Monday, February 1, 2010

100% Essential

We are lucky to have a President, a Congress, and in Vermont, a Governor and a State Legislature who generally agree that the arts matter. But one legacy of the "Culture Wars" is that many ill-informed media pundits continue to assert that the arts are a luxury. Now, with the economy in the shape it's in, I keep hearing that it is time for all "nonessential government expenditures" to be cut, including the arts.

Let's take a long look at why this would be a huge mistake.

On a macro level:
1) The arts are a huge part of our gross national product. Film, television, video games and music production are collectively considered one of the biggest sectors of our economy--certainly our biggest export. Imagine the artistic output that goes into a film like "Avatar." Now imagine that plot occurring on a planet that looked like the moon and not like the Amazon rainforest. Do you think Avatar would be the second best all-time ticket seller in the history of film? Not a chance.

Now ask yourself a simple question--where did all those artists and musicians and dancers and actors come from? Where were they trained? How did they learn to draw, to compose, to play, to develop plot lines, to use their imaginations to create whole universes outside our comprehension? If we turn off the spigot that fosters and encourages those artists during their childhood years, we will truly create a bleak future for ourselves.

2) The arts generate tourism. As far as I can tell, hardly anyone visited Bilbao, Spain until the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim opened in October of 1997. The same could be said of North Adams, Massachusetts. A depressed milltown opens up MassMOCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), and voila!--a tourism mecca is born. Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York tried to cut all public funding for the arts in retaliation for a work put on display at the Brooklyn Museum that he found offensive. He changed his mind when he learned that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the combined arts groups that comprise Lincoln Center alone generate more tax revenue for the city of New York than the combined professional sports teams operating out of Yankee and Shea stadiums, the Meadowlands, and Madison Square Garden.

On a micro level:
1) Artistic decisions--or aesthetic decisions if you prefer--govern our individual behaviors every day. From deciding what to wear, and what make, model, and color car to drive; to what makes us choose our favorite restaurants and stores, or our favorite neighborhoods when it's time to buy a house and raise our families, how something looks or sounds or complements our personal aesthetic is almost always what causes you to decide to buy or not buy. Who makes all this stuff? And why did you buy the blue sweater and not the green sweater? If life is all about function rather than form, then we would have all evolved to wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, and enjoy the same activities. But form matters, which means design matters, which means the arts matter.

2) The arts exist, in part, to improve the human condition. For many, this is achieved through an exploration of the emotional or psychological connections that art conveys to the viewer. But for others, this is achieved in very concrete terms--in communities that renovate a community performance space (Vergennes, Derby Line, White River Junction and others) which fosters other business to locate nearby; entices good teachers to apply for jobs at the local school; and to provide a sense of place--of community well-being.

Ask yourself, why do you live and work where you do? I remember once asking a friend in DC what it was like to live in Crystal City (a complex of apartment buildings adjacent to National Airport with all its amenities like shopping and dining built underground). As a DC bedroom community it was ideal. Convenient, easy access to everywhere by Metro, and completely weatherproof. The problem, she said, was that it had no soul. It was a man-made moonscape across the river from one of the country's most vibrant cities. If she could have afforded to, she would have moved to DC in a heartbeat.

Most people will agree that responding to Haiti's needs is an essential government expense. So is fixing our own infrastructure and our own economy. Our government needs to figure out how to fund job-creation, learn how to effectively deal with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extreme terrorist organizations without killing (and radicalizing) civilians. It needs to reorganize the delivery of affordable health care, and take care of its citizens who have the least capacity for caring for themselves. All of these are essential to restoring our government and our country to its position as a world leader.

Doing so, however, will take a lot of creative thought; a lot of anticipating the problems and rehearsing ways to get around them. It's going to take some creative vision to share what our world will look like after this exhausting and scary period is over. We're not going to do it by just listening to the economists and the militarists and the jihadists. We're going to have to listen the artists as well. They are the most creative problem-solvers and community builders among us.

So...essential? Absolutely! The arts matter now more than ever.

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