The Artist as Citizen
February 03, 1995, 1:00am

The following speech in support of federal support for the arts was given by Barbra Streisand at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts on February 3, 1995:

I’ve stood up and performed in front of thousands of people — but let me tell you, this is much more frightening. Maybe it’s because this is The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and I’m neither a politician nor a professor. I like to think of myself as a perpetual student. Perhaps some of my anxiety has to do with the fact that I’ve been told that a future President of the United States might very well be in this audience. And if that’s true, I’m sure she will be the one to ask me the toughest questions. I’m saying that because I had a wonderful lunch with some of the students yesterday. Their knowledge, their enthusiasm, their optimism was truly inspiring.

I’m very honored to be invited here. This invitation has a special meaning for me because it involves my convictions and not just my career.

The subject of my talk is the artist as citizen. I guess I can call myself an artist, although after thirty years, the word still feels a bit pretentious. But I am, first and foremost, a citizen: a tax-paying, voting, concerned American citizen who happens to have opinions — a lot of them — which seems to bother some people. So I’m going to try to say something about those two roles.

This is an important moment to deal with this subject because so much of what the artist needs to flourish and survive is at risk now.

When I was asked to speak here a year ago, I was much more optimistic. We had seven women in the Senate, bringing the hope of full representation for more than half the population. And, we had a President who judged our ethnic, cultural and artistic diversity as a source of strength rather than weakness.

Then came the election of 1994, and suddenly the progress of the recent past seemed threatened by those who hunger for the “good old days” when women and minorities knew their place. In this resurgent reactionary mood, artists derided as the “cultural elite” are convenient objects of scorn; and those institutions which have given Americans access to artistic works — such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — are in danger of being abolished.

From my point of view, this is part of the profound conflict between those who would widen freedom and those who would narrow it; between those who defend tolerance and those who view it as a threat.

All great civilizations have supported the arts. However, the new Speaker of the House, citing the need to balance the budget, insists that the arts programs should be the first to go. But the government’s contribution to the NEA and PBS is actually quite meager. To put it in perspective, the entire budget of the NEA is equal to one F-22 fighter jet — a plane that some experts say may not even be necessary. And the Pentagon is planning to buy 442 of them. One less plane and we’ve got the whole arts budget. 72 billion dollars for those planes. Now that’s real money. On the other hand, PBS costs each taxpayer less than one dollar a year and National Public Radio costs them 29 cents.

So maybe it’s not about balancing the budget. Maybe it’s about shutting the minds and mouths of artists who might have something thought-provoking to say.

William Bennett, in calling recently for the elimination of the Arts agencies, charged that they were corrupt for supporting artists whose work undermines “mainstream American values.” Well, art does not exist only to entertain — but also to challenge one to think, to provoke, even to disturb, in a constant search for the truth. To deny artists, or any of us, for that matter, free expression and free thought — or worse, to force us to conform to some rigid notion of “mainstream American values” — is to weaken the very foundation of our democracy.

The far right is waging a war for the soul of America by making art a partisan issue. And by trying to cut these arts programs, which bring culture, education and joy into the lives of ordinary Americans, they are hurting the very people they claim to represent. (By the way, I also find it ironic that Newt Gingrich said that “the NEA and PBS are protected by a bunch of rich upper-class people.” Isn’t it a little hypocritical to lobby for tax cuts for these same rich upper class people, but resent them when they try to protect the arts?)

The persistent drumbeat of cynicism on the talk shows and in the new Congress reeks of disrespect for the arts and artists. But what else is new? Even Plato said that artists were nothing but troublemakers and he wanted to ban poets from his perfect Republic. In Victorian times there were signs requiring actors and dogs to eat in the kitchen. As recently as last year, artists who have spoken out politically have been derided as airheads, bubbleheads, and nitwits. And this is not just by someone like Rush Limbaugh, who has called people in my industry the “spaced-out Hollywood left.” This is also the rhetoric of respectable publications.

For example, the editor of The New Republic wrote of actors: “In general, they are an excruciating bunch of egomaniacs. They have little to say for themselves… and their politics are uniformly idiotic.” To me — this is all about jealousy. He specifically singled out Paul Newman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tom Hanks as subjects for his wrath after last year’s Academy Awards.

