The arts are in crisis. Here's how Biden can help.

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The arts are in crisis. Here's how Biden can help.
Elsewhere, a closed music venue, in New York, March 14, 2020. The pandemic has decimated the livelihoods of those who work in the arts. How can the new administration intervene and make sure it doesn’t happen again? A critic offers an ambitious plan. George Etheredge/The New York Times.

by Jason Farago

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- What is art’s function? What does art do for a person, a country?

Scholars, economists, revolutionaries keep debating, but one very good answer has held now for 2,500 years. The function of art, Aristotle told us, is catharsis. You go to the theater, you listen to a symphony, you look at a painting, you watch a ballet. You laugh, you cry. You feel pity, fear. You see in others’ lives a reflection of your own. And the catharsis comes: a cleansing, a clarity, a feeling of relief and understanding that you carry with you out of the theater or the concert hall. Art, music, drama — here is a point worth recalling in a pandemic — are instruments of psychic and social health.

Not since 1945 has the United States required catharsis like it does in 2021. The coronavirus pandemic is the most universal trauma to befall the nation since World War II, its ravages compounded by a political nightmare that culminated this month in an actual assault on democratic rule. The last year’s mortal toll, its social isolation and its civic disintegration have brought this country to the brink. Yet just when Americans need them most, our artists and arts institutions are confronting a crisis that may endure long after infections abate.

Professional creative artists are facing unemployment at rates well above the national average. More than 52% of actors and 55% of dancers were out of work in the third quarter of 2020 at a time when the national unemployment rate was 8.5%. In California, the arts and entertainment fields generated a greater percentage of unemployment claims than even the hospitality sector. Several hundred independent music venues have closed; art galleries and dance companies have shuttered. And in my own life, I’ve listened to painters and performers weep over canceled shows and tours, salivate over more generous government support in Europe or Asia, and ask themselves whether 2021 is the year to abandon their careers.

“Hell, they’ve got to eat, just like other people,” said Harry Hopkins, the first supervisor of the Works Progress Administration, when an official in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration queried whether artists merited federal employment. Art, music, dance and theater are social goods but also individual professions — ones more endangered than at any time since the 1930s and facing lasting damage even as the pandemic abates.

The effects of this cultural depression will be excruciating, and not only for the symphony not written, the dance not choreographed, the sculpture not cast, the musical not staged. Beyond value in its own right, culture is also an industry sector accounting for more than 4.5% of this country’s gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Other leaders have noticed. In their New Year addresses, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, singled out culture as a sector in economic peril, while Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that “freelancers and artists fear for their livelihood.” But until last month, when the outgoing U.S. president belatedly signed a stimulus package with targeted arts relief bundled within, this government had barely acknowledged the crisis that COVID-19 has posed to culture. Nor have private philanthropists filled the gap; while some large foundations have stepped up their disbursements, total giving to North American arts organizations has slackened by 14% on average.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office in the coming week and begins to flesh out his proposals to help the nation recover, he and his Cabinet have the chance — the responsibility — to offer a new settlement for American culture. Biden had planned an “FDR-size” presidency, and with the Democrats’ recapture of the Senate, such heft seems more viable than it did after Election Day. What can the new administration do for culture in crisis? What examples should it draw from in American history and current international practice? How should Washington approach culture policy with state and local authorities, with nonprofits and with the entertainment industry? Does the U.S. government need a “Dr. Fauci of culture,” as Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks called for last month — or even a full-bore Department of Culture, with a Cabinet-level secretary?

As a senator and as vice president, Biden repeatedly backed government support for the arts. The country he will now lead, as the pandemic wanes and as the economy recovers, is going to require major social catharsis — and he needs to ensure that the arts are still there to provide it.

Reach for a new New Deal.
The Biden campaign promised that America could “build back better,” and throughout 2020 the president-elect extolled FDR’s New Deal as a blueprint for American renewal. For the administration to show that sort of Rooseveltian resolve — and, with control of the Senate, it just about can — it’s going to have to put millions of Americans on the federal payroll: among them, artists, musicians and actors, tasked to restore a battered nation.

