Arts funding is increasingly a casualty of the ongoing federal budget battles. Guest columnist David Hahn writes how the erosion of arts support as a value is threatening America's collective soul.
SUZY Creamcheese loves to sing. She sings in the back of her mom’s car on the way to kindergarten. She sings in the bath. She sings in the park. Her school has no music program. Her friends like doing other things. First grade brings the challenges of reading and multiplication. Suzy sings less and less.
Kilgore Trout is a painter. Not of houses, but of striking angular portraits and desolate landscapes. Arriving at his high-school reunion he wedges his dusty 1983 Corolla between a new Lexus and a BMW SUV. Inside he stands with his old crowd who are better dressed and younger looking than he. He finds his best friend from back in the day whose daughters are playing tug-of-war with a Barbie doll. The head pops off. After exchanging polite pleasantries, their conversation turns to investment strategies.
Alice Cramden works in ceramics. Her studio is a wonderland of brightly colored cones and other wild shapes. She hops into the passenger seat of her neighbor’s pickup.
“Why would someone buy a flower pot from you when I can get three for 79 cents at Walmart?”
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Scenarios similar to these, depicting the state of the arts in America on the ground level, continue to be played out today. Indeed, we ask: Why the arts? What is their value?
Who are the arts for? Why do people become artists if they know the economic realities?
Art leaves a signature for a culture. What we think of as the great empires are all primarily remembered for their art. The temples and plays of ancient Greece, for instance, or the paintings and sculpture of the Mayans.
In its early days, the Catholic Church began to define itself by means of art and architecture. Now the church’s towering cathedrals dominate many French towns and the paintings and sculpture the church sponsored are enjoyed and studied by millions.
Artists often say they are compelled by their profession. At its core, art is about truth and beauty. Artists become conduits, sometimes not consciously thinking about their works, which often hold a mirror up to the world.
Art is not to be reserved for rich patrons. Somewhere there is a gardener who loves avant-garde jazz, a bus driver who loves opera, a cop who digs ballet and even takes dancing lessons, and a hotel service worker who spends her free evenings at the theater. Art answers questions about our condition, perhaps not directly, but in the way we individually relate and react to it.
Croatia, a country that has a per capita GDP that is half that of South Carolina, is willing and able to support scores of independent artists including actors, musicians, painters and filmmakers. These people are provided a salary on which they can live and in return, they are asked to pursue their arts — adorning the state and providing art for the people.
The United States has different priorities. More often than not, publicly funded art is the object of congressmen’s ire and attempts to dissolve the already poorly funded National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA, with a $150 million budget, can use funds for only a very few arts groups, but at least the department is a symbol saying: “America cares for the arts.” Given today’s radical state of the budget debate in Congress, the NEA will likely soon be dissolved.
With the recent promises of budget cuts, the arts will again be undermined. The power and vital importance of the arts not only for our economy but for our individual and collective soul is being crushed.
David Hahn is a composer who lives in Seattle.