Toby Ziegler, The West Wing, and Government’s Role in Culture

The government is actively involved in creating and preserving cultural heritage. How can “ungovernable” art collaborate with government? What effect do large scale institutions have on local public humanities work? What benefits are there to a top-down approach versus a bottom-up approach? How to account for the difference between democratic and dictatorial effects of art? What happens when our governing bodies are corporations?

The questions behind this week’s readings reminded me of two  episodes of The West Wing where the national consciousness of arts and culture come into play. In S3E7, “Gone Quiet,” WH Communications Director Toby Ziegler meets with a representative from the appropriations committee who wants to cut the NEA out of the budget. Weaving in and out of their conversation through the episode, there are some great rants interspersed throughout about the need to support the arts. The representative’s real problem lies the Director of the NEA, who’s funding “outrageous” projects by funding the museums rather than individual artists.

Toby Ziegler does a couple of these rants throughout the show about democratic ideals and public-funded cultural works, but I find this one to be most interesting because of Toby’s argument. Reading through UNESCO and the NEH legislation, there is this aspirational quality to getting the government involved in creating and preserving culture. There’s this nationalistic quality around culture that Toby espouses – that government must work to fund it because there’s a possibility of a Da Vinci: because if art is thriving, society will thrive as well. I’m not as convinced by this line of thought, though I do think institutions like governments should strive to promote displays of art and culture. But I’m interested in the idea that art/culture are connected to greatness – that there’s a conscious effort by government officials to curb and direct that greatness as a form of propaganda.

The second episode I’m thinking of this week is S3E16, “The U.S. Poet Laureate,” Ziegler again gets into conversations around art and activism. This time, U.S. Poet Laureate, Tabitha Fortis (Laura Dern), chooses to speak out against POTUS’s lack of support for a landmine treaty. Ziegler tries to sweet-talk Fortis into coming to the party without publicly mentioning her politically charged position. His argument is that her confrontation, rather than the landmines issue, would become the media story. In happy-government fashion, Ziegler arranges for Fortis to have a private conversation with POTUS so that she can personally tell him about her disagreements. It’s a weird  cop-out for the show, though contextually makes sense (POTUS has a few other media-related issues at the moment.) There’s also this  line from Fortis:

“You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.

Again, not entirely sure if I agree with Fortis in this moment. But in our transition from viewing art as resistance to art being part of the structure, I wonder what some of the governments looking to use socially-engaged art would think of this quote. Who gets to decide its truth? Who gets to decide its relevance? And is the role of an artist really just to capture attention, or to do something more than that?

 

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