It's a Free Country!

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Maybe the sangria had something to do with why it was so crowded. But I had to hope that many in the teeming horde were here for the jazz.

Today, it was the Krupa-Pilzer Quintet. Last week, it was Dixie Power Trio. All summer, it’s been jazz in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art. Every Friday from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., the museum brings in talented jazz musicians to play for picnicking interns and locals after a long week of interning or being local. They come out in droves because it’s great music—and they come out in droves because it’s all free.

I don’t know much about jazz, but I liked the stylings of the Krupa-Pilzer Quintet. Of the adjectives I have heard others use when describing jazz, the quintet was the following: toe-tapping, exuberant, soulful, and versatile. The quintet was proudly highlighting women in jazz—a medium that, I’ve been told, is all about self-expression through music. On this Friday, some extraordinary women musicians were throwing their personal doors open to a captive public audience.

That’s why this entire summer concert series was actually artistically significant. It occurred outside, first of all, in the open air of the National Mall, “America’s front yard,” where any passerby could stop and listen. Then, it took place among art of a different kind—the modern visual pieces in the Sculpture Garden. As my ears learned new ways of making a piano and a trombone combine, my eyes tried to dissect what looked like a giant pulley—Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, I later learned.

Like the Friday jazz sessions, the Sculpture Garden itself is artistically ideal, because it, too, is always free to the public. More than creating a great deal for broke students and starving artists, the lacking cover charge makes art as accessible as it can and must be.

That’s always a challenge when art gets tied up in economy, as Brandeis University found out early this year. Its Rose Art Museum faces permanent closure in response to the current recession, ripping its collection from the public domain and reversing the progress of open expression.

There’s clearly an attitude that views art as the most expendable “luxury” we own—and therefore the most dispensable during tough times. But because of what art is there to do—express, provide escape, inspire—the truth is actually the exact opposite. Depression is when we need art the most.

We should count ourselves lucky that residents of the nation’s capital seem to understand this best—they appear committed to both solving the economic crisis and promoting the arts at the same time. The tenacious, successful performance of the summer jazz series and the open-air Sculpture Garden constitute a significant step forward for accessible art. In addition, the National Gallery of Art has no admission fee. Neither does the world-famous Smithsonian Institution, designed to serve as the nation’s attic.

Even the White House has lent its stage to musicians this summer as part of Washington’s overall effort to put art at every American’s fingertips. Although the concerts hosted under the White House Summer Music series weren’t exactly open to the public, each threw its doors open to a group of child musicians who cherished a chance to learn from the best. They got free advice, and the rest of the country got a free sample of national art forms like jazz and country music (by way of television news coverage).

The Obama administration may be embracing art because, as the economy gives us reason to be pessimistic, art gives us good reason to hope. But more likely, this particular brand of hope has clearly been present in Washington for a long time. Instead of stemming from a campaign slogan, art is the logical end product of a country that values free expression.

Now, like in our capital, that expression needs only to remain ubiquitously free of charge as well. From Waltham to Wasilla, all of America should come down to Washington and enjoy this principle in action.


Nathaniel S. Rakich ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Cabot House. He actually Googled “adjectives people use to describe jazz.”