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.