From Arms to Art

The United States is the largest exporter of arms in the world. Imagine what would happen if we became the largest exporter of the arts instead.

This is just one of the ways that an art stimulus package could be used to change the way America relates to the world. By turning swords into paintbrushes, the United States could play a more constructive global role. Currently, Congress is debating an $800 billion stimulus package that many have compared to FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like FDR, Obama aims to create three million jobs. The Institute for Policy Studies and Split This Rock are asking that 1% of the stimulus package be used in support of the arts.

During the WPA, more than 40,000 artists, writers, musicians, theater workers, and performers were employed to create public works of art. Some of our best known and loved artists, writers, and musicians were employed, and earned enough in wages to work as full-time artists. The project employed Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Sterling Brown, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, and many others. They held music classes in rural and urban neighborhoods. They made free theater performances available to hundreds of thousands of low-income people. They created the first living newspaper performances. Writers collected slave narratives and other important folklore. First-generation immigrants and the children of immigrants were paid to create American art.

Today we live in a more global United States, so the new WPA should have a more global perspective. As part of the One Percent for the Arts initiative, more funds could be made available to send U.S. artists around the world as ambassadors. The New York Philharmonic visited North Korea last year. Imagine hip-hop artists in Iran, slam poets in Moscow, video artists in Burma. Forget about weapons of mass destruction; let’s unleash artists of mass instruction.

Here are a few more suggestions for how to use the arts stimulus:

  • A Global Arts program in the public schools that employ artists to show and give presentations on art from around the world
  • A TV program that features the best from the global arts world
  • Global arts partnership grants that link up U.S. artists and their overseas counterparts on collaborative theater, poetry, video, and music

To stimulate the economy, we need to rely on some of the most stimulating minds in our country: the artists. With their vision, they can help us envision a different future. But in this global economy, we can’t do it alone. We must think and act across borders. By devoting 1% of the stimulus package to the arts — and incorporating a strong global dimension to the funding — we can revive the U.S. economy and the U.S. global reputation. Ham-fisted propaganda and slick advertising aren’t going to do the trick. We need authentic voices, provocative works that reflect the true diversity of this country, and powerful visions that can build bridges and tear down walls.

Join our campaign by signing our petition. Let’s not just stimulate the economy. Let’s stimulate our imagination.

Melissa Tuckey is a poet and activist involved in DC Poets Against the War. More of Melissa Tuckey’s poems can be found in the Beltway Poetry Quarterly Wartime edition. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.