Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Ceos' Tentacles Embrace Arts Americans United Ad Sends Message to Office Seekers

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Ceos' Tentacles Embrace Arts Americans United Ad Sends Message to Office Seekers

Article excerpt

THE FULL-PAGE AD in The New York Times a week ago Friday was calculated to get the attention of everyone running for national office this year, from the presidency on down. The ad was paid for by Americans United to Save the Arts and Humanities, which has a membership of heavy hitters from the worlds of business, education and arts. Their message is clear: leave federal funding for the arts alone or, better yet, return funding to the levels the agencies once enjoyed.

Interestingly, the ad does not focus primarily on the notion that arts are good for the economy. Although the arts contributions to a vital economy are certainly mentioned, much more importance is granted to benefits of the arts that resist having dollar signs ascribed to them.

"Clearly, we as a culture rely on the arts and humanities to stimulate thinking, encourage experimentation and foster creativity - ideals that have been deeply rooted in America since our country began," the ad copy says.

The print in the ad surrounds a sign for a car wash that has as its mascot, or its principal element, an octopus, which has its hands full with a bucket, sponges, a vacuum cleaner and so forth. The octopus is meant not to symbolize industry or productivity, but as an example of the kind of visual stimuluses that America is producing.

Here's the headline for the ad:

Some civilizations are remembered for their art, others for their literature. What exactly will we be remembered for?

The implication is that we will be remembered for things in the genre of the octopus: happy-faced, "accessible,' easy-to-digest and easy-to-understand images and messages that are cute, clever, non-threatening, innocuous.

The ad, wisely, does not dismiss the octopus as a bad thing, and indeed it is not. Commerce and its maidservant, advertising, are among the essentials of American culture, and if no painting were ever made again or if no concerto were ever again composed, we would survive as long as commerce survived.

One can argue, however, that such a society would be rather rude and fundamental, and the fact that as our country moved West, aspirations or pretensions to high culture were very much part of the building materials used to construct the new civilization. The 19th-century Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham's vision of Daniel Boone progressing into the wilderness (in the Washington University collection) is not rude realism but idealism and classicism, a belief that our "manifest destiny" included the responsibility of bringing civilization to the wilderness.

Along with a national passion for art, serious music and innovations in architecture and design, there has always been a concurrent suspicion of the high art traditions, and in this century that has amounted to a rather surly resistance to contemporary endeavors, which often were iconoclastic. Such conservatism made the establishment of the National Endowments for the Arts ahd the National Endowment for the Humanities even more welcome and important - it was a signal that even though art might not be "popular" it would be given the support of the government.

In the last decade, art and music (or public support for them, anyway) became politicized, notably in the objections by such people on Capitol Hill as Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Even when endowment supporters explained that only minuscule amounts of money supported art that might agitate delicate sensibilities, the endowments became easy targets for the right, especially the religious right. …

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