The Works Progress Administration was a latecomer to Roosevelt’s economic recovery plans, begun in 1935 as part of the so-called second New Deal. Federal Project Number One, as its cultural division was known, accounted for only about 0.5% of the WPA’s budget — but it endures as its most visible legacy, especially in the murals that adorn the country’s post offices, courthouses, school buildings and even prisons. And it should offer the Biden administration a blueprint for a new, federal cultural works project, which treats artists, musicians and writers as essential workers and sees culture as a linchpin of economic recovery.

Today cultural advocates like to offer a roll call of American artists employed by the WPA as proof of its necessity: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Louise Nevelson, Norman Lewis, Alice Neel, Jacob Lawrence, Philip Guston. The programs, notably, offered Black artists more public support than at any time in the 20th century. Charles White’s mural “Five Great American Negroes,” now in the collection of Howard University, was a WPA commission.

But the bulk of the 2,500-odd murals the program underwrote, plus piles of sculpture, painting, posters and advertisements, came from artists who never achieved fame. Most were younger than 40. Most favored folksy, realist scenes of American life. And most worked in places that America’s culture industry habitually ignores — for example, Bonners Ferry, Idaho (pop. 2,543), where artist Fletcher Martin decorated the courthouse with bas-reliefs of local loggers and miners.

Visual art was the largest of the four (later, five) cultural divisions, but other branches were just as vital. Ralph Ellison, John Cheever and Saul Bellow worked for the Federal Writers’ Project, compiling life stories of American workers; the interviews Zora Neale Hurston did for the project would profoundly influence her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Federal Theater Project put out-of-work actors and writers on stages far from Broadway, where audiences saw free plays about Dust Bowl farmers or tenement dwellers known as “living newspapers.”

Unlike today, when grant-making institutions routinely require artists to justify their work before they make it, the WPA programs did not mandate a style; all the government required was an engagement with an American theme, no strident politics and no nudity. If a few of the program’s murals have stood the test of time, such as Gorky’s bulbous compositions originally at Newark Airport, there’s a reason that Pollock, Krasner and other figures of the postwar avant-garde turned so thoroughly from the socially engaged projects of their youth. More than a fair bit of the art produced under WPA programs was boosterish, conservative, forgettable.

But artistic quality was not the principal point — because these were works programs, not cultural grants, awarded on the basis of need rather than merit. (Another New Deal program, run by the Treasury, had a smaller and more selective roster of artists.) A new WPA-style program, likewise, shouldn’t be thought of as government support for “the arts” — that lightning rod of budget negotiations year after year. Nor should it be treated in the same manner as, say, New York’s Percent for Art, which requires city-funded construction to set aside money for public art works.

A new WPA is, as the name indicates, an emergency work scheme whose motivation is economic stimulus. Artists shouldn’t have to prove their “social impact,” shouldn’t have to get a dozen stakeholders to sign off on every note or brushstroke. They should demonstrate what their forebears did in the 1930s — that they are professional artists, and they need work.

Such a program might be especially valuable in America’s rural areas and in economically imperiled regions — the parts of the country where Biden did worst electorally and whose support for President Donald Trump came in part from a legitimate grievance that cultural elites looked down on them. (That Idaho courthouse lies in a county where Trump beat Biden by more than 4 votes to 1.) Embedding unemployed artists nationwide and tasking them to focus on local populations and local circumstances should likewise animate any Biden administration cultural works program.

The administration should also bring artists on board for infrastructure projects, especially as Biden’s government pursues an ambitious climate strategy that will require nationwide transformations. Europe already has plans for this. Since fall of 2020, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has been talking up a “New European Bauhaus,” which will bring artists and designers into the European Union’s green development program to “give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic — to match style with sustainability.” Including artists here could help the Biden administration build public support as the country begins, we hope, a decadeslong program of green reconstruction.

A final place to boost support for culture is the Department of State. Cultural diplomacy has shrunk considerably since the days of the Cold War, when the department sent Dizzy Gillespie to Yugoslavia, Martha Graham to Southeast Asia, Louis Armstrong to Congo, and the New York Philharmonic to Moscow. (“Music costs so much less and produces so much better a result than any propaganda or weaponry,” said its conductor, Leonard Bernstein.) Antony Blinken, nominated for secretary of state, could provide the country both a diplomatic and an economic fillip by bolstering the agency’s diminished Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, which the Trump administration tried to eliminate entirely. In Akron, Ohio, or Accra, Ghana, American artists have work to do.

