The Expressive Life of Institutions—and Other Observations from the #HealBridgeThrive Summit

By Sunil Iyengar
graphic that says Measure for Measure. On the left side of the graphic, there are hatchmarks that suggest bar graphs

"Civilization must be judged and prized, not by the amount of power it has developed, but by how much it has evolved and given expression to, by its laws and institutions, the love of humanity." — Rabindranath Tagore (Sadhana: The Realization of Life)

This quotation appears in a framed art print on the wall of the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C.  Without mentioning “art” or “culture,” Tagore—who, after all, was a poet, songwriter, novelist, short-story writer, playwright, essayist, and visual artist—exposes here an element of creativity, and even aesthetics, in the making of our social order. The burden of his meaning is carried by one word: expression.

Tagore’s sentence anticipates language from 1965’s founding legislation for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the law’s opening provisions, we are told that “an advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity” such as the arts and humanities. Similarly, the law states, the United States cannot rest its reputation on “superior power, wealth, and technology,” but must be “a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.” 

More than 50 years have passed. Today it is the U.S. Surgeon General who looks to the arts community for such leadership. “This is a moment when we have to revitalize the spirit of our communities, the spirit of our country,” Dr. Vivek Murthy said January 30. “As somebody who’s trained in medicine, as somebody who is a scientist, I believe the arts are the way we have to do that.” He was speaking with NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson at “Healing, Bridging, Thriving: A Summit on Arts and Culture in Our Communities,” an event co-hosted by the Arts Endowment and the White House Domestic Policy Council. 

Dr. Murthy referred to “a third dimension” of wellness—alongside physical and mental health—that “has to do with our heart and soul: the part of us that feels inspiration, that feels joy, the part of us that feels deep love for another human being.” He added: “It’s there, we’ve all experienced it, we all know it. But that has to be fed somehow as well…. I believe that the arts are a very, very powerful resource when it comes to nourishing the health of the spirit.”

Earlier in the day, Chair Jackson challenged the summit’s audience to consider this proposition: “What if we thought of health and healing more holistically? What if we better enabled and compensated artists, culture-bearers, and cultural organizations for contributing to health and healing at a national scale?” She said these words shortly before introducing Admiral Rachel Levine, Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In her remarks, Admiral Levine announced the formation of an Interagency Working Group on the Arts, Health, and Civic Infrastructure—to be co-chaired by the NEA and HHS.

Chair Jackson evoked the concept of civic infrastructure by putting another question to her audience. “What if we fully recognized the ways our physical environments influence our civic life and our social fabric, and we fully recognized the power of arts and design in those realms?” she asked. The concept is akin to Tagore’s ideal of “laws and institutions” giving “expression” to a compassionate society. These prospects were made vivid, during the summit, by a session on the arts and physical infrastructure, with Radhika Fox, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Water at the Environmental Protection Agency, announcing an artist-in-residence program that will cover six U.S. locations, in partnership with the NEA.

(In a same-day press release, the EPA noted: “Water leaders are increasingly turning to artists and culture bearers to help bring visibility to water issues, create more inclusive planning processes and leverage infrastructure investments to provide additional benefits to the communities they serve.”)

Closing the summit, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a spoken-word artist, writer, and librettist—and the VP of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center—added his own provocations to those of Chair Jackson. “Why isn’t inspiration thought of as part of the civic infrastructure, just like roads or telecommunications?... Who’s defending the idea that inspiration is a Constitutional right, protected by the 14th Amendment—the idea that in order to be enfranchised, one must have access to the ballot box, to equal protection under the law, and a clear pathway to the flourishing of the imagination?”

“By Constitutional right, can you be an American if you don’t have access to the impulse of creativity?” he wondered.

There is arts-infused infrastructure, and then there is the infrastructure necessary for artists and culture-bearers to thrive in their communities. Here, too, the NEA’s founding legislation is salient. “It is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent” [my italics],” the law proclaims. Throughout the summit, speakers urged more attention to the needs of artists and other cultural workers.

And where does arts research infrastructure fit into the equation? As the NEA and its federal partners reflect on the summit’s promise, in beginning to fulfill the President’s Executive Order on the role of arts and culture in government, it is likely that more of the agency’s research investments will coincide with the goals of the new Interagency Working Group, once it gets under way. But working across sectors is never easy. One looks forward to collaborative learning across agencies—a factor that may affect how research questions are worded, how research teams are formed, and how studies are designed and conducted.

Meanwhile, the NEA has released application guidelines for its FY 2025 Research Grants in the Arts. Oh, and there is also this reassuring note from Surgeon General Murthy: “We have to continue to make our voices heard when it comes to where we put research funding. There should be more research dedicated to looking at the impact of the arts on our health. Because there is a bigger story to tell that I think we only understand a little bit of, right now.” 

Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more.