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Speeches and Writings

The Role of the Arts in a Democratic Culture

October 13, 2017: National Association of Schools of Art and Design

Mary Schmidt Campbell, PhD: President, Spelman College
When I was  dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, a former president of NYU ( may he rest in peace) was fond of telling a story that paints a picture of the artist as a romantic outlier and rebel. The story comes from a time when, Greenwich Village was at the heart of Bohemian life in this country. As the story goes, a group of these Bohemians—the painter John Sloan and iconoclastic artist, Marcel Duchamp among them—chose a chilly winter night in 1917 to break into the doorway on the side of Washington Square Arch, the historic monument that marks the entrance to Washington Square Park in the Village.

Inside the doorway of the arch are 110 steps that lead to the top. On this particular night, armed with bottles of wine, cap pistols, and paper lanterns, the artists climbed the stairs to the top and spent the night atop the arch, drinking, reading poetry and singing.  At dawn, they fired off their toy guns and declared a revolution and issued a proclamation.  After a few “whereas, whereas, whereas,” they proclaimed that they were seceding from NYC and founding “The Independent Republic of the Village.”

Eventually the police came, convinced them to come down and permanently locked the door to the arch. The NYU President, my boss, used to get a big kick out of telling that anecdote on admitted students’ day.  I would watch the faces of the students who were laughing their heads off and then I watch the parents who were stone faced. They were probably thinking, I would be paying tuition for this?

The idea of the artist as outlier and rebel, someone dangerous, disruptive and even a little threatening, is still alive and well in our culture. Anna Deveare Smith once described being an artist as like being a lone wolf howling at the moon. But there are other ideas of being an artist as well. For some, being an artist is a calling, like becoming a teacher or a priest. For still others it’s a liberating path to self-discovery and self-realization. Some regard the role of artist as the same as any other profession for which you require specialized training and education, a period of apprenticeship before you eventually achieve mastery.
This morning, I want to re-visit yet another idea of being an artist. It is a view of the role of the artist popular over fifty years ago and it was a view that gave birth to the federal endowments of the arts and the humanities. That view is that the artist is vital to the health of a culture of democracy. President John F. Kennedy championed this view and gave it his fullest expression in one of his last public speeches.

President John F. Kennedy

On October 26, 1963 at Amherst College, less than one month before his death, on the occasion of the dedication of a library in honor of the poet, Robert Frost, Kennedy articulated his deeply personal ideas about what artists and thinkers and democracy. His administration had been studying the possibility of some form of federal support for the arts and humanities and this speech held the seeds of a rationale for that support.

Kennedy’s words were unequivocal. After observing that the artist is “the touchstone of human judgment,” he goes on to note:

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist…If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…In free society... the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.”
In 1965, in the years after Kennedy’s death, the U.S. congress passed legislation to establish the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the most significant federal effort to recognize artists and scholars, since the Works Project Administration (WPA) during the Depression.

The enabling legislation of the endowments resonates with Kennedy’s ideas. Listen to excerpts of that legislation:

The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.

3. An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.

Another passage notes:

4. Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants….

And yet another passage from the legislation:

The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation's[1] rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups....

And finally:

8.The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation's high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit….

The endowments came to life in the midst of the monumental upheaval of the civil rights movement. The Movement spurred the dismantling of the Jim Crow era, that is a set of legislative, judicial and executive racial barriers that divided the public sphere. At the same time that these legal barriers were removed, the country chose the arts as an opportunity to affirm the ideals of democracy. You can hear that affirmation in the words of the endowments’ enabling legislation: rich cultural heritage, mutual respect for diverse values and beliefs, wisdom and vision of the citizenry. And, of course, Kennedy’s observation that the authentic artist and scholar possess a capacity for truth, a capacity to “let the chips fall where they may” and, that this capacity for truth telling is a necessity, not a luxury, in a free society.  In our current political world order — imagine that.

 So, here we are in 2017 navigating the terrain of this new political world order. . Like the Civil Rights era, we are living in a time of enormous upheaval and change. Demographics are rapidly changing. Our minority populations will become the majority before mid-century. Our federal government has taken down the welcome sign for immigrants. Barriers to voting have been re-installed around the country. Our government seems to have trouble distinguishing between on the one hand, White Supremacists and anti-Semites and, on the other hand,  decent people. We are quarrelling louder than ever over issues of national identity and who gets to enjoy the privileges of citizenship. Unlike 1965, however, there is no clarion call for the arts and its role in our democracy.  Quite the contrary, in the executive budget, the endowments were plucked like a couple of unwanted gray hairs.

Though funding for the endowments was restored, they were restored with none of the triumphant idealism that brought them into existence in the first place. Their tenuous existence these days begs the question: do the underlying assumptions that brought the endowments into existence still hold sway?  Do we still expect the arts to make known to us our rich cultural heritage, or encourage mutual respect for diverse values and beliefs, and embody the wisdom and vision of our citizenry?  Do we still expect the arts to deliver the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  In other words, do we still believe that the arts are necessary for a democratic culture?

This morning, I want to share some of the lessons that I have learned from my forty year career in the arts and why I think they are especially vital in an era of false news, fictional facts and 140 character narratives.