I enjoyed this brief set of ideas from Victoria Coates (video), a foreign policy advisor to Ted Cruz's presidential campaign and the author of, "David's Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art." In her brief commentary on the power of art to serve as a unifying cultural force capable of reaching across political divides, I found it telling that she points to antiquities as having the power to unify minds that might otherwise see the world differently. By turning the conversation about art and democracy into a story of history, Victoria in effect neutralizes the power of the art in the present: only by removing art from the sphere of active social dialogue does it become a retrospectively unifying force between liberals and conservatives. We can observe the works with critical distance with an appreciation for their context and composition, without any real investment in their once-held urgency and pleas to humankind.
What makes art controversial, and which is where I feel we (as a nation) must concentrate more effort, is on the living. It is the artists who take a political point of view in their art, in the present, and ask us to reconsider our norms, prejudices, mores and choices who challenge political thinking. It is the creative voices of the living that make us uncomfortable. It is from these contemporary points of origin that we see the seeds of critique and struggle, from the epic Helms-Serrano-NEA conflict of the 1980's to the growing and stunning body of work created by LGBTQ artists like Heather Cassils.
So the real value in the arts, situated as a cultural dialogue between the left and the right, doesn't seem to me well-suited to a rear-view-mirror conversation about "where we can agree" as much as "can we support art" as a mechanism to support plurality, voice, agency, and that restless quest to build a more perfect union. This means releasing the reins of tools such as censorship and "decency" acts, increasing funding for contemporary arts and culture, and bringing diverse audiences together to engage with art - especially when it makes us uncomfortable.