Art isn’t usually the first thing on the agenda in a crisis. It isn’t fundamental to basic survival. But art is fundamental to addressing many of the issues that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.
In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration started several federal programs which provided funding for artists. On the most basic level, the programs put artists like Jacob Lawrence to work. It also promoted United States art and culture, chronicled life in different parts of the country, and sometimes sponsored projects which tackled difficult social issues.
Seventy years later, public buildings throughout the United States are covered with murals steeped in history. Archives are filled with photographs of American life taken by New Deal artists. Museums hold paintings reminding us of the struggles that took place in securing the basic safety net that we take for granted today.
Perhaps this legacy doesn’t seem important to you, but hasn’t one of the main themes of this election been breaking down the divides between red state and blue state? Haven’t we been talking about the lack of understanding between different groups in the United States? Haven’t we been talking about the lack of understanding between us and the rest of the world?
Art teaches us about other people by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Art appeals to the heart as well as the head and for that reason has the ability to transcend boundaries, to represent, to connect, and to mobilize. A Diego Rivera mural, a Bob Marley song, or an Almodovar movie help us to understand the worlds the artists are living in. They help us to create a dialogue. And in a world where so many problems require coordinated effort – poverty, environmental degradation, war – we need dialogue more than ever.
A new federal arts project would put American artists to work. It could document the road we have traveled to get here and the historic time we are in. Projects could show our common histories and values and help us visualize a new and better American identity for the future. It could help us share that vision with each other and with the rest of the world.