Unless you have been isolated from all news sources for the past few hours, you are likely aware that actor George Clooney was arrested this morning for his participation in a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington DC. I doubt you’ve missed it and, even if you have, you’re going to hear more about it, because it’s a story that unites a significant humanitarian crisis that has been relatively underreported with one of the true movie stars of our generation. This makes it catnip to everyone from TMZ to The News Hour, and it does what Clooney no doubt intended: shines a stunningly bright light on a vital story that hasn’t managed to get a foothold in the American consciousness (or conscience) to a significant degree.
A massive human tragedy cannot legitimately be equated with the issue of arts funding and arts education, and please don’t misunderstand my intention here. But I can’t help look to Clooney’s action today, and the media response. I wonder what effect such an action might have on declining arts support if someone of his stature were arrested at a rowdy protest against arts funding cuts.
After all, there are plenty of articles written weekly about the proven value of the arts, not simply as a quality of life issue, but as a tool in students’ development and creative thinking, as a magnet for economic development, and so on. These articles may fly about the internet among the faithful, but they don’t seem to be getting much broad-based traction at a time when political candidates campaign by declaring their intention to gut or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (among many other essential, and infinitesimally small parts of the Federal budget).
Some of us have, in varying degrees, been watching or fighting this fight for several decades, and it remains a worthy battle. There are certainly celebrities who have gone before Congressional hearings to make the case, and that manages to generate a bit of video or a few inches of print. But jailing someone famous (and I mean legitimately famously, worthily famous, not some reality TV freak of the week), that’s a game-changer, lifting the issue to whole other level.
Do I have suggestions? While he may well be willing, I have previously written about why Alec Baldwin doesn’t suit my purpose. There are stars who willingly leap into public fray, like Martin Sheen, who was regularly arrested at nuclear protests even before he became one of this country’s favorite fictional Presidents; unfortunately being a regular presence diminishes the impact. I believe we need someone who hasn’t staked out a position on another divisive political issue, and whose appeal cuts across racial, political and social lines.
We need to pick our moment, our place, our specific flash point – making sure we’re in a major media market – and marshal as large a group of artists, arts staffs, and arts supporters so that we’re not asking someone to front a bedraggled few dozen malcontents. Then we have to push Tom Hanks, or Julia Roberts, or Denzel Washington, or Beyonce, or Neil Patrick Harris, or Ellen Degeneres, or Jeremy Lin, or Sofia Vergara, or Justin Timberlake, to the front of the crowd with the express goal of having those plastic handcuffs tightened around their wrists and their heads protected as they’re thrust into a police conveyance. My god, if they were up for it, imagine the press if Angela Lansbury or James Earl Jones led the civil disobedience on this topic.
When these famous and even beloved offenders are released, which they will surely quickly be, they have to be ready with the right speech – the perfect speech – to give to the phalanx of journalists who will be waiting eagerly for their emergence. Then maybe the arts agenda will rise in the public consciousness, then we can work from a higher plateau of awareness.
When people can’t get attention they desire, we hear them mutter, “I can’t even get arrested in this town.” Maybe the arts need to get arrested now and again, and must do whatever it takes for that to happen.
And of course, if Mr. Clooney wants to join us, we’ll take him too.