $155 million budget for the NEA. He has also created a White House position on culture and the arts and has tapped Kareem Dale, a Chicago lawyer who worked on his campaign. Some advocates believe this may signal an executive shift away from a culture-war footing and toward a higher level of presidential engagement in creativity policy.
Still, Dale will be no arts czar. Along with his arts and culture duties he will be juggling responsibilities regarding disability policy previously assigned by the president. And the NEA funding is still less than New Zealand's culture budget. Even adding in a $155 million allocation to the National Endowment for the Humanities, we still have nothing resembling a national commitment to creativity.
What we might call "the creativity stimulus" goes far beyond job creation and even economic development. Culture is not just something conservatives wage war on. The arts are not just something liberals dress up for on weekends. Creativity can be a powerful form of organizing communities from the bottom up. The economic crisis gives us a chance to rethink the role of creativity in making a vibrant economy and civil society. Artists as well as community organizers cultivate new forms of knowledge and consciousness. One of the unsung stories of the past twenty-five years is how both have used creativity to inspire community development and renewal. Creativity has become the glue of social cohesion in times of turmoil.
In Detroit the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, built around the inimitable 93-year-old woman who gives the center its name, has served as a home for some of the city's sharpest young organizers and artists, in its Detroit Summer program. One of them, the acclaimed rapper Invincible, has produced an eleven-minute video for her song "Locusts." It serves not just as a fine documentary of the center's work against gentrification and displacement or a profound meditation on the Motortown's past but also as a defiant middle finger in the face of pessimists like Florida, who all but wrote off Detroit in a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story.
Obama's green-jobs-for-youth proposal emerged first from Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, where staffers tried to figure out how to make the environmental movement pay attention to the hip-hop youths coming into the center. On the other side of Oakland, the Eastside Arts Alliance helped revitalize the troubled city's International District by serving as a haven for socially conscious artists, organizers and intellectuals, bringing together leaders of the Black Arts Movement with those of the hip-hop movement.
Deeply rooted in the communities that made Obama's victory possible, these centers understand their work as transformational. Their communities are the most vulnerable to assaults on creativity, but they are also incubators of the most innovative ideas and movements of our time. This "creative communities" approach has created a vigorous and vital alternative to neoliberal and neoconservative versions of change.
Cross-generational dialogues have begun between older activists inspired by the examples of 1930s WPA arts projects and 1970s CETA cultural development programs and the post-NEA-meltdown do-it-yourselfers raised on the independent ethics and aesthetics of hip-hop and punk. Such discussions could help shape a framework for a cultural policy that focuses on the de-monopolization and reregulation of the culture industry, preserves national arts legacies, restores and upholds localism, aligns corporate interests with individual expression, promotes a radical spirit of diversity and unshackles creativity to rebuild communities and the national economy.
A creativity stimulus policy might follow the example of the distinguished tenure of Brazil's former culture minister, Gilberto Gil. The famed musician's art collided with the repressive dictatorship, and he was temporarily exiled in the late '60s. More recently, his desire to rerelease three of his most famous songs under a Creative Commons license—songs he said celebrated "the idea of the permanent transformation of everything that exists, of the uninterrupted remaking that produces culture, life and the world"—was thwarted by the publisher and owner of his songs, Warner/Chappell Music.
In 2003, in his first speech as culture minister, Gil stated that he wanted to forge "the opening of territory for creativity and new popular languages," ensure "the availability of space for adventure and daring" and secure "the space of memory and invention." Our urgent task is not just to repair the present but to recover the past and sow the future. When we are committed to advancing creativity, we will free these trailblazers to write the new narratives of America.
Jeff Chang, a 2008 USA Ford Fellow in Literature, is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. He is at work on Who We Be: The Colorization of America, on the cultural implications of the new American majority.