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By Matthew Nash

On Tuesday, November 4th, Americans overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama to be the next President of the United States. This is a truly amazing moment in history that many have already written about, and it is clear that the nation is both relieved and excited about the President-elect. Mr. Obama will need to immediately tackle a number of challenges, from an economy in crisis to a pair of wars, to name but a few.

Viewed through my Big RED & Shiny filter, the most exciting aspect of an Obama presidency will be his support for the arts. During his candidacy, Obama continued to expand and refine his position on the arts and issues affecting the creative economy. In contrast, Senator John McCain did not address the arts until the end of the campaign, and only in four sentences. Immediately after the election, President-elect Obama released an arts policy statement (PDF), which elaborates on the platform he discussed during the campaign and lays out the major issues to be tackled. It is not surprising that many of these overlap with his larger domestic agenda, but seeing his issues framed in the context of a plan for the arts is very encouraging.

Included with the policy statement is a letter by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon, who served on the 33-member Obama Arts Policy Committee. In his letter, he makes a bold statement about how the arts will be viewed by an Obama administration, while simultaneously rebuking the current administration on several fronts:

America’s artists are the guardians of the spirit of questioning, of innovation, of reaching across the barriers that fence us off from our neighbors, from our allies and adversaries, from the six billion other people with whom we share this dark and dazzling world. Art increases the sense of our common humanity. The imagination of the artist is, therefore, a profoundly moral imagination: the easier it is for you to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, the more difficult it then becomes to do that person harm. If you want to make a torturer, first kill his imagination. If you want to create a nation that will stand by and allow torture to be practiced in its name, then go ahead and kill its imagination, too. You could start by cutting school funding for art, music, creative writing and the performing arts.

The substance of Obama's policy is largely couched through the importance of education, which is common and expected. Education is one obvious and necessary area of support for the arts and much easier to talk about than the more complex issues involved in bolstering a full-fledged creative economy that can support artists as professionals.

Thankfully, the second page of the statement treats the creative economy as requiring support at all stages, not just in education. In this respect, the bulleted policy measures of Tax Fairness for Artists and Health Care for Artists are encouraging. Admittedly, these are both parts of Obama's larger plan for a redistributive tax code that intends to be fairer to the middle class and health care for all Americans. Still, there is recognition in the statement that artists often earn their income in unconventional ways and that the ways in which we are taxed can be unfair. Similarly, with our current private health care system, in which many people cannot afford insurance unless it is provided by their employer, artists often lose out. These two points would go a long way toward supporting artists, performers and any number of individuals who are self-employed or making an unconventional living - many of which are represented in the Obama Arts Policy Committee.

President-elect Obama will be inaugurated on January 20th, and there is no doubt his first days in office will be a flurry of activity as he works to contain the crises facing our nation. While I am excited to start seeing some changes for the better in regards to the arts, I am also aware that it will take some time before these policies take effect. That said, we need to be vigilant and ensure that they are enacted, and push to get the changes a majority of Americans voted for. These are exciting times, but the work is just beginning.

Image via the Barack Obama website.


About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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