Imagine this scene: there is a band playing as you walk in. As the musicians wrap up their piece and take their seats, a large choir pops up, featuring top-notch a cappella performers. This performance segues into rousing solo performances from vocalists backed up by beautiful orchestrations. Great writers are celebrated. Poetry is recited. And the whole celebration is capped off with—what else?—dancing.
If you were in Washington D.C. last week, or anywhere near a television, you might recognize this event, not as an arts festival, a cabaret, or a musical, but as our Presidential Inauguration. It’s probably not the first thing most people noticed as they watched the pomp and circumstance of a centuries-old tradition play out, but it is certainly what struck me most: at our most essentially American moments, when we want to celebrate most fully and most impressively, we inevitably employ the arts.
What I saw was:
- The presentation of our National Colors through military music and choreography.
- The spectacular Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.
- Myrlie Evers-Williams reciting the words to a great, moving spiritual at the center of her comments.
- The story of the Dome of the Capital—of architecture, art and fine craft—completed in the middle of the Civil War as an artistic symbol of our Union. And the story of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome—a piece of art cast, assembled and put in place by slaves in 1863.
- Musicians James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson, and the Marine Band each singing our national treasures: the great patriotic songs of our country.
- Poet Richard Blanco reading “One Today”; references again and again to a movie, “Lincoln;” handcrafted crystal vases gifted to the president and vice president at lunch; the gifts given to all members of Congress, a portfolio of essays related to the Statue of Freedom—in the words of Nancy Pelosi: “Freedom stands on the Dome of the Capitol.”
- And so many more examples, from the arts and music performances in the parade and balls, to Speaker John Boehner’s story of a team of mother and daughter seamstresses who made the huge flag that hung over Ft. McHenry and inspired our national anthem.
The arts and culture, often without us actually even understanding or acknowledging it, are how we celebrate the great moments of our lives and how we inspire our nation’s greatest deeds. I am proud that the arts were so much a part of last week’s activities.
This is the exact sentiment that I shared with a room of diverse arts leaders, supporters, and promoters the day after the inauguration, at the post-inaugural arts brunch we hosted through the Americans for the Arts Action Fund. The brunch served as an exclamation point—a thank you, a celebration—of our ArtsVote2012 efforts to get the arts at the table in the election: and beyond.
Our brunch was a true celebration of the diversity of the arts: not only race, age, and gender, but also viewpoint, cause, and perspective. From service organizations to government officials and artists of all kinds, the spectrum of how the arts inspire was clearer to me than ever.
There is energy here, and a drive to move forward—all voices together, to paraphrase our president’s own words the day before. The assembled group, so different in so many ways, showcased perfectly how the arts inspire—and maybe even mandate—inclusiveness and cooperation.
So what I came away with—from both the inauguration and our celebration—was that the arts have an undeniable place in the ethos and the spirit of America. And if the inauguration was any indication, we have done a good job of making that so. But we aren’t there yet.
Yes, the arts are everywhere; the arts are ingrained. So perhaps instead of arguing for their inclusion, we should be celebrating ourselves. Shouting from the rooftops that the arts are, in fact, part of our everyday lives—at the largest celebrations and smallest child’s birthday parties, in our hospitals, at our military bases and in our communities. It turns out, the arts are as patriotic as the flag—which, of course, is our most famous piece of fabric art, too.
(Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on The Huffington Post on February 4, 2013.)