At the intersection of art and politics

We ask the arts to show us who we are and what our politics should be

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In 1824 Lord Byron wrote a poem on the occasion of his 36th birthday. He composed it in Missolonghi, Greece, where he had gone to support the Greek War of Independence. Titled "January 22nd, Missolonghi," the poem concludes:

If thou regret'st thy Youth, why live?

The land of honourable Death

Is here: -- up to the Field, and give

Away thy breath!


Seek out -- less often sought than found --

A Soldier's Grave, for thee the best;

Then look around, and choose thy Ground,

And take thy rest.

A series of recent occasions make the intersection of politics and art rise to my mind -- the second inauguration of Barack Obama, which occurred on the day we were recognizing Martin Luther King Jr., and the invocations of Abraham Lincoln, whose Second Inaugural Address is woven into the fabric of the nation.

I hesitate to broach the subject of the arts in the company of these names, as if the arts were equal to a nation's independence, the end of slavery, the securing of civil rights not realized even after a civil war 100 years previous, or the subjects of national unity and world peace that President Obama addressed at his inaugural. Yet I cannot help but believe that we need the arts specifically because the issues we face are so weighty.

Part of what makes the speeches of these individuals so great is their mastery of poetic language to match the seriousness and rightness of their purposes.

King's "I Have a Dream" address echoes through history because it was both morally right and brilliantly crafted. The use of anaphora has made it one of our most memorable speeches, with the repetition of "I have a dream ..." and of "Let freedom ring ..." One of the things that strikes me most decades later is that we remember these words because they have been written onto our cultural consciousness -- and not only because of the civil rights laws that were enacted as a result of their power.

This was true of Lincoln's words, too, thanks to his use of poetic devices -- the syntactic parallelism of "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray" and the searing metonymy of "Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword."

Not only do we remember the literary artistry of these words, we translate them into the visual arts, with the hope that they will be forever celebrated.

Millions of tourists are drawn each year to the Lincoln Memorial, which embodies and in which are inscribed Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. It was no coincidence that King delivered his dream to the nation here, and that nearby his metaphor "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope" became a monument and sculpture dedicated to his words and achievements.

As I watched President Obama address the nation to begin his second term, I wondered how those in our seats of political power can doubt the power of the arts when we etch them in marble on our landmarks -- and when our arts themselves become landmarks. I could not help but wonder why we debate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, for arts education in schools, for commissions of public art.

I value math and science. Math and science have taken us to the moon, cured many ills and created the marvelous machines on which I write these very words and on which you may be reading them. And yet, when we want to enshrine our heroes, our fallen from wars and our most admirable leaders; when we want to inspire our people to action and rise to our higher angels; when we want to commemorate the best that this or any nation has been or can be; then we turn to that which can capture our emotions, ideals and aspirations. We turn to the word, the brush, the chisel, the camera, the song. We turn to art.

I hope we remember that a dance scholarship might beget the next Alvin Ailey, that a poetry fellowship might empower the next Richard Blanco, that an arts program preserved in an elementary school might inspire the next Maya Lin. And that the artists of the coming generation might together fashion the next memorial to one of our nation's great political accomplishments.

Mr. Blanco made manifest how art can express our deepest longings in the poem he wrote for President Obama's second inaugural last month, "One Today":

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight

of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always -- home,

always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon

like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop

and every window, of one country -- all of us --

facing the stars

hope -- a new constellation

waiting for us to map it,

waiting for us to name it -- together.


Andrew Swensen is publisher and editor in chief of The Muse Dialogue (, a journal on the arts supported by Carnegie Mellon University, where this article first appeared. Mr. Swensen holds adjunct positions in the arts at CMU and Point Park University (


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