You may have heard that the police in Madison, WI are in sympathy with many of the union members who have gathered to protest their governor’s push to end collective bargaining rights for state workers. Over the weekend I heard an interview on NPR that mentioned both police and firefighters were turning out in support of the protest even though the governor wasn’t proposing to take away their right to collective bargaining because they figured it was only a matter of time. The fire fighter interviewed said they viewed it as an effort to divide and conquer.
Earlier this month Louise K. Stevens who writes the “Arts Market On..” blog made a similar observation regarding the need for the arts to advocate in areas outside of their immediate concern. (my emphasis)
No doubt that you have and will be getting emails and calls to action about this. But probably those calls are piecemeal, asking you for you to advocate for one or another of these line items while ignoring the whole, and that’s the problem. We a splintered sector that has never to date united around the concept of our culture, and now each splinter may be too small and too isolated from its compatriots to build a coalition to save federal support for any of the splinters.
We have a few weeks to save the half century-plus of infrastructure that modest as it may be demonstrates our public commitment to the breadth and majesty of our American culture, our shared story. If we stand splintered now, we may never get a chance to regroup. If we think that saving orchestras or contemporary dance is more important or that saving library funding and museum funding matters more than poetry, or that history and heritage and historic architecture should out trump theatre…well, how will it end?
Around the same time, Arlene Goldbard (h/t to Ian David Moss) wrote a three part series titled “Life Implicates Art” which while long, I think does the best job in summing up the challenges facing the arts and the wrong turns that have been made. Other bloggers, myself included, have touched upon these issues at times but her entries are timely in the context of all the movement nationally in Congress and state legislatures in regard to arts funding. (Also, every entry she makes has an embedded music video which is kind of a cool little hook.) Her ultimate conclusion, much like that of the firefighters in Wisconsin is that there is a high degree of interconnected interests among seemingly disparate groups.
In the first entry, she addresses the problem which is mostly that arts people think that the failure to secure funding is directly related to a failure to make a strong enough case for the arts when it is often more about politics rather than money. In some respect there is actually a weakness in the way a case for the arts is made. She notes, as I have pointed out a few times, that pretty much every industry can make a claim about the economic benefits of their activity. She notes, as most of us know, that with all the money spent on combat troops in the Mid-East, maintaining a nuclear arsenal and imprisoning a large portion of the population, the expenditures on the arts is pretty minuscule but there is not enough support for the arts nationally to make it politically difficult to make cuts there first.
In the second entry, she expounds upon the forces at work that determine politician priorities. She labels the arguments suggested by Americans for the Arts recent mail-in campaign to Congress as “so bloodless and soporific that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading all the way to the end of an op-ed based on them. Yet these have been the talking points for more than three decades. The result? The real value of the NEA budget has fallen by more than half. But hey, it’s all we’ve got, right?”
Instead she suggests a more strongly worded, speaking truth to power letter to all those who voted to support the recent extension of tax cuts to millionaires the revenue of which could cover the budgets of the NEA and NEH twice over.
Here’s an open letter along the lines I’d like to see circulating in every district represented by someone who voted for the recent extension of the Bush tax cuts:
Less than two months ago, you voted for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. They reduce tax revenues by an amount equivalent to paying out twice the combined budgets of the National Endowments for The Arts and Humanities, every single day of the year. At a time when our nation’s polarization of wealth is extreme—the top 10% own 80% of all financial assets; and the top 1% own more than the bottom 90%—I am shocked to think you care more about the wealthiest political donors than the well-being of the rest of us.
By cutting arts funding and other social goods, you are making the rest of us pay for millionaire tax cuts. It is wrong to sacrifice our children’s access to music and art classes to save millionaires from paying their fair share. It is wrong to abandon artists who have dedicated their lives to working in schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other places where their skills of imagination, beauty, and meaning lift spirits, build community, and help people find resilience. It is wrong to defund creativity at a time when we it is precisely what we need to excel in science and business, to align our spirits with hope and recovery.
It is embarrassing to be the richest nation on earth with the highest incarceration rate, prison population, and expenditure on war, and the lowest public investment in creativity. You want us to believe that you’re concerned about the economy and taxpayers, but really? Tote up the tax breaks included for millionaires: you just put $225 billion of taxpayers’ well-being into the pockets of people who already have more money than they know how to spend.
This is a shame and a scandal, and I’m going to do everything I can to let my fellow voters know about it. Restoring arts funding would be a tiny gesture to show you actually care about what the rest of us want: it’s literally the least you can do. You were elected to serve everyone, not just big donors. Here’s your chance to prove it. Don’t let America down!
John/Jane Q. Public
In the third entry, she talks about reframing the arts. As you might imagine, the burden lays upon the arts community, especially in terms of expanding the definition of art beyond what is produced by non-profit arts organizations. There is an image of the arts as elitist that people who want to cut funding have evoked that many people in the arts chafe against because we know there aren’t people in black ties sipping champagne and making obscure literary references at our performances and exhibits. Except that there are some aspects of the elitist imagery we are responsible for perpetuating.
“It’s abstract, one step removed from things people really care about: many people who happily embrace words like music or movies, who sing or draw or love to dance, will respond negatively to the idea of “the arts”—Oh no, not me, you hear them say, I’m not into the arts. Ask that same person, “Do you like to dance?” or “Do you play an instrument?” and the answer will be “Yes,” with no evident awareness of contradiction.
That’s because they pick up on the exclusionary subtext. Many people who consider themselves part of “the arts” use that label to distinguish the work of subsidized organizations from commercial cultural industries and entertainments. An enormous industry generates multibillions each year from sales of music, movie tickets, video rentals, concert tickets, and the like; and enormous numbers take pleasure from making music, taking photographs, writing poems and songs, taking part in dance competitions and poetry slams, and so on.
Yet, except when they want to summon impressive figures about the scope of the cultural economy, mainstream arts advocates don’t mention any of this. There’s an embedded snobbery that presumes the superiority of nonprofit arts organizations and the work they support, a kneejerk dismissal of the rest. This discourse often has an air of unreality: I hear advocates saying that “the arts” are in decline, yet—to pick just one example—almost everyone I encounter integrates music into daily life, almost as a kind of medicine, self-prescribing the sounds and feelings that will support them through the day.”
Goldbard feels this can be reversed, of course, if efforts are made to change practice and national cultural policy. She derives hope from the fact that people are realizing that assessing value based on numbers doesn’t work in healthcare or education and that short term savings results in a long term cost. Care and education of the whole person today prevents more expensive problems down the road. Her suggested approach to employing the intrinsic value of the arts is no less holistic and intertwines with education, healthcare and commerce to bolster all these areas.
In an homage to Goldbard’s posting style, I embed the following video. It isn’t explicitly about art and many wouldn’t consider the singing to be art because it employs autotune, but that’s sort of Goldbard’s point.