I saw a comment on Twitter this morning which reminded me that Alec Baldwin will be delivering the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center in April. This is not breaking news; it was announced in November, although a just-issued press release has reinforced awareness of the upcoming event. But the reminder coincided with an article I saw this morning as well: that the upstate New York supermarket chain, Wegman’s, had curtailed its holiday advertising campaign featuring Baldwin because of the attention surrounding his highly-publicized ejection from an American Airlines flight late in 2011. [Note: Shortly after I posted this, I learned that Wegman’s reinstated the Baldwin ads, but that in no way mitigates what follows here.]
Now let me say that I think Baldwin is a terrific performer, especially since he has discovered his greatest effect comes as a character actor, not as the leading man he was once promoted to be. Whether in dramatic roles or comic, he’s brilliant, with both a dark edge and a mischievous glint that serves most every part he plays these days.
He has also put himself forward as a spokesman and participant in many arts causes. Offhand, I can think of his advocacy for Lincoln Center (even getting it worked into one of his commercial gigs), radio host for the New York Philharmonic, interviewer for a WNYC podcast, major donor to the Hamptons Film Festival, and fundraiser for a variety of arts causes (even doing an event for the small but feisty Two River Theatre Company in New Jersey). I have no doubt I’ve missed many things.
Yet I have to express my concern over the “optics” of Mr. Baldwin as one of the leading national spokespeople on behalf of the arts. The American Airlines incident, whatever the truth of it, wasn’t pretty, nor was Mr. Baldwin’s use of his celebrity status to go on Saturday Night Live days later to bolster his image and further reduce that of the airline (which has its own issues to be sure). There was the public flirtation with a New York mayoral run, which garnered headlines because of his celebrity (though seemingly far more for his declared interest than for his ultimate decision to drop the idea), yet had a dilettantish air about it, as if public service is something to be toyed with. Let’s not forget the publicity years back surrounding his promise to move to Canada if George W. Bush was elected president; we know what happened to the residency of both Mr. Bush and Mr. Baldwin, and only one moved anywhere. The divorce and custody battle with Kim Basinger was as ugly a public split as I can recall.
I don’t doubt Mr. Baldwin’s commitment to the arts and I know that when it comes to celebrity coverage, there are far too many sides to, and versions of, the same story, be it professional or personal. I also don’t want to in any way suggest that Mr. Baldwin doesn’t have every right to say whatever he wants about his politics, his ideals, and his beliefs – and I accept that as a talented actor who has achieved real celebrity, his comments will reach vastly more people than, say, this blog. Only days ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times about celebrities whose commitment to and knowledge of social causes must be taken seriously.
But I worry that in employing Mr. Baldwin as a national spokesman at a prestigious policy event, the messenger obscures the message. As someone who believes that the arts should not be a political plaything, I fear that Mr. Baldwin will be unable to preach to anyone but the converted, and that whatever the value of his words may be, they will be overshadowed by his public persona. Of course the irony is that it is his fame (coupled with his evident commitment to the arts) which resulted in his invitation in the first place. Just as I cannot bear to listen to anything the belligerent political pretender Donald Trump has to say about government policy (as recently as this morning on his subservient enabler, NBC), I don’t think any conservative, and perhaps many moderate, individuals will place much stock in Mr. Baldwin’s speech for the arts. He is, to my regret, a flawed vessel for an essential message.
I don’t advocate the replacement of Mr. Baldwin for the Hanks Lecture and I am eager to both hear his speech and see the resultant attention to it; disinviting him would only bring more attention to the ideological rift in this country over the value of the arts, in both policy and practice. But as we continue to fight for the value of the arts both in education and in American life, we need a genuinely bi-partisan approach and I hope that more celebrities committed to the arts and arts education – those with perhaps less baggage than Mr. Baldwin – with join the fight as publicly and frequently as he has, so we can grab the essential and elusive media attention, but then focus the country on what is being said, not on the speaker.