Craven: Political Puppets

Jun 18, 2015

Arizona Senator John McCain made news recently when he singled out Putney’s Sandglass Theater and posted a Sandglass image and description below a “wanted” sign on his website as an example of public arts funding that should be – quote – “arrested.”

McCain has not seen the work of Sandglass Theater – but just the idea of the troupe and the international puppet theater festival they will produce in September got the Senator riled up. McCain also called out Bread and Puppet ringmaster Paul Zaloom for his latest comedic satire, White Like Me, that will be performed at the Sandglass Festival.

Zaloom’s new piece takes a tongue-in-cheek look at race. McCain’s website says Zaloom will - quote - “tackl[e] the gnarly subject of the upcoming de-honky-tization of the United States when white people will be “just another other.’”

I’ve enjoyed plenty of laughs from Paul Zaloom over the years and I’ve been amazed by the poetic power and beauty of the Sandglass work. The company’s All Weather Ballads follows two Vermonters from childhood to old age as it tells a love story set in a hand-made world of miniature ice fishing shacks, snowmobiles, apple orchards, woodpiles and a red pick-up truck mired in mud season. Sandglass creators Eric and Ines Zeller Bass infuse what’s familiar about our own place with an evanescent magic.

American public arts funding remains an easy target for politicians but the amount comes to just 45 cents per capita—compared to 151 dollars spent by the French Ministry of Culture and 371 dollars per capita in Australia.

The issue can be fairly debated, but public figures have long recognized the importance of the arts. Indeed, President George Washington declared that the arts “are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the happiness of human life.”

And less than a month before his death, President Kennedy, who established the National Endowment for the Arts, gave a speech at Amherst College, honoring Robert Frost, in which he said that while a nation must be strong, its strength must be informed and guided by spirit. The arts express that spirit and Frost in particular – Kennedy said – “saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself.”

He continued, “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For," Kennedy concluded, "art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”