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Potent Publics | The Nation

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Potent Publics

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I was enchanted by FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech. I had it on a cassette tape that I came upon in a small bookstore--such bookstores are now few and far between--on the Upper East Side of New York City. It was near where I would get off the Madison Avenue bus to transfer to the crosstown bus after a dry day of temp work when I was a "starving actress." I used to put the tape on and dance to FDR's resonant voice. I had been told that the role of the artist was to "speak truth to power." I couldn't imagine doing anything so grandiose as that--but I did think I was learning something about power by listening and dancing to FDR's fireside chats. The rhythm of his speeches was musical. They were waltzes. He was able to make the country waltz to his waltz-time talking.

About the Author

Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith is an actress and playwright. She teaches at New York University.

Today, our dance is no waltz. Presidents don't talk in easy-to-follow waltz-time rhythms. They talk in a highly sophisticated way, after having been coached by batteries of consultants, some of whom no doubt studied acting or other art forms. We can't go back to those New Deal days.

These days, many artists have become as creative about their public personas as they are about their work. Self-consciousness is in abundance. To be "public" means to be "in public"--and therefore to be in some way "designed" with the public in mind. It is not for the sake of the public--but for the sake of how one comes across. Form and style over content. Which raises the questions: Is the government the only host of "public"? Who controls the public? Who owns the public?

We have a lot to learn by revisiting the New Deal and by learning what "public" meant then. It did not mean simply to be "in" public. The New Deal was trying, in part, to put people to work. Something was really happening. It wasn't smoke and mirrors.

Yet we have a very diverse public; we have a potent public. More kinds of people are making themselves and their worldviews apparent now. The talent pool is more diverse. In the arts we find more women participants, more participants of color. The public is a global public. Jacob Lawrence, one of the most noteworthy of the New Deal artists, told me that if he saw a white man on the street he would think to himself, "Oh, that's a lyncher." A young African-American artist in this day and age would have a multitude of things he (or she) might think about a white passer-by, or an Asian passer-by, or a Muslim passer-by, or a Latino passer-by.

But as diverse as our public is, the arts are not equally accessible to all. Public schools have long since abandoned the arts as part of their core curriculum. Cultural literacy is low. At the time of the New Deal, during a more segregated era, an era when lynching was still prevalent, many would cite the importance of the Federal Art Project in bringing forward black artists and other artists of color. There is no similarly obvious "host" to ensure the cultivation of talent today.

To us, "public" means not special, not brilliant, not innovative, not valuable, not covetable. Public transportation, public schools, public art--they do not have the same status as their private counterparts. Public means possibly dangerous.

It will be difficult with such a mind-set to revive a time when public art expressed the ideals of a time and helped advance some of those ideals. A new deal would be to envision the public as potent, with a gold rush of excellence waiting to be discovered.

But let's look at the flip side. For the past two decades, we have been in the throes of a technological revolution. The Internet has bred a new public. And often it's direct--people to people. Leadership could cultivate that public. Whether that leadership should come from government, commerce or imaginative individuals is up for grabs. If I were in government, I'd see it as a highly competitive moment and collaborate with artists to speak to that public and cultivate that public. Artists can, in their work and in their words, after all, say a lot more than government can. People assume that artists are speaking "as if it were." They assume the government is pretending to speak "what is." Art is full of hope.

Other contributions to the forum:

Bill McKibben: A Green Corps

Michael J. Copps: Not Your Father's FCC

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: A Chaos of Experimentation

Eric Schlosser: The Bare Minimum

Frances Moore Lappé: The Only Fitting Tribute

Adolph Reed Jr.: Race and the New Deal Coalition

The Rev. Jesse Jackson: For the 'FDR'

Andy Stern: Labor's New Deal

Sherle R. Schwenninger: Democratizing Capita

Stephen Duncombe: FDR's Democratic Propaganda

Howard Zinn: Beyond the New Deal

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