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Should Obama create a secretary of arts?

  • Author: Peter Porco
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published January 28, 2009

A movement is afoot to have the incoming Powers that Be in Washington create a new cabinet position, a Secretary of the Arts. You can find the petition supporting that proposition online. Here in Anchorage, two fictional - or maybe not so fictional - denizens of the city spoke of the idea in their own terms.

It's a little after 1 a.m. on 4th Avenue. Temperature zero. A light but steady snow is falling. A man in a broad-brimmed black hat stands beneath the skeletal arch that faces D Street, the incongruous arch that would rather be in San Diego than Anchorage. The man holds - again, quite incongruously - a palette in his hands, mottled with congealed paints, thick and gelatinous gobs of color. A guitar is strung along his back, missing a couple of strings. His face is more color-streaked than Heath Ledger's Joker.

"Hey, man, got a smoke?" A broad-shouldered hatless man stumbles out of the shadows of the market place arcade, led by his upturned hand.

"Hey, Obama man!" the guitar player says to him. "You still wearing your Obama button! Don't you know he won, man?" The hatless man stops and grabs his jacket front, trying to twist his head to look at the button. He lets it go.

"He won but what did I win? What did you win?" he says. "Nothing."

"You're right," says the musician, handing him a cigarette. "Everybody's gonna get somethin' but us." Through the falling snow he sees a couple of hunched-over people leaving a bar and walking up the street."

"Bring it to Obama!" the hatless man says, bending to the musician's cupped hands for a light.

"What would you say to him?"

"To the president?"

"Yeah - say it to the president, man. What would you say?"

"I'd tell him to cut a check or two our way. Howzat?"

"I'm not convinced. Say it, man. Say it loud. What do you want to tell him?"

"What do I really want to say to the SOB?"

"That's right, man. What's on your mind?"

The two men dragged on their smokes as the snow fell on their them and on the guitar and the palette and they stared ahead at the empty streets.

"'DUDE!' ... Howzat?"

The hatless man began to laugh so hard he started choking and had to bend over. When he finally caught his breath, he said, "You're pathetic, you weasely little scum."

"Scum?" the other said, pushing the hatless man until he almost fell over.

"Yeah, scum. All artists are pools of lowly abject scum. Want proof?" The hatless man pulled his neck into his collar and took a long drag and exhaled with great pleasure a column of smoke that disappeared through the flakes. "This president's about to crack open the Treasury and throw cash at every man, woman and child in a suit, and you can't even ask him for some money for an artist like yourself. You'd rather be poor than ask for money, wouldn't you?"

"Not true. I always ask. I just don't get it," the musician said.

"I'll bet only a couple hundred bucks would gladden your heart, wouldn't it?"

"Actually, it would. But here. Listen. Check this out." The musician walked into the arcade, the hatless man following him. The musician put the pallette on the ground and removed his guitar and put it down too. He stepped forward and bellowed in a deep voice echoing through the arcade and its shadows.

"Dude! Don't mind me calling you dude, do you?" He stopped to listen to his voice. "Maybe I should call you Duke! What do you think o' that?" They laughed.

"So, Duke - Duke of Earl," the musician went on, "how about creating a Secretary of the Arts? Yeah!

You namin' all these Secretaries and Under-Secretaries, puttin' all kinds of people in all kinds of power nests. But is there one for the Arts?

"I know what your Washington insider is saying about me and my kind. He's sayin', 'That guy's bitter, and he has reason to be bitter, because he's an artist, which means the American people consider him to be no more than a pool of lowly abject scum.'

" 'But how can that be?' says Mr. President Obama. 'Don't we have a poet laureate and a National Endowment for the Arts, and aren't there grants for this and for that cultural endeavor?'

"Yeah," the musician said, working himself into a temper, "but what do they amount to? Because me and all my sister and brother artists get peanuts compared with almost every other constituency in the country. A couple hundred bucks! Shoot!

"Look, Mr. President - Sir!- Is there a Secretary of the Arts? You got labor, education, veterans affairs, defense, homeland security, you name it. Except the arts. Are the arts less important than these? Do we really not matter?"

The musician began to cough, and then to laugh.

"Yeah! Go on! Go on," the hatless man urged him.

"Yeah, yeah, I'll go on," he answered. "Look!" he began again. "So how about creating a cabinet position for the arts - how about a Secretary of Arts and Culture? How about having White House parties for poets, painters, playwrights, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, video camera guys, graffiti artists, designers, Web designers, and all the rest - the people who actually give life to this nation and don't just stand there taking notes."

"What does that mean?" the hatless man said.

"Never mind," the musician said. "How about a national holiday of American culture, Mr. President? How about a day off for everyone to spend on any artistic pursuit you want, or just to take in a play or read a poem, get acquainted with the right side of the American brain?"

"Hey, you bitter ol' artist, that's OK," the hatless man said, mashing the cigarette butt with his foot.

The musician crossed the arcade and walked out into 4th Avenue, which was empty, and into the snow, which was falling heavier, and he looked down the street at the old marquee of the 4th Avenue Theatre, which was dark, and he said:

"Because from where I'm standing, Mr. President, the way it looks to me, Mr. Obama - Sir! Without art, everything else is just real estate!"

He was now quiet and he turned around and came back into the protection of the arcade. The hatless man applauded and shouted, "Bravo! Bravo!" and put his hand out for another smoke.

This was first posted on Green Room, the theatre blog hosted by the Anchorage Daily News that was created by Peter and others in the local theatre community.

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