American arts institutions ought not to give up their independence for crumbs. For now, especially as the pandemic subsides, the more urgent task is to encourage a richer cultural offering at the local level. A nimbler and more practicable solution to do that is with a White House Office for Culture, akin to the National Economic Council or the Domestic Policy Council, that could research and coordinate arts policy across the federal government.
An arts center inside the executive office of the president — led, why not, by a “Dr. Fauci of culture” — could be sharper and swifter than a full department. This team could help Treasury create cultural tax policy, advise the Education Department on music instruction, liaise with Congress on arts stimulus. Importantly, it could ensure that stimulus funds for states and municipalities, whose budgets have been pitted by shutdown-induced tax shortfalls, shore up and eventually strengthen local arts organizations. (“Almost no one has been hurt more by Covid than our artists,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York this week, when he announced a public-private partnership supporting the state’s arts organizations.)
The new administration should also re-establish the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, whose members resigned en masse in 2017 after Mr. Trump’s response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. (The artists who resigned included the director George C. Wolfe, the author Jhumpa Lahiri, the actor Kal Penn and the architect Thom Mayne.) To use a metaphor I detest but politicians seem to like, this committee should be the sizzle to the steak that is the Office for Culture. Any transformation this large needs a sales pitch; well-known actors, writers and musicians should be the pitchmen, linking Broadway and Hollywood to the town library and the school theater.
During last year’s campaign, Mr. Biden had a phrase he invoked with almost musical regularity: the election, he always said, was a “battle for the soul of America.” As a piece of political rhetoric, it might have been just a platitude. How can I deny, though, that the near-sacking of the Capitol — in a week when, for the first time, the daily death toll from Covid-19 reached an unendurable 4,000 Americans — indicates that the United States has undergone, these last years, a kind of soul-death? And if you were treating a patient whose soul had curdled, what sort of medicine might you prescribe?
I’ve always been wary of arguments about art’s “necessity.” But a soul-sick nation is not likely to recover if it loses fundamental parts of its humanity. Without actors and dancers and musicians and artists, a society will indeed have lost something necessary — for these citizens, these workers, are the technicians of a social catharsis that cannot come soon enough. A respiratory virus and an insurrection have, in their own ways, taken the country’s breath away. Artists, if they are still with us in the years ahead, can teach us to exhale.