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Feeling Cynical

March 5, 2008

The arts have never been able to compete with healthcare, education, the economy, or indeed any other policy area during campaign season. But according to an article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, culture is playing a particularly strong role this time around in candidates' platforms.

"This presidential primary season, people who work at the crossroads of politics and culture say the arts have attained a higher profile than usual -- and the push for an arts agenda has established a foothold in the campaign landscape," says reporter Allan Jalon in his story.

Somehow, I just don't buy it.

Paying lip-service to one's "passion for" or "commitment to" the arts as Obama and Clinton are doing is one thing. At least these two candidates are talking about the arts. But McCain's attempt to win over a New Hampshire theatre manager by sending the guy a personal check for $500 is simply laughable.

Obviously I'm glad that culture is featuring on the candidates' promise list. Better that than no mention of the arts at all. But I'm deeply suspicious of statements made in response to "guidelines." Somehow, the fact that the presidential hopefuls' proposed culture policies reflect, according to the L.A. Times story, "an initiative called ArtsVote2008 mounted by the political arm of a group called Americans for the Arts, or AFTA" makes them sound like they're merely taking directions rather than thinking on their own feet.

"In advance of the Iowa caucuses, ArtsVote gave all the candidates then running a 10-point plan for the arts in public life. No. 1 stresses NEA grants to the sorts of local arts agencies and groups that AFTA represents," Jalon writes. "No. 6 urges candidates to enhance healthcare coverage for arts groups and artists. (The complete text is available at www.americansforarts.org.) ArtsVote then urged the candidates to address these points in public."

AFTA seems to have done quite a bit to mobilize people in politics around the arts and increase their profile, which is a good thing. But unless the ideas and energy come from deep within the candidates' themselves, I think we're more likely to see their promises, like actors on stage, take a bow and go home for the night once election day is over.

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