Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rick Perry, Sam Brownback and the argument for arguments about the arts

 Carl Morris, Hall of Religious History, 1959
By Barry Johnson

When they talked about closing down or suspending the arts commisions in the their states,  Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas used almost the same language.  Perry said that the Texas Commission on the Arts was not "mission-critical" and recommended suspending the commission (along with Texas Historical Commission) in his state of the State address. And Brownback actually shut down the Kansas arts agency, saying that it didn't represent a "core function" of government.

I'm not going to argue the particulars of either case -- the importance of the arts as an economic force to the rural towns of Texas, for example -- or even the intrinsic value of the arts. This isn't about changing the policies of Texas or Kansas.  It's not even about the invidious effect on democracy of the Talking Point, the modern name for ideological Group Think, although that's getting closer. Sometimes I think that men like Perry and Brownback are nothing but well-coiffed collections of Talking Points. In this case, that Point is "Government Support of the Arts = Bad."

Mostly, I want to get to the bottom of those words -- "core function" and "mission-critical" -- because both Perry and Brownback assumed that the arts were neither. Worse, they assumed the people of their states assumed the same thing, because neither made an argument (at least not that I could find) for their actions. The "explanation" was implicit in their ideology (I would argue that their ideology is merely a convenience, but this isn't the place for that): That government should support only "core  functions."

So, the unassailable syllogism. Government should support core services; the arts aren't a core service. Therefore, government shouldn't support the arts.

Except that in a democracy we expect more than a syllogism. We expect data (historical and otherwise) that supports a proposal, a testing of the proposal, improvement or repudiation of the proposal, a decision going forward. Democracy is a process (not an election, but that's another matter for another time).  So, if Perry and Brownback want to behave democratically, they need to make the argument that the arts aren't a "core service" of government. Otherwise, the next ideologue with a different set or Talking Points will just overturn their decision.

I think that Perry or Brownback will not find much support for their argument in the historical record. And I doubt that they will find successful modern cities/states/regions/countries that don't invest in the arts. The arts are too intrinsic to just about all of our important activities (individual, social, economic, even political) for government to ignore them. As a democrat myself, I am bound to listen to Perry and Brownback's case against supporting the arts, if they articulate one, but I will NOT be persuaded by their ideology.  The ideology of democracy is pragmatism, and pragmatism isn't about assumptions of the sort Brownback and Perry make.  They need to persuade me with history, data,  compelling models, good arguments.

In short, whether or not the arts are a core function is an open question in a democracy and so is the level of support they should receive. That neither Perry nor Brownback felt the need to make an argument against the arts as a core service is an example of how badly our democracy functions. Our brief here isn't to detail the history of the decline of our democracy, but I believe that the ebb and flow runs exactly counter to the strength of specific ideologies in the country. Ideologies know the answer; democracy finds the answer. There's a big difference and it involves the extent to which you and I are allowed to participate in our government. With their syllogisms, Brownback and Perry want to keep the citizens of their states out of it. They don't want argument at all, even though arguments are at the heart of democracy.

Ultimately, whether the people of Texas and Kansas consider the arts to be a core service or not is up to them. I'm sure Texans and Kansans today are making the case today that they are.  I agree, I make the case implicitly and even explicitly here at Arts Dispatch (see below), and the community that congregates here from time to time probably agrees with me.

But the lesson of Perry and Brownback is that we ourselves shouldn't assume. We should always be making the argument, finding support for our case. And we should always be listening to other proposals, other arguments, suggested improvements to our arguments, even refutations. The case for the arts needs to be made on pragmatic grounds (which is not the same as economic grounds, though they may overlap), and that means it's always available to be re-argued.

An addendum: In killing the Kansas Arts Commission, Brownback said that the non-profit foundation he was establishing in its place would still be eligible to receive and distribute the Kansas share of National Endowment for the Arts money, something around $1 million. (For the record, Kansas gives something like $600,000 to its arts commission now; its budget deficit, which Brownback claims to be solving by closing down the arts commission, is $500 million.) Of course, Brownback is opposed to the NEA (this is a Talking Point of his ideology, after all), and if he had anything to do with it, Kansas would receive zero funds for the arts from the federal government.

Brownback couldn't avoid mentioning this bit of hypocrisy, though he did it obliquely. Here's how the Kansas Reporter reported it: "However, Brownback said the funding from those sources should remain stable, as long as the federal government allots the money to the NEA. “I think we’ll be able to get the amount of the match,” Brownback said. “I’m really strongly wondering if that will continue from the federal branch level in the next three to five years.”

"Strongly wondering"? How about strongly opposing that federal program.

Finally: My argument for the arts in an early Arts Dispatch post:
Deep down, I think the arts are central to the repair, renovation and re-creation of our life together along the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers. They aren't a decoration or a sidelight. They give us an ongoing description of ourselves. They suggest solutions. They grieve and roar in pain and anger. They know when things aren't fair, and they speak out. At least at their best, they do. And then they encourage us to think and feel along with them. This sense of social cohesion, a sense of the whole, this common sense, is mostly missing from our national lives, and it has made democracy almost impossible to conduct. I believe that Portland (and I have the widest possible definition of "Portland") has a chance to generate that common sense, unlike almost any other large American city I know, a common sense that is complicated and practical and adaptive. And if we are going to succeed in this, it will be because the arts have helped us create it.

Most arguments for support of the arts I find either tangential or tepid. I don't think we can have a functioning democracy without arts to feed and nourish us.  I don't think we can have a vigorous economy without arts to inspire and model our creative response to the world. I don't think we can have healthy individuals without the insight and space for insight that the arts provide. Sure, there are direct economic benefits to art activity. And sure, we benefit inherently from living in an environment that is more "aesthetic" than less. But what's at stake in this is more crucial than these byproducts of a healthy shared culture.

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren't alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment.  They remind us that the individual can do great things. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. Honestly, I can't imagine a good outcome to our dire problems -- as a community, a nation, a planet -- without the complex lessons the arts teach us.


Bob said...

Back when Dana Ivey was running the NEA and Oregon was in yet another of its interminable funding crises, the Oregon Legislature was considering shutting down the Oregon Arts Commission. Ivey happened to have recently been in town, and I'd met him, so I called him up and asked him what that might mean. Well, he responded, legally the NEA can't give any federal money to a state that doesn't have its own department to accept and disperse the federal funds. So if Oregon kills its arts commission, federal money earmarked for Oregon would have to go to other states instead. Maybe Ivey was bluffing (if so, it worked), or maybe the governor of Oklahoma is in for a surprise.

Bob said...

Sorry. I mean the governor of Kansas. Must have been thinking about Tom Coburn, the anti-NEA senator from Oklahoma.

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