I'm always talking up the power of art and culture to change worlds. Today, I'm going to let the poster child for the paranoid style in American politics make the case for me as he swoons with fear in the face of an art and social change project I'm involved in, one that is barely off the launching pad.
Remember Glenn Beck? Beck ended his Fox News program in the summer of 2011, but he's continued to blast out a toxic cocktail of fear, rage, and victimization, mostly via radio and BlazeTV, a subscription-only webcast service that reportedly earns upwards of $30 million per annum (a year ago, the Wall Street Journal estimated 300,000 subscribers). While still at Fox, Beck made headlines attacking former presidential green jobs advisor Van Jones and former National Endowment for the Arts staffer Yosi Sergeant in 2009.
Back in the day, Beck had a lot of success vilifying government officials; those who appointed the people Beck targeted easily caved, fearing the loss of federal funds when he sounded the alarm. But now he's turned his big guns on the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a project in which I have been deeply involved and which hasn't got a penny of federal money. (I heard that the Twitter hashtag #defundtheUSDAC was trending until people realized that.) Instead of threatening us, he's proving our point: the imagination and empathy cultivated in the practice of art can help to bring about a world more loving, just, and free.
On Thursday, Beck devoted much of his program to an attack on the USDAC. His incendiary broadcast was based on reading about the project's launch during an October 5th session at the Imagining America conference in Syracuse.
The USDAC was conceived by Adam Horowitz as a performative cultural-political project. I joined him in an advisory capacity more than a year ago. The basic idea is to perform the public interest in culture as a way to inspire people to enact it in real life. One of my key roles as "Chief Policy Wonk" has been to contribute concepts and language derived from my decades of study and work in democratic cultural policy. I've been delighted to volunteer considerable time to a project that rhymes with and promises to advance the values I've spent a lifetime exploring and advocating—indeed, the values that permeate The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future and The Wave, as well as the talks and workshops I've been offering.
There are exciting plans to demonstrate what happens when we the people take the public interest in art into our own hands. The thing is, the USDAC is just getting off the ground: there's a website, stickers, buttons, and a good deal of basic material, but the videos and other elements that make up the project are still being created and won't be released for a few weeks.
In the video version of Beck's astounding and hilarious performance (you have to be a subscriber—or know one—to see it for yourself, but you can see him launch in about half a minute from the end of this clip), he faces the camera against a backdrop that includes the USDAC's seal, and reads aloud the project's core values, for example, "Culture is a human right." I can't quite convey the astonishment I felt hearing words I had written to convey our deep, shared interest in a vibrant culture of democracy being treated like harbingers of an approaching hoard of ideological killer bees.
Beck is an avatar of the culture of fear that stands in marked opposition to the culture of possibility described in my two new books, which seems to me our best hope for engaging a future we want to inhabit. What threatens him most is the reality that how we shape our stories shapes our lives. Unless the reinvention benefits his colleagues on the paranoid right, Beck's greatest alarm comes from seeing that people today are doing what every prior generation has done, reinventing the legacy inherited from the past for the benefit of the future. That puts artists and scholars at the top of his hit list.
You can read the USDAC's official response here.
Please share this blog to let people know this story. Please visit the USDAC site to read the values for yourself, sign up for updates as they come out, and learn how to be involved. And please, please notice that the right takes culture seriously for a reason, and the rest of us had better do the same. Glenn Beck fears the power of art; we must be doing something right.
Billie Holiday, "Glad to Be Unhappy." "Look at yourself. If you had a sense of humor, you would laugh to beat the band."