Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Arts Need Better Arguments (and these are...)

These are my immediate reactions to Greg Sandow's 2/19/2009 opinion piece, which I posted originally on Facebook.

Sandow's states his principle argument as:
The San Francisco city government is facing a $576 million budget deficit. Cuts have been proposed, some involving public health. For hours at a meeting of the city's Board of Supervisors, there were protests from advocates for homeless people, medical clinics that serve the poor, and many other worthy groups.

So somebody proposed an alternative -- cut funding for the symphony and ballet. The matter hasn't been resolved, but would you like to be the opera representative, arguing to keep your funds, with people from endangered clinics in the room?

To this, and to Sandow's essay as a whole I have two reactions. First, I think Sandow makes excellent points about the relative (perceived) economic value of arts and cultural organizations as against, say, AIDS clinics. However, this pits an abstraction (the arts) against an organization with a specific, concrete benefit (treating AIDS sufferers and fighting the spread of the disease). Continuing only along the lines of this given example, promotion of the arts means assurance that information and awareness about AIDS -- its effects, its impact, its prevention, efforts to control its spread and treat sufferers -- is widely communicated, appreciated, understood, and felt; that problem-solving necessary to productive response is engaged; and that a community of like-minded and -motivated individuals is established to turn that problem-solving into action. Of course, the arts are relatively inexpensive (in that a little support often goes a long way toward increasing awareness and communal development), so in general the 'either-or' model that forces funders to choose between concerts and clinics is a false one. We can and should fund both. That said, the parable (itself a thought-model we get from the arts) of give-someone-a-fish vs. teach-someone-to-fish applies here. We need to promote concerts if we hope to have clinics.

Second, Sandow perpetuates the canard that popular culture and the arts are somehow separate things. They aren't. They have equal validity and each is fully worthy of support. A diverse forum yields greater understanding. When I speak of 'support of the arts,' I mean specifically funding initiatives, activities, and organizations which increase this diversity. I think there is no greater cause for humanity than promoting empathy and mutual perspective, while simultaneously creating a space for productive problem solving and galvanizing each other to action. That's what the arts (and humanities) do. The point should not be to distinguish such works from mainstream culture, but rather to find ways to stimulate and expand the mainstream to absorb messages in a broader way and from a broader field than simple commercial transactions make possible. That's chiefly why I think the arts merit (require) support, and of course I would target sources outside the present embrace of popular culture not because they are somehow "better" or have greater validity, then simply because they need the amplification. To maximize personal resonance and the depth of these experiences which make us committed citizens of the world, we should engage avenues for interchange that are paradigmatically distinct from those which are popular in the moment (theater, music, games, visual art, literature, etc.). To make possible a broader appreciation or receptivity to other people and the surrounding world, we should facilitate development of artistic skills and knowledge (musical literacy, numeracy, science, familiarity with immediate and distant history and culture). To personalize the direct and indirect consequences of our actions and omissions, we should seek out and amplify those narratives which are not (or less) presently being heard, not because the stories lack power but because the narrators do (be they victims of Katrina, Myanmar, or the conflict in Sudan).

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A friend of mine asked whether we could create an 'elevator answer' version of this and like observations. (While initially confused, I have since learned that this means not so much one that is uplifting as one that only takes about 5 seconds to give.) It pains me to attempt this; I call on David Letterman's reaction to Rush Limbaugh's demand for “a simple yes or no” to what should properly have been a nuanced question (“But I’m a thoughtful person.”) Since in my case, it’s more about being long-winded than thoughtful per se, I figured it couldn't hurt to give the soundbyte effort a shot. Perhaps try:
Promotion of the arts and humanities is an investment in freedom of speech. It is the warp on which our social fabric is woven. Its absence inspires demagoguery; its price is ignorance.

That's pithy enough for an elevator ride, but I'm not sure it's intelligible. How do you pack anything with examples in the context of bare rhetoric? It’s the kind of thing that risks giving the humanities a bad name.

All in all, I think it’s best to let a better (and justifiably much more widely read) blogger make my case.In a post that also ran on February 19, Andrew Sullivan calls upon works by Orwell and others not just for support of his position, but for its very inspiration:
But back to Orwell. For Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four particularly, eschewing torture is about saving the possibility of truth (the best other evocations of this point that I've come across can be found in plays: The Crucible and, more recently, The Pillowman).
Sullivan is here commenting primarily about torture, but speaking to my larger point about the validity of the arts even as he relies on multiple works of literature to bring his thoughts to full flower. If I am not alone in regarding a life deprived of such well-nourished intellectual roots as torture, then perhaps we can say,
Saving the arts is about saving the possibility of truth.
Not bad for an elevator argument, I think. Uplifting, to boot?