Knit a better safety net.
In the past, unemployment insurance was available only to those “employed” in the first place — and artists rarely were. A violinist furloughed from a full-time orchestra job could get unemployment but not a gigging saxophonist whose nightclubs were shuttered. A receptionist laid off from a talent agency qualified but not the actors the agency represents.

That changed in March, when the previous Congress passed the first coronavirus stimulus package. It included a program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that for the first time expanded unemployment eligibility to independent contractors and freelance workers. In their ranks are millions of actors, writers, artists, musicians and dancers, who are 3 1/2 times more likely than the average American to be self-employed, according to a 2019 report from the National Endowment for the Arts. (Where do you think the name “gig economy” came from, after all? From the music industry, where artists first cobbled together an income from stage to stage.)

A singer who qualified for pandemic assistance didn’t just get unemployment from her home state. She was also eligible for the same $600-a-week federal supplement as others receiving unemployment: a critical lifeline, although one that expired in July. (There have been two smaller supplements since then. The current $300-a-week boost, bundled into the December 2020 stimulus package, expires mid-March 2021, long before stages are expected to reopen.) For all its shortcomings, the program has established a precedent that the Biden administration must build upon: that artists, like other gig workers, are full participants in the national economy — and need to be taken care of as such.

So the most immediate measure the new administration can take to stanch the arts crisis is simply to get money into artists’ pockets — by pushing Congress to expand and improve unemployment benefits for them and other independent contractors and gig workers. Congress also needs to smooth out discrepancies in pandemic assistance, including the way it severely undercompensates jobless aid to artists with a little salaried work on the side, such as an actor with a one-day-a-week desk job.

If the program establishes that actors, musicians and dancers are true workers, how do we keep them working? Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary nominee, and Marty Walsh, the Boston mayor nominated to lead the Labor Department, can answer this question by supporting changes to the tax code and to unemployment rights, with both economic and cultural benefits.

One model comes from France, where performers, technicians and other workers in theater, dance, movies and television can qualify for a special artists’ unemployment program, known as intermittence, which includes maternity leave, retirement and other benefits. It allows performers to rehearse and train rather than wait tables, which makes a big contribution to the quality of French opera, dance and theater. But more fundamentally, it recognizes that musicians and dancers and the like are not truly self-employed. They are professionals in a socially necessary industry with an uncommon economic organization. They need to be paid, taxed and insured as such if they are to thrive.

Yellen and the new Congress also need to disburse additional funds to keep other arts professionals on the payroll. Bundled into the December stimulus package was the Save Our Stages Act, which earmarked $15 billion for small-business grants to music venues, movie theaters and the like. The grants (initially, 45% of a theater or club’s 2019 income) are a fantastic start — but it’s a Band-Aid when we need a full-scale tourniquet. Berlin’s nightclubs and other for-profit cultural venues were eligible for 80% grants.

And given both the slow rollout of the vaccine and the continued need for social distancing, venues for the performing arts will be among the last public places to reopen. Congress ought therefore to bundle a second round of Save Our Stages emergency funding with a measure also drawn from the German bailout: cash for pandemic-appropriate infrastructural improvements, from new ventilation systems to digital distribution tools. I used to like a dirty disco; now I want gleaming heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Does culture need a Cabinet seat?
Compared with Canada, Australia and most of Europe, the U.S. has relatively few cultural institutions funded through federal appropriations. The memorials on the National Mall are erected almost entirely with private cash; the Kennedy Center earns most of its income from donations and ticket sales. Even the Smithsonian Institution is a public-private partnership; its most recent congressional disbursement of $1 billion a year accounts for 62% of its annual budget. At the Venice Biennale, where nations mount exhibitions in a kind of Olympics of contemporary art, the United States is one of the few participants whose government doesn’t pay for the show.

Now some emboldened liberals have been dreaming, as they did when Barack Obama took office, that Biden might establish a Cabinet-level Department of Culture — the first new department since George W. Bush established the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Such a department might absorb the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (all independent federal agencies); the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a nonprofit); as well as parts of the State, Interior and Education departments.

