Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why do we need artists?

A few weeks ago I was on Vermont Public Radio talking about the state of the arts. I was joined by a couple of other guests--among them poet/writer David Budbill. The first question the host asked was Why do we need artists?


In my experience, when someone asks a question like that, what she really wants to know is Why do artists deserve our support? Even more specifically, Why should artists get cash money from the government? This is a seriously loaded question, and I thought of several ways of responding all of which, I realized in the space of about a second, would sound a little disingenuous coming from me.

The fact is, I'm not entirely sure that I agree with the implication behind the question--that artists, simply because they are artists, deserve compensation from the government. I've worked in many parts of the arts sector in my career, and I've never met a single artist who, because he or she didn't get a government grant (or any other kind of grant, for that matter), stopped "being an artist."

Face it, as successful as some applicants appear to be in getting grants, no one is going to live on a diet of cash from government agencies and foundations. Even if you win a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship (the "genius" grant), and are smart enough to invest it all in tax-free munis that throw off at least 5% per year, you're only going to earn $25,000 per year. In that case, God help you if you have a family or a car to feed.

Furthermore, if the paucity of grants doesn't get to you, the anger and depression that usually come with rejection probably will. It is awful to be turned down for a grant. Ironically, I know dozens of artists who have applied for and been denied funding from public agencies and (maybe as a result of this rejection) gone on to fantastic careers as artists anyway. I now call this phenomenon the "Jennifer Hudson Syndrome" for the American Idol runner-up who after losing the competition in that show's third season, went on to win an Oscar (and 23 other awards) for her portrayal of Effie White in Dreamgirls. Take that, Simon Cowell!

Sharing their "JHS moment" is one of the many things that people meeting me years after being denied a grant from us like to tell me about. Of course there is a significantly greater number of people who have told me about how getting a grant provided just the additional boost their careers I know that for the most part our money is well spent even if it isn't spent on everyone who wants it!

But when asked Why do we need artists? on VPR I let David Budbill answer. After all, HE's the artist, not me.

"Because they tell the truth" he said.

David's simple, unprepared, five-word response was just...perfect. And in its perfection his answer provided all the proof I need that supporting artists is of great societal value. Put in the form of an equation it looks like this:

Artists = Truth; Truth = Value; Artists = Value

Listening, as I sometimes do, to a lot of other programs on the radio lately, there seems to have been precious little truth-telling going on in our country during the past several years...the results of which (low US prestige abroad, failing diplomatic efforts, failing economy, failing education system, failing health care system, failing public transportation infrastructure, and failing environment) are being felt now by us all as a failure of our values.

Next time you have the chance, buy some art. We'll all be better off as a result.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Hi Alex, I had the pleasure of meeting you at the new community radio station The Radiator last winter/Spring at their open house. I'm a host of The Next Frontier, the first and only VT radio show exclusively on disabilities and autism. I recall we also spoke long on this subject and I recall my expressed feelings that artists from all genres so often get small or no cash value for their efforts, making it sometimes impossible when raising families etc etc. . You replied you feel absolutely that artists have to perceive their self worth as artists and not back down to getting funded for the strong work they do for our culture. I'm glad this commentary continues. The great efforts of the radiator programmers and founders and great need for underwriting to keep this effort afloat is just one tier of what needs to take place. The volunteer effort of the hosts and some of us subsidizing our efforts is a compromising deal. But we love it. Artists/creators need to be supported. Its a message that is universal and I thank you for your insight and example of what even the big grants do (pay a mediocre annual salary to someone who's life ambition is to make art and expose our culture.)
I bet I could say this better than write it. Come on my show - tell me what you're doing in the disability world!

Anne Barbano
The Next Frontier archived radio shows