Michelle Obama's Faustian Bargain For The Arts

Perhaps you were asleep. Or drowsy. Or buzzed from a drinking game.

Perhaps you were focused on the dress. You were comparing it to all of the evening's other dresses.

Perhaps simply didn't want to watch and stuck with your regular Sunday evening diet of zombies.

But the fact remains that a U.S. viewing audience second only to that of the Super Bowl (in most years) heard a clear, passionate and full-throated statement in support of the arts and arts education during the Oscar broadcast. The First Lady of the United States delivered it, as she does so much, flawlessly.

She said, as midnight drew close on the East Coast, "Every day, through engagement in the arts, our children learn to open their imaginations, to dream just a little bigger and to strive every day to reach those dreams."

It's pretty unbeatable, no?

Now we could debate whether it was appropriate for the First Lady to appear on the Oscars at all. I've seen arguments against bringing politics into the show (because now even the appearance of the President or First Lady must be political, and of course politics has no place in The Oscars, he said with a straight face) and in favor of her presence (the movies are one of America's greatest international exports). I would prefer to leave those aside.

I am more concerned about the optics of the situation for the arts themselves. Coming after almost 3 and ½ hours that included jokes about President Lincoln's assassination, a nine-year-old's eligibility to date George Clooney, and especially a rousing musical number entitled "We Saw Your Boobs," this terrific message was at the tag end of an evening that hadn't made much of a case for children and art.

Mrs. Obama reminded me of Sister Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, who managed to fill her mission only as a result of a gambling bet, one of the many sins she inveighed against. It saved the mission, but through questionable means. I don't know if anyone, or any arts program, was saved last night.

Maybe I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Mrs. Obama's words were clear, unequivocal, passionate and elegant. I hope she keeps saying those words, and urging legislators to do something about them, at every opportunity. And since I am the first to say that we can't speak only to the converted, talking endlessly among ourselves, that same message would mean much less on a program with a smaller audience, which spoke not to the fans of mass entertainment, but to existing arts aficionados.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder whether by appearing on a show that is being pilloried for misogyny and racism (see The Atlantic, Salon and New York), Mrs. Obama made a devil's bargain, appearing to lend her legitimacy to messages elsewhere in the evening that shouldn't be condoned, in order to make a valiant statement on a cause I hold close to my heart.

I heard her words clearly, because I was primed to hear them. I pray they actually registered on millions of people in the U.S. and abroad who weren't terribly interested. However, they're not in headlines today, and there's no apparent follow-up; there's no website to visit, no initiative announced. I wonder if they featured in even a single news cycle.

If The First Lady genuinely sparked something last night, even in a miniscule portion of that vast audience, then it was worth it. But I fear it may have been a castaway in a sea of self-congratulation, marketing, offense and inconsequence. Which is a shame, because short of an arts message during the Super Bowl, which I suspect is not in the cards, last night was the biggest chance to speak to America about the value of the arts that we get this year. And I fear it had no impact.