As we emerge from the pandemic, world and national leaders recognize the need for the arts and humanities to overcome the profound challenges of our time.
To deal with the drama of the pandemic, we have looked at ourselves. We discovered new recipes and new hobbies. We planted, restored, painted, reflected, moved and empathized. We creatively reinvented homes, schools, workspaces, and priorities as if some fierce expression was going to save us. American ingenuity helped stave off a drumbeat of doom.
Then one night in Manhattan, the great baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell – newly recovered from COVID himself – caught on his balcony booming his “The Impossible Dream”, Tony winner. His act of triumph over the circumstances not only spawned a restorative nighttime tradition for New Yorkers, it proclaimed that the arts were there for all of us.
In recent years, a chorus of international leaders has once again advocated for arts and culture, touting the sector not only as an asset in healing the suffering associated with the pandemic, but also in bridging the gaps like those that are eroding the unity in America.
The G7 held its first meeting on cultural heritage in 2017, and last November, the G20 has put arts and culture on its agenda for the very first time. These global leadership groups affirm the potential contribution of culture across the spectrum of public policies to forging more sustainable societies. As UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said, culture “is a fundamental need, which underlies all aspects of our societies. It should not be on the sidelines of recovery efforts – it should be at the center of them. “
Diplomats have always used the arts and culture to strengthen relationships. Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones eased Cold War tensions by spread the love of American jazz across continents. Today, the US State Department, along with entities like the Meridian International Center, supports hip hop artist exchanges in places ranging from Uzbekistan to Nigeria. Like jazz ambassadors before them, hip-hop diplomats sow understanding, soul to soul.
When President Obama wanted to extend a hand of friendship to Cuba, he sent artists. We were part of the former Presidential Committee for Arts and Humanities (PCAH), lead a delegation of political leaders and artists like Usher, Dave Matthews, Alfre Woodard, Joshua Bell, Larisa Martinez and Smokey Robinson in Havana. At night, artists performed at street festivals, on rooftops and in concert halls. On the day, we met with Cuban ministers of culture (alongside leaders of the Smithsonian and the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities) to make the first bilateral agreements with US government agencies.
At home, too, we have witnessed the power of the arts for recovery. The PCAH Reversal arts The program paired artists and resources with struggling Title One schools and helped develop a pan-curricular artistic approach: mathematical melodies, science scenes, geometric puzzles, and story haikus helped students to getting involved in the subject and with each other, positively affecting school performance and truancy rates. Booz Allen Hamilton studied the schools as the program took hold, finding that standardized test scores had increased by 13 percentage points for reading and 23 points for math in just four years.
Injured veterans have also benefited. Second lady Karen penceKaren Sue PenceKaren Pence Confirms Return To Indiana: “No Place Like Home” Here’s Why Joe Biden Does Good Polls, But Kamala Harris Does Not Announce The Birth Of His First Grandchild MORE in partnership with the Creative Forces Military Healing Arts Network, the National Endowment for the Arts, the US Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to bring creative arts therapies at the heart of patient-centered care at 11 military medical facilities across the country.
Encouragingly, Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico is present a bill which echoes the Federal Artist Project of the New Deal and the Federal Writers Project. He would partner the Department of Labor with the National Endowment for the Arts to put artists to work. The bill specifies outdoor concerts for local communities and funds for writers to document interviews with first responders and families of COVID victims. These artists and writers will reflect us, console us, inspire us and guide us with poetry, photographs, murals, music, statues, literature and live performances.
If the bill gets out of Congress, it lands on the desk of the President, a leader who researched the arts to overcome the defining challenge of his youth: a debilitating stutter. As a young boy, Biden recited poetry by WB Yeats and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mirror, each successful stanza setting him free. Today the stuttering is gone, along with the boy who fought it. With poetry, he more than survived; he triumphed.
In a time of global challenges and destabilization, imagine the triumphs if we joined in chorus to place the arts and culture at the heart of our recovery.
Kal Penn is an actor and former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement who served on the Presidential Committee for the Arts and Humanities with Megan Beyer, its former executive director and current co-chair of Meridian’s culturefix program honoring the power of arts and culture to help heal the world and solve global challenges facing people, communities and the planet.