What is the sin? Is it caring about your country? Why should the actor give up his role as citizen just because he’s in show business? For his role in the movie “Philadelphia,” Tom Hanks had to learn quite a bit about being a gay man with AIDS. Should he have remained silent on this issue? For 30 years, Paul Newman has been an outspoken defender of civil liberties and a major philanthropist. Would it be better if he just made money and played golf? Should Whoopi Goldberg retreat into her home and not do anything for the homeless? Or, is Robert Redford a bubblehead because he knows more about the environment than most members of Congress?

Imagine talking about the leaders of any other group in our society this way — say, leaders of the steelworkers union, agribusiness, or chief executives of the automobile industry. Imagine having this kind of contempt for an industry that is second only to aerospace in export earnings abroad. According to Business Week, Americans spent 340 billion dollars on entertainment in 1993. Maybe policy makers could learn something from an industry that makes billions while the government owes trillions.

The presumption is that people in my profession are too insulated, too free-thinking, too subversive. One can almost hear the question — are you now or have you ever been a member of the Screen Actors Guild? Never mind that the former president of our guild did become President of
the United States. The Hollywood smear only seems to apply to liberals. With no special interest and serving no personal or financial agenda, artists make moral commitments to many issues that plague our society. Indeed, this participation often makes artists vulnerable professionally. They take the risk of offending part of their audience or their government. As the record of the Hollywood blacklist demonstrates, they can even pay the price of serving time in jail. having their works banned, or being prevented from practicing their craft.

Ironically, contempt for the artist as citizen is often expressed by those most eager to exploit the celebrity of the entertainer. Both journalists and politicians feed off the celebrity status of the successful artist. We can attract a crowd and raise astounding amounts of money for the politicians — and make good copy for the journalists. Which is precisely why we are courted — and resented — by both. I recall various leading newspapers and magazines trying to entice Hollywood celebrities to join their tables at the White House Correspondents dinner, only to trash them afterwards. You can just hear them thinking — you make money, you’re famous — you have to have political opinions too?

But we, as people, are more than what we do — as performers, professors or plumbers — we also are, we also should be — participants in the larger life of society.

In the old days of the dominant movie studios, an artist wasn’t allowed to express political opinions. But with the breakup of the studio system, creative people gained independence. And with the rise of the women’s, environmental and gay rights movements, there has been an increase in artists who support liberal causes. Why is that?

Well, most artists turn up on the humanist, compassionate side of public debate, because this is consistent with the work we do. The basic task of the artist is to explore the human condition. In order to do what we do well, the writer, the director, the actor has to inhabit other people’s psyches, understand other people’s problems. We have to walk in other people’s shoes and live in other people’s skins. This does tend to make us more sympathetic to politics that are more tolerant. In our work, in our preparation, and in our research, we are continuously trying to educate ourselves. And with learning comes compassion. Education is the enemy of bigotry and hate. It’s hard to hate someone you truly understand.

Our participation in politics is a natural outgrowth of what we do, and it can and should be a responsible use of celebrity. Since we do have the ability to raise issues, reach people, and influence opinion, as with Charlton Heston lobbying against gun control and, thank God, for the NEA, we do have a greater responsibility to be informed.

I’m not here to defend everything that comes out of the entertainment industry. A lot of junk is produced; gratuitously violent, sexist, exploitative and debasing of the human spirit. I don’t like it and I won’t defend it. This is a profit-driven industry that produces the best and the worst in its attempt to find a market. If you notice the far right rarely attacks the violent movies — in fact, their candidates campaign alongside some of the major practitioners of this so-called art form.

What disturbs them is often the best work of the mass media. They have attacked programming, beginning with “All in the Family,” because it dealt with the controversial issues of racism and sexism. They attacked “Murphy Brown,” which represents a thoughtful attempt to deal with the reality that Americans now lead lives which, for better or for worse, are very different than the lives of Ozzie and Harriet.

Art is the signature of a generation; artists have a way of defining the times. Marion Anderson, singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because, as a black woman, she was forbidden to sing at Constitution Hall, forced Americans to confront the outrageousness of segregation. Art can illuminate, enlighten, inspire. Art finds a way to be constructive. It becomes heat in cold places; it becomes light in dark places.

