The Glaring Absence of a U.S. Department of Culture

November 7, 2008

200px-ussealThere’s been much excitement and speculation about how Obama will staff his Executive Office. With Joe Biden Jr. as VP (link to the Senate) and Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff (link to the House), the search is on for 15 new Cabinet members*: Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health/Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing/Urban Dev’t, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, and the Attorney General.

What missing? Secretary of Culture.

Call me biased, but pretty much all the most powerful nations in the world have one. There are Ministers or Secretaries of Culture in France, England, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Italy. And so on and so on.

It’s the 21st Century: America needs one.

Obama’s victorious campaign itself proves that images, words, beliefs, attitudes, narratives, and aspirations can bind us together, powerfully, as a nation (and tear us apart — as Dubya’s violent legacy proves).

Culture — the ideas, practices, and ideals people share — is a dynamic and critical apparatus of any nation-state. Mightier than steel, as Obama wisely put in his acceptance speech. More primal than religion, if I may add.

In these dark, fractious days, the strength of American Culture/s (or at least, the belief in it) just might be that magical something, that je ne sais quoi, that pulls us through to a new and better era.

So, I’m putting this out into the blogosphere: Secretary of Culture, Please!

(Cultural Council would be cool too.)

*For posterity, here’s a pdf of Dubya’s Cabinet.

Oil-Rich Abu Dhabi Hosts First Picasso Exhibition in the Arab World

May 27, 2008

emiratesMajor works by Pablo Picasso are now on view for the first time in the Arab world. The retrospective, “Picasso Abu Dhabi: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris”, will be at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi from May 27 to September 4, 2008. It is the only Middle Eastern venue on the show’s 9-city tour.

The exhibition was originally curated by Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, where it went on display in February with 400 of the artist’s works. Abu Dhabi’s version has only 186, but includes a special exhibition of “40 drawings, prints and illuminated manuscripts reminiscent of the Arab influences Picasso absorbed during his youth in Málaga, La Cocina and Barcelona.” It was curated by Anne Baldassari of the Musée National Picasso (who I suppose knows why more than 50% of the original group is NOT on view in the emirates’ capital.)

While major U.S. news sites have done little more than run a generic AP article about the opening, this represents a significant public relations move for the UAE and the Middle East in general, and for Abu Dhabi in particular. The richest of the seven emirates, oil-rich Abu Dhabi is rapidly transforming itself into a sophisticated cross-cultural destination (unlike its flashier neighbor, Dubai). Already, it is the future site of a Guggenheim, a Louvre, a New York University campus, as well as a performing arts center, maritime museum and a national museum named after Sheikh Zayed, the main driving force behind the UAE’s formation.

Remarkable growth for a nation that paved its first road in 1961. As Americans face a summer (or more) of skyrocketing gas prices, art openings like this hint at who’s at the other end of the pump. Culture flows in the direction of capital.

Photo: Emirates Palace at dusk, by Jake Brewer on flickr

Castro on Obama, Hunger, and Consumerism

May 26, 2008

The rumble for Florida’s votes is on and the winner may depend on what Miami’s Cuban immigrants see as the future of their motherland. Clinton, Obama, and McCain are sparring over how they will deal with Fidel Castro, now 81, and younger brother Raul, who formally assumed the presidency in February 2008. Mirroring the majority of immigrants’ sentiments, Clinton and McCain are vowing not to deal with the socialist republic until it introduces more democratic reforms. Obama is going against the grain, pledging to open up official lines of communication with the most populous nation in the Caribbean.

In the past, the older Castro has voiced his support of Obama and an Obama-Clinton ticket. However, in a surprising Reuters report today, Castro criticized Obama’s speech in Miami last Friday wherein Obama called for lifting restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba. Castro, as quoted by Reuters:

“Obama’s speech can translate into a formula of hunger for the nation (Cuba), the remittances like alms and the visits to Cuba as propaganda for consumerism and the unsustainable lifestyle that he sustains.

“How is the very grave problem of the food crisis going to be confronted? Grains must be distributed among human beings, domestic animals and fish, which year by year are smaller and more scarce in the over-exploited seas,” Castro said. “It’s not easy to produce meat from gas and oil.”

Castro is pointing out the dangers of rhetoric and smooth talk, which is Obama’s Achilles heel. But I wonder how much Castro himself has been able to stop the tide of consumerism within Cuba. Here’s a photo of Castro published by Reuters in a separate article. It was apparently taken by Brazilian President Lula during their meeting in Havana in January. Why is Castro wearing an ADIDAS track top? One might consider this a very successful case of advertising or product placement, aka “propaganda for consumerism”. Not good: a picture is worth a thousand words.




Adidas, of course, knows best. The company’s got an “Adidas Cuba Retro Track Top” for soccer fans and Cuban loyalists.