I get the impulse! Artsy Americans have long been jealous of Europe’s government-funded theaters and opera houses — and as cultural institutions have shed jobs over the last year, it’s easy to envy public institutions abroad. Our own museums, symphonies and ballet companies are financed principally through philanthropy, while our film, television and music industries are driven by the profit motive. There is, in consequence, hardly a large enough federal culture budget to merit a department. And as I don’t see a strong argument to nationalize the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Carnegie Hall, a federal culture department risks, at least right now, being more bureaucratic than beneficial.

Nor are we so long gone from the (first?) culture wars, of the 1980s and early 1990s, when meager federal support for artists and performers became a flash point in a much larger political battle. Sen. Jesse Helms and Republican colleagues fulminated against photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe and then against performers known as the NEA Four — and got on the books a decency test for federal arts grants, barring support for art with gay and feminist themes. (Later, the NEA’s budget was slashed, and individual artists’ grants were eliminated.) That history is one good reason for the Biden administration to — at least at first — aid artists on economic and infrastructural grounds rather than as individual grants for “deserving” artists.

And in countries in democratic decline — a category in which, after last week’s siege, I struggle not to include the United States — culture ministries have lately become instruments of political wrath. In Poland, governed by the right-wing Law and Justice party, the culture minister has fired or refused to reappoint numerous museum directors; last year he installed a far-right fellow traveler as the head of Warsaw’s leading contemporary art center. The Hungarian government has used its funding rules to control what appears on theater stages; in Brazil, the last culture minister parroted the rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels.

A Department of Culture, under a future American presidency, could be as antagonistic to culture as the outgoing administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has been to protecting the environment. Honestly, have the Culture Department boosters forgotten that Trump promulgated a single style of classical architecture for all federal buildings? That sort of directive would have doomed designs like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s federal building in Chicago and David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

American arts institutions ought not to give up their independence for crumbs.

For now, especially as the pandemic subsides, the more urgent task is to encourage a richer cultural offering at the local level. A nimbler and more practicable solution to do that is with a White House Office for Culture, akin to the National Economic Council or the Domestic Policy Council, that could research and coordinate arts policy across the federal government.

An arts center inside the executive office of the president — led, why not, by a “Dr. Fauci of culture” — could be sharper and swifter than a full department. This team could help Treasury create cultural tax policy, advise the Education Department on music instruction and liaise with Congress on arts stimulus. Importantly, it could ensure that stimulus funds for states and municipalities, whose budgets have been pitted by shutdown-induced tax shortfalls, shore up and eventually strengthen local arts organizations. (“Almost no one has been hurt more by COVID than our artists,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York this past week when he announced a public-private partnership supporting the state’s arts organizations.)

The new administration should also reestablish the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, whose members resigned en masse in 2017 after Trump’s response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (The artists who resigned included director George Wolfe, author Jhumpa Lahiri, actor Kal Penn and architect Thom Mayne.) To use a metaphor I detest but politicians seem to like, this committee should be the sizzle to the steak that is the Office for Culture. Any transformation this large needs a sales pitch; well-known actors, writers and musicians should be the pitchmen, linking Broadway and Hollywood to the town library and the school theater.

During last year’s campaign, Biden had a phrase he invoked with almost musical regularity: the election, he always said, was a “battle for the soul of America.” As a piece of political rhetoric, it might have been just a platitude. How can I deny, though, that the near-sacking of the Capitol — in a week when, for the first time, the daily death toll from COVID-19 reached an unendurable 4,000 Americans — indicates that the United States has undergone, these past few years, a kind of soul-death? And if you were treating a patient whose soul had curdled, what sort of medicine might you prescribe?

I’ve always been wary of arguments about art’s “necessity.” But a soul-sick nation is not likely to recover if it loses fundamental parts of its humanity. Without actors and dancers and musicians and artists, a society will indeed have lost something necessary — for these citizens, these workers, are the technicians of a social catharsis that cannot come soon enough. A respiratory virus and an insurrection have, in their own ways, taken the country’s breath away. Artists, if they are still with us in the years ahead, can teach us to exhale.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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