When there was chaos in the Sixties, Bob Dylan said it was like “Blowin’ in the Wind.” During the riots of the Sixties, when people tried to explain the inexplicable, Aretha Franklin sang, simply what was being asked for, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Then there are the movies that spoke for their times. The movie version of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” brought the sad reality of the Depression home to those who wanted to ignore it. In the 1940s, a movie called “Gentleman’s Agreement” raised the issue of anti-semitism in America. “In the Heat of the Night” was named Best Picture of 1967, and is remembered for its unsparing look at the issue of race. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” focused on buying votes and favors — a problem we still haven’t solved. A generation ago, “Inherit the Wind” took on the Scopes trial and the subordination of science to one narrow religious view — and the movie is powerfully relevant today in light of the Christian Coalition’s efforts to reintroduce creationism into the public school curriculum.

Just last year, we saw a motion picture called “Schindler’s List” bring the subject of the Holocaust to millions of people around the world. Steven Spielberg rescued it from fading newsreels and recast it in black and white film, which makes it vivid and real — and yes, undeniable.

Moviemakers can be late to a subject, or afraid, but often they are brave and ahead of their time. Artists were criticized for their involvement in the civil rights struggle and their early opposition to the Vietnam War. In those cases at least, I would suggest that the painters and performers were wiser than most pundits and politicians.

I’m not suggesting that actors run the country; we’ve already tried that. But I am suggesting, for example, that on the issue of AIDS, I would rather have America listen to Elizabeth Taylor, who had the courage to sponsor the first major fund-raiser against this dreaded disease, than to Jesse Helms, who has consistently fought legislation that would fund AIDS research.

Our role as artist is more controversial now because there are those, claiming the absolute authority of religion, who detest much of our work as much as they detest most of our politics. Instead of rationally debating subjects like abortion or gay rights, they condemn as immoral those who favor choice and tolerance. They disown their own dark side and magnify everyone else’s until, at the extreme, doctors are murdered in the name of protecting life. I wonder, who is this God they invoke, who is so petty and mean? Is God really against gun control and food stamps for poor children?

All people need spiritual values in their lives. But we can’t reduce the quest for eternal meaning to a right wing political agenda. What is dangerous about the far right is not that it takes religion seriously — most of us do — but rather that it condemns all other spiritual choices — the Buddhist, the Jew, the Muslim, and many others who consider themselves to be good Christians. The wall of separation between church and state is needed precisely because religion, like art, is too important a part of the human experience to be choked by the hands of censors.

Artists have long felt the stranglehold of censorship by officially established religions. A sixteenth century Pope ordered loincloths painted on the figures in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”; nineteenth century clerics damned Walt Whitman. Tolstoy was viewed as a heretic; and today, Islamic extremists, sanctioned by governments, are still hunting down Salman Rushdie.

It’s interesting that Americans applaud artists in other parts of the world for speaking out, in China for example. It’s very often the artist who gives a voice to the voiceless by speaking up when no one else will. The playwright Vaclev Havel went to jail because of that. Now he’s the president of his country.

I know that I can speak more eloquently through my work than through any speech I might give. So, as an artist, I’ve chosen to make films about subjects and social issues I care about, whether it’s dealing with the inequality of women in “Yentl,” or producing a film about Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer, who was discharged from the army for telling the truth about her sexuality. Her story reminded me of a line from George Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan” that said “He who tells too much truth shall surely be hanged.” Hopefully we won’t be hanged for trying to dispel some of the myths about gays and lesbians when the film airs next week on network TV.

I promised myself I wouldn’t get too partisan here. Some of my best customers are Republicans. When I sang in Washington DC, I asked the audience for a show of party allegiance, and a majority turned out to be Republican. I should have known; who else could afford those ticket prices?

Fortunately, there are reasonable Republicans. But I am worried about the direction in which the new Congress now seeks to take the country. I’m worried about the name calling, the stereotypical labeling. I want to believe that these people have good intentions, but I think it was dangerous when Newt Gingrich developed a strategy in the last campaign of pitting President Clinton against so-called “normal Americans.” Just last week, the Speaker attacked again when he said, and I quote: “I fully expect Hollywood to have almost no concept of either normal American behavior, in terms of healthy families, healthy structures, religious institutions, conservative politics, the free enterprise system.”

