Thursday, February 17, 2011

President Obama should consult another President on the importance of the arts

JFK: "Art is the great democrat."
By Barry Johnson

So far, no word from President Obama on the Open Letter yesterday, which argued against his proposal to trim the National Endowment for the Arts budget. And no sign that he's going to restore the cut and continue to fund the endowment at last year's pitiful level. On the other hand, the Republicans in the House of Representatives flexed their muscles and wiped out several string sections in orchestras around the country by adding another $20.5 million in cuts. That's if the cuts were confined to string sections, of course. (We should point out that Oregon's lone Republican representative, Greg Walden, voted against the additional cut -- his district has lots of great arts groups in it and he did the right thing by them. All of Washington's GOP Representatives were full-fledged arts cutters.)

In the grand scheme of the budget, $20.5 million is nothing, of course. This is all for show -- muscle flexing, remember? But then so was the President's original budget number.  The editorial board of Arts Dispatch thinks that the President is far more open to good arguments than the Ideologues of the House, however, and that's why we addressed the letter to him.

And so far, no word. We understand. The President has never heard of Arts Dispatch. "Art who?" we imagine him saying. "Dispatch? Which syllable is accented, anyway?" So, we've decided to give an alternate argument for the arts from someone he's heard of. He's even read the first part of that argument.
"The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose—and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."

President Obama has read that at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and it was uttered by another President -- John F. Kennedy. President Obama may not listen to me, but what about President Kennedy?  This is a powerful statement that locates our national purpose with the life of our arts. Not our Super Bowls, we must point out, though Kennedy was a big sports fan. And one of the ways we measure ourselves is by the quality of the art we produce.  Now, I don't usually talk about "a test of the quality of a nation's civilization." That's language from another time, though I appreciate the sentiment. But "very close to the center of a nation's purpose" is closer to what I was talking about yesterday.

The next quote is terrific for these purposes. In the UK (where the budget for the arts is being cut 30 percent by the same sort of ideologues as those who control our House of Representatives), admission to museums is free. The cheapest seat for a concert by the London Symphony in mid-March is around $13 (compared to $37 at the New York Philharmonic the same weekend). And the 30 percent cut in arts funding the UK is instituting is $100 million more than the NEA's budget was last year -- in a country with one-fifth our population. In short, government funding in the UK keeps the arts accessible, regardless of individual income level. We'll see how long that lasts under the current government.

Here's what Kennedy said about accessibility:
 "To further the appreciation of culture among all the people, to increase respect for the creative individual, to widen participation by all in the processes and fulfillments of art - this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days."
We reached the moon, but we failed this challenge. We invaded a host of small countries, but we failed this challenge. Participation and respect has declined, and with them fulfillment -- at least that's what I would argue. But the standard that President Kennedy sets -- "among all the people" -- is breathtaking for us in 2011. It's hard to imagine any of our subsequent presidents saying anything like that.

I've been ripping the ideologues. Really, that's not quite fair. There's a sense in which we are ALL ideologues, after all. But I use the label on those whose positions are impervious to new data or to better arguments, primarily because they make a functioning democracy almost impossible. What's the language of ideology? I turn to President Kennedy in a speech at Amherst College.
"We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth." 
Yes, the language of ideology is propaganda. And if you wonder why ideologues would work so hard to limit and muzzle the arts, this is it. The arts are just murder on ideology, undermining it at every turn. They challenge all elites -- even their own. They turn the most profound matters of existence over to you and ask you to legislate them yourself, not refer to some authority, not answer with propaganda -- whether it's left, right or center. Think for yourself. Pursue the truth where it leads. These are the prior conditions for government of the people, by the people and for the people.

No, President Obama, I don't think you can come up with a better use for the tiny amount of money we're talking about. Not even debt reduction. I'm absolutely certain that the House of Representatives can't.  Just ask President Kennedy.


The administration's proposed reduction in the NEA's budget from $161.3 million in 2011 to $146.2 million in 2012 (12.3 percent) comes with a little stinger -- the amount of money passed along through grants will decline 24.6 percent (from $154 million to $116 million), because the President's budget calls for no staff reductions. That means that American artists and arts organizations will receive less than two Spiderman Units of support from the federal government in 2012. (A Spiderman Unit is $65 million, the cost of staging the current Broadway musical version of Spiderman, the most expensive Broadway show to date.)  The Senate could restore the cuts voted on by the House.

Bonus Kennedy quote:
"Art is the great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color."