Obama v. McCain on Cultural Heritage and the Arts

Posted on September 5, 2008


Cultural heritage and arts issues may not turn an election, but for those of us who are passionate about the subjects, it is appropriate to consider where the current presidential candidates stand.

Barack Obama is a long-time supporter of the arts. His Arts Plan is available for download on the Obama website.   The plan indicates Obama will promote cultural diplomacy, which some maintain entails the imposition of import restrictions.

Obama established his Arts Policy Committee to help formulate the arts plan, and the 33 men and women on this committee are an impressive collection of people devoted to the arts and cultural heritage.  Of particular note are the following.

Patty Gerstenblith: A well-known commentator on cultural property issues and the Director of the Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University College of Law.  She served on Clinton’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), which advises the State Department regarding import restrictions on cultural artifacts requested by foreign nations.  Gerstenblith is a “big gun” when it comes to cultural property law.

James P. Hayes: A personal injury attorney and history buff.  He is a board member of the Iowa arts council and on the Board of Directors for the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission.  His undergraduate degree is in history, which I can appreciate, as my own is in archaeology.

Joan Harris: A philanthropist and arts activist who founded the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago.  Among other projects, the Center studies state cultural policies.  She is also Chicago’s former Commissioner of Cultural Affairs.

Van McLeod: Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources, which manages the historical resources for the state.

Anne Luzzatto: Former vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a private nonpartisan organization that is said to heavily influence U.S. foreign policy.  CFR recognizes cultural diplomacy as an important instrument to manage foreign affairs.

McCain does not have anything regarding the arts on his website, nor has his campaign released any relevant materials, despite at least two media requests for an arts plan.  We can, however, glean some information from his track record on arts issues.

McCain has voted numerous times to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (“NEA”).   He voted in favor of the 1990 Helms Amendment, which sought to “prohibit the use of funds by the National Endowment for the Arts to promote, distribute, disseminate, or produce materials that depict or describe sexual or excretory activities or organs.”

McCain also voted in favor of the 1999 Smith-Ashcroft Amendment, which sought to eliminate all funding for the NEA. He explained:

I have opposed federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts because I believe it is not proper to use tax dollars for what many Americans feel are the obscene and inappropriate projects this organization has supported.  I support providing federal block grants to the states for arts education and artistic endeavors pursued by state and local authorities, while assuring that federal tax dollars are not spent on obscene or offensive material.

Obscenity is tricky business, as anyone who took Con Law can attest to.  It is defined entirely by the mores of contemporary society.  Apparently, McCain’s mores are in line with Former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s, who reportedly requested $8,000 drapes to cover the breast on the Spirit of Justice statue in 2002.

A national standard for what is obscene has simply never been established, because the Supreme Court views it as a local issue.  In all fairness, this goes both for and against McCain’s position on the NEA.  On the one hand, there is no judicially established or endorsed national obscenity standard by which to judge the works that the NEA funds, so applying such a standard would be arbitrary.  On the other hand, one could argue this lack of a national standard is exactly why funding for potentially obscene art should be left to the states to administer.

If one were to apply contemporary conservative obscenity standards to archaeological artifacts, many works of great cultural value would be considered obscene.  On the Simpsons, in the episode, “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge,” Michelangelo’s David is coming to visit Springfield.  A group of local conservatives arrive at the Simpson house to recruit Marge for a protest.   The following dialogue ensues:

HELEN:     [to Marge] You’ve got to lead our protest against this abomination!
[shows newspaper article about David]
MARGE:    Mm, but that’s Michelangelo’s David.  It’s a masterpiece.
HELEN:     [gasp]  It’s filth!  It graphically portrays parts of the human body, which, practical as they may be, are evil!
MARGE:    But I like that statue.
HELEN:     [gasp]  I told you she was soft on full frontal nudity!  Come on, girls…

I could only hope that federal funding for major museums collecting works that contain nudity or sexual content would not be impacted, but there is no vacuum protecting them.  Then there are the libraries, with their art books containing photos of such work, and novels written by foul-mouthed renegades like Mark Twain.  But, I digress.

Elizabeth Currid, Assistant Professor at University of Southern California, explains simply, “McCain doesn’t have an arts policy, other than a desire to eliminate spending directed toward the arts.”  To be cautious, I might modify this statement to regard “federal spending,” although if I suspect the modifier may not actually be necessary.

Cultural heritage and the arts are inextricably linked.  To support one is to support the other.  Beyond emphasizing cultural diplomacy, Obama has gone out of his way to establish an Arts Policy, consulting with leaders in the arts to do so.  This initiative is unprecedented.  He and his wife also have a history of appreciation for the arts and culture.  Unfortunately, I find no indication that John McCain shares this appreciation.  He instead, at best, tolerates select, morally appropriate arts.

Read “Where the candidates stand on the arts” on the Chicago Tribune.

Read “The Fine Art of Politics” by Elizabeth Currid.

Read “John McCain: Arts Policy.  None.” on Artocracy.

Read “John McCain Hates Shakespeare” on Philly Drama Queen.

Read “Patty Gerstenblith named to Obama Arts Committee” on the Cultural Property Observer.

Read “Curtains for semi-nude justice statue” on BBC.