This from a politician who holds up a Hollywood movie, “Boy’s Town,” as his answer to welfare reform? And how can he say that Hollywood doesn’t know anything about free enterprise? And why just this past Wednesday — was he trying to round up Hollywood celebrities to promote his agenda? But most of all, I deeply resent the notion that one politician or political party owns the franchise on family values, personal responsibility, traditional values and religion.

We are all normal Americans, even with our problems and complexities, including people in my community. We were not born in movie studios. We come from every part of this country and most of us are self-made. We’ve worked hard to get where we are and we don’t forget where we came from, whether it’s Iowa, Cincinnati or Brooklyn.

This notion of “normal Americans” has a horrible historical echo. It presupposes that there are “abnormal” Americans who are responsible for all that is wrong. The new scapegoats are members of what Gingrich calls the “Counterculture McGoverniks.”

I did a concert for George McGovern in 1972, and I still think that he would have made a better President than Richard Nixon. I’m disappointed that I’ve read so little in defense of McGovern. Was McGovern countercultural? This son of a Republican Methodist minister has been married to the same woman for 51 years and flew 35 combat missions in World War II. Isn’t it odd that his patriotism be disputed by a person who never served in the military and whose own family history can hardly be called exemplary. But then again — no one should have to conform to some mythical concept of the ideal family — not even Mr. Gingrich.

I must admit that I’m confused by this man’s thinking. He proposes taking children away from poor mothers and placing them in orphanages. If that’s an example of mainstream culture, let me say I’m happy to be a member of the counterculture.

I’m also very proud to be a liberal. Why is that so terrible these days? The liberals were liberators — they fought slavery, fought for women to have the right to vote, fought against Hitler, Stalin, fought to end segregation, fought to end apartheid. Thanks to liberals we have Social Security, public education, consumer and environmental protection, Medicare and Medicaid, the minimum wage law, unemployment compensation. Liberals put an end to child labor and they even gave us the 5 day work week! What’s to be ashamed of? Such a record should be worn as a badge of honor!

Liberals have also always believed in public support for the arts. At the height of the Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, which helped struggling artists. Willem deKooning, Jackson Pollack, and John Cage were among those who benefited from the support of the WPA.

Art was a way out for me. I represent a generation of kids who happened to benefit from government support of the arts in public schools. I was a member of the choral club at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Sadly, this current generation of young people does not have the same opportunities.

How can we accept a situation in which there are no longer orchestras, choruses, libraries or art classes to nourish our children? We need more support for the arts, not less — particularly to make this rich world available to young people whose vision is choked by a stark reality. How many children, who have no other outlet in their lives for their grief, have found solace in an instrument to play or a canvas to paint on? When you take into consideration the development of the human heart, soul and imagination, don’t the arts take on just as much importance as math or science?

What can I say: I have opinions. No one has to agree. I just like being involved. After many years of self-scrutiny, I’ve realized that the most satisfying feelings come from things outside myself. And I believe that people from any walk of life, when they stand up for their convictions, can do almost anything — stop wars, end injustices, and even defeat entrenched powers.

As the difference between the elections of 1992 and 1994 shows, the outcome is not pre-ordained; progress, whatever your definition of it, is not inevitable. I thought this current administration was doing a helluva good job: reducing the deficit by 700 billion dollars, creating 6 million jobs, downsizing government and passing a significant amount of important legislation. I’m not a policy wonk, but that’s the way I see it.

Most artists are not experts, but all of us are something more. As President Carter said in 1980, “In a few days, I will lay down my official responsibilities in this office, to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of President, the title of citizen.”

We also need to keep in mind some words spoken by the man for whom this school of government is named. President Kennedy said he valued so much what artists could give because they “knew the midnight as well as the high noon [and] understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit.” He also said, “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

By the way, President Kennedy was the first to suggest the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Well aware that art can be controversial, he concluded, “[the artist] must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role.”

But in 1995, I continue to believe it is an indispensable one — that artists, especially those who have had success, and have won popularity in their work, not only have the right, but the responsibility, to risk the unpopularity of being committed and active.

We receive so much from our country; we can and should give something back.

So, until women are treated equally with men, until gays and minorities are not discriminated against and until children have their full rights, artists must continue to speak out. I will be one of them. Sorry, Rush, Newt and Jesse, but the artist as citizen is here to stay.