Aesthetic politics: Obama, Dewey, Potter, IFCC

Last night, watching the primary results roll in (and a strange Gregory Peck movie on Turner Movie Classics), I was struck yet again by the John Dewey in Barack Obama’s victory speech. I know, I know: I’ve managed to locate Dewey in just about everything. I didn’t post about it, but I even detected him in Dark Horse Comics chief Mike Richardson in his speech at the Stumptown Comic Fest. Richardson was terrific, by the way. So maybe I’m monomaniacal on this subject, as obsessive readers of Art Scatter already know.

Dewey and Obama. It has to do with process. Embedded within this speech and all of the others that I’ve heard Obama give (not a VERY large number), he tells you how he thinks he is going to bring about the change he talks about (to health care, foreign policy, education, etc.). He believes that Americans want their problems solved and are “looking for honest answers about the problems we face.” He believes they have the capacity to understand when they hear something that makes sense. He thinks they are ready to sit down and listen. And he is committed to “telling the truth — forcefully, repeatedly, confidently — and by trusting that the American people will embrace the need for change.” Not just the American people, either, because his foreign policy is built on the same process: talk. And he describes what he thinks freezes our process now — “I trust the American people’s desire to no longer be defined by our differences” — and why he thinks we can change, the hopes we have in common. And all of this is straight out of the American Pragmatism playbook.

Here’s the late Richard Rorty, maybe the foremost Dewey disciple of the past 20 years, on Dewey in Philosophy and Social Hope:

Dewey preferred to skip talk of ‘authority’, ‘legitimacy’ and ‘obligation’ and to talk instead about ‘applied intelligence’ and ‘democracy’. He hoped we would stop using the juridical vocabulary which Kant made fashionable among philosophers, and start using metaphors drawn from town meetings rather than tribunals. He wanted the first question of both politics and philosophy to be not, ‘What is legitimate? Or, ‘What is authoritative?’ but, ‘What can we get together and agree on?’

I think this is where any successful community organizer begins, and Obama was a community organizer: what can we agree to do. Does he know Rorty’s work? If not, then, possibly that of John Rawls, another philosopher of pragmatism and consensus congenial to Rorty and Dewey? It seems very likely to me, given his academic background, but I haven’t heard Obama linked to either directly. It probably wouldn’t help a politician to refer to philosophers, even all-American ones like Dewey.

Art Scatter isn’t a specifically political site, as we’ve stated before. We aren’t going to endorse a slate of candidates. We do agree with Dewey on one thing, though: Politics, like just about everything else, has an aesthetic dimension, a balancing of tensions that can be creative and end in some kind of harmony. Dewey argued that a car mechanic can be an “artist.” So can a politician. Obama wants to put himself in the position to be an artist on a larger scale than he has before. He has been criticized in this campaign for being all “talk,” and that’s not far from the mark — that’s where he can find the room to be an artist. You can decide for yourself whether he has the skills to be a successful artist.

In this space, I have argued (perhaps whimsically) that the primary business of the city should be the arts. Put the arts FIRST on the list of priorities and maybe you won’t need so much for police protection — and eventually you’ll come up with creative, even cost-efficient solutions for just about everything. I was following Dewey, of course, who argued that art-making was at the top of the human cognitive chain!

This leads us to Portland Mayor Tom Potter’s proposed budget, which eliminates funding for many arts-related projects. It eliminates the $80,000 the city gives to IFCC, for example, a theater/art gallery/community hall on North Interstate, one-quarter of its budget. This neighborhood arts center has taken major steps in the right direction lately (namely, more activity!), and really we should be establishing centers like it all over the city, not taking away the little bit of funding that comes IFCC’s way now. But that’s just my personal opinion. And John Dewey’s.

You can email your mayor and let him know what you think about eliminating IFCC’s funding:

Or you could go to the final budget hearing on Thursday May 8th, King School 4906 NE 6th 6:30-8:30 and register your opinion.