Last night at the 51st Grammy Awards, the Recording Academy President Neil Portnow extended a long-overdue appeal to President Obama when he said: "Our finest national treasure is our culture in the arts, so it's time that we acknowledged that fact with the creation of the Cabinet position of Secretary of the Arts." How right he is. In case you haven't reviewed the Cabinet positions recently, there are 15 Secretaries (other than the Vice President) that serve as the President's advisors. The Presidential Cabinet includes the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs... and, hrumph, Homeland Security. There is no Secretary of "the Arts" or "Culture" and none of the present positions count culture or the arts as part of their administrative domains. The United States is one of the few "developed" nations that does not currently have something equivalent to a Minister of Culture, despite the fact that American art, film, music, television and literature are some of our most influential and (for the most part) welcomed exports.
We do, of course, have the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent federal agency established by Congress (at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson) in 1964. But the NEA has neither the political legitimacy nor clout that the regular Cabinet Departments do. We've seen arts education in this country suffer terribly over the last several decades, despite numerous studies demonstrating the benefits of arts education in developing other learning skills, including mathematics and literacy. When money is tight, the arts (and physical education) are almost always the first to go... and in American public education, the money is always tight.
The wide-ranging benefits of arts education are only one reason to support the creation of a new Cabinet position, though. The truth is that "melting-pot" America is the source of many hybrid, mish-mash, thoroughly miscegenated cultural and artistic products that serve as powerful, but largely unacknowledged, elements of our national and international identity. The creation of a Department of Culture-- I prefer "culture" to "the arts" because I think this allows other things (like philosophy) to be included-- would go a long way toward reorienting our collective focus far, far away from thinking about economic and military products as our primary identity-markers. The word "culture" comes from the Latin cultura, a derivative of colere, "to cultivate." None of the other Cabinet Departments are dedicated to "cultivation" in the same sense that a putative Department of Culture would be, I think. Instead, they're dedicated to "management," which has no eudaimonia resonance. Hmmm... how about a Secretary of Eudaimonia?
Not that anyone's is going to ask me or anything, but here are my nominees for Secretary of Culture:
Quincy Delight Jones (singer, songwriter, composer, recod producer, arranger, trumpeter, icon):
Jones is a living Renaissance man, with a genuine appreciation for not only the arts, but the influence of arts on culture. Plus, he would be known as "Secretary Q," which is awesome.
Robert Redford (actor, director, philanthropist, dreamboat):
Redford is the founder of the Sundance Film Festival. He's an active environmentalist and a pro-union activist. Smart, beautiful and green!
Maya Angelou (poet, playwright, memoirist, actor, author):
Angelou is the voice of the "other" America. Sensitive, resilient, hopeful and dedicated to the proposition that history-- even its most ugly episodes-- makes us who we are. And that culture is a product of history.
Richard Rorty (philosopher, gadfly, mirror of nature):
We need a philosopher on the list, and Rorty is the first that comes to mind for his commitment to (in his words) "achieving our country." I don't agree with everything Rorty says, but I do believe that he is a sober and wise connoisseur of American intellectual and artistic culture.
**CORRECTION: Rorty has now been de-nominated because, as I was reminded in the comments section, he has recently "come down with a case of death."**
Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter, producer, playwright, bleeding-heart liberal):
Sorkin makes the list for no other reason than being the creator and writer for the now-defunct television series The West Wing, which represented government and government officials as they should be.
Cornel West (philosopher, civil rights activist, pastor, movie star, Harvard-President-Destroyer):
I can't believe I forgot him the first time, but the commenters have set me straight. West is the best. And he's a living philosopher!
I'm opening the comment section to your nominations. Requirements: nominees must be living and up-to-date on their IRS payments.