THERE IS NOTHING NEW under the sun, says the Good Book, and the plea for a Cabinet-level secretary of arts and culture is no exception.
That plea came recently from composer-producer Quincy Jones, who has long wanted the United States to establish a national ministry of culture akin to those in Italy, Germany, or France. "The next conversation I have with President Obama is to beg for a secretary of arts," he said in a radio interview shortly after the presidential election. Culture and the arts are "just as important as military defense," Jones argues, and a federal arts czar can ensure that American students learn something of their cultural roots. "Every country can be defined through their food, their music, and their language," he told NPR last month. "That's the soul of a country."
Quincy Jones says he will "beg" the president to name a Secretary of the Arts.
Jones's call has been taken up by jazz musician Herbie Hancock, who has not only lobbied Obama on the need for a secretary of culture, but offered to fill the position, and by New York musicians Jaime Austria and Peter Weitzner, whose online petition endorsing the idea has been signed by more than 228,000 people. The president hasn't taken a stand, but supporters are expectant. In his campaign arts platform, after all, he and Joe Biden were described as "champions of arts and culture." Surely, they hope, a president who is a best-selling author -- and who totes an iPod containing "a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Miles Davis, a lot of Charlie Parker" -- will embrace the idea of a high-ranking arts czar.
But the case for a national cultural overseer is no better today than it was 50 years ago, "in the early and artistically optimistic days of the Kennedy administration," as Harper's editor Russell Lynes wrote at the time, when "there was a good deal of enthusiastic talk about a Cabinet post for a minister of culture."
The idea went nowhere then, just as it had gone nowhere a decade earlier, when the president of the American Federation of Musicians insisted that only a federal Department of the Arts could lift American culture from its "sad and declining estate." Or even earlier, when the muralist George Biddle, who headed the War Department's Art Advisory Committee during World War II, was urging fellow artists to support a strong federal role in the arts. One prominent artist, the realist painter John French Sloan, replied scornfully: "Sure, it would be fine to have a Ministry of the Fine Arts in this country. Then we'd know where the enemy is."
That was putting it strongly, but Sloan had the right instinct.
Culture and art at their best are potent wellsprings of meaning and insight. With their power to illuminate, motivate, or elucidate, the arts are indispensable to the nation's intellectual life. They mold our understanding of ourselves; they shape, at least in part, our perception of the world around us; they communicate -- or they challenge -- our deepest values. No sensible person could deny the importance of art and culture to the American experience.
Which is exactly why they shouldn't be entangled with government. A ministry of culture has no place in a society committed to liberty of conscience and a robust marketplace of ideas. Like religion, the arts are best left government-free. The state should no more be entrusted with making artistic judgments than with making theological ones -- there is no place in our system for a ministry of religion, either. Of course religion is profoundly important -- the Framers repeatedly called it indispensable to the success of American democracy -- but importance alone is no justification for government involvement.
"I yield to no one in my belief that the arts need all the support they can get, but some kinds of support make trouble," wrote Lynes, who in addition to editing Harper's was a highly regarded art historian and Renaissance man. "The less the arts have to do with our political processes, I believe, the healthier they will be, the more respected, the more important to Americans, and the more productive."
Quincy Jones may be right in pointing to food, music, and language as the essence of any nation's culture. But no food czar is charged with defining or promoting American cuisine, and there is no Secretary of Language to coordinate American idioms and grammar. In all their democratic splendor and variety, American gastronomy and American English flourish without centralized supervision from Washington. So do American arts and culture. The art world has its problems, but too little government isn't one of them. If the president truly wants to be a "champion of arts and culture," the best thing he can do for them is nothing at all.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)