I had no idea what to expect when I hopped the train to Washington, D.C. a few months ago as one of over sixty artists and cultural activists invited from around the country to attend a White House briefing and symposium on cultural activism. Our unlikely and diverse crew heading to the White House was a patchwork of artists and artist organizers who came from a wide range of disciplines and cultures. We represented everyone from hip-hopsters to hipsters; Native American art organizers to Chicano, Asian and Latino community arts activists; digital storytellers, green designers, architects, dancers, musicians, poets, spoken-word performers, film directors, curators and street-art provocateurs. What a mix.
The two-hour briefing was exciting because of where we were hearing it, of course, but it was also fairly predictable. We heard from many branches of the White House about Obama's agenda (social responsibility, community outreach, bringing art and performance to the White House, the NEA funding, etc.) and how much the President and his administration cared about art. But I kept noticing how linear the thinking was from the people who spoke to us. Many of the speakers were political deputies with law degrees directing various divisions of the White House, who mentioned more than once that they'd studied acting in college before going into government. (Okay, we get it... you empathize.) But the meat and potatoes came from our impassioned crew as we grilled the speakers and pleaded with them to recognize that art is more than just pictures hanging on an embassy wall, and that artists are not outsiders, but true-blue American workers who deserve to be treated with the same respect as any other American worker.
After the speeches, as we mingled with the WH staff, I chatted with my super-smart seatmates -- Aaron Rose (of Beautiful Losers fame) and Duffy Culligan (from the Directors Bureau), who had both flown in from L.A. to participate -- about how amazing it would be if there were a consortium of artists and creative thinkers on hand in our government to consult on everything from how to deliver a briefing (like the one we had just attended), to policymaking and issue activism. I kept thinking about how after September 11th, every artist I knew agreed that the horror we had witnessed was actually a major piece of performance art that could not possibly have been conceived by a lawyer or a politician, but more likely by a jihadist with a wild imagination and an artist's mind. Even our government's official "9-11 Commission" summarized the attacks as a failure of imagination, and reportedly included a section on "Institutionalizing Imagination," which called for making imagination a skill in the service of the nation. What many people also don't realize is that within two weeks of the attacks, the Department of Defense actually brought together a large group of American artists and progressive thinkers (including someone I know) to consult in a series of top-secret meetings, at which they were asked to imagine how this (super-creative) enemy of ours might attack us next.
Following our lunch break, we were asked to gather into small groups and ideate about what we had just heard and how art could integrate with and help promote the Obama agenda. Five of us -- myself, Aaron, Duffy, Anne Pasternak (Creative Time), Jonathan Wells (Flux/RESFEST) and Liz Manne (Work in Progress) -- decided to develop the idea of establishing a Department of Alternative Thinking: a think-tank and brain trust made up of the most creative minds in the country, including artists, inventors and visionaries. The DoAT would formally integrate creative brain consultation (performed gratis as a national service) as a required aspect into every detail of governmental decision-making, whether about arts education, the economy, health care, energy and environmental policy, national security, the country's infrastructure or international policy.
We all agreed that creativity could serve an enormous role in the White House -- much more than hanging paintings or performing poetry slams in the Blue Room. Because in the end, sideways thinking and innovation are what will keep our country ahead of the game -- artists and creatives should be regarded and utilized as productive specialists (in the same way that economists and scientists are), as opposed to being categorized as indulgent afterthoughts within our society. With a maverick thinker in the White House, there is no better moment than now to make this happen. You haven't heard the last of us. Stay tuned.
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