Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An argument against cutting the pittance the State of Washington spends on arts funding

By Barry Johnson

The State of Washington is facing a $5 billion budget shortfall, and on Gov. Chris Gregoire's list of items to cut is the $3 million the state spends on its public art and state arts commission.  If those two amounts of money seem wildly disproportionate, well, that's just the way public servants think about the arts, just about everywhere, not to sound bitter or anything.

I don't pretend to know anything about Washington's budget woes. (I do know the state wasted tens of egregious millions on bad plans for the Columbia River Crossing, just like the State of Oregon did.) But I want to make a brief case for that $3 million, in any case, specifically any state's rightful role and responsibility in arts funding. I'm not going to start at the beginning with a full-throated argument for the crucial effects the arts have on the rest of the culture. I'm assuming you're already with me on that.

It's a simple argument, really, and it's based on fairness: Without the state's involvement, we lose our standing to argue that all of us should have access to the arts.

The situation is desperate, even as it stands. Our "market driven" system of arts support means that large numbers of us are excluded simply because ticket prices are so high. At the same time, we have stopped providing systematic arts education in our schools, failing to understand its value, both intrinsically and its direct effects on student performance. Still, the state, through its grant programs, has influenced arts organizations, rewarding those with education programs, for example, and outreach efforts to those who can't afford tickets. State grants fund small programs in neighborhoods and far-flung towns that don't have a lot of access in the best of circumstances. My experience is that most arts organizations actually want to be more accessible and state funding helps provide a base for their efforts. And it's more than the meager dollars -- it's the sense of purpose, of commitment, an expression of values.


What happens if we allow this cultural Darwinism full expression? Easy. We say that accessibility to a 40,000-year record of what it means to be human will be determined by your economic strata, by your level of education, by your geography, by your age. We suggest that the arts aren't a common good, a legacy over which we have a temporary and shared stewardship, that the cave paintings and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the epic of Gilgamesh and Leaves of Grass, Medea and King Lear,  medieval chants and American jazz, only belong to you if you are wealthy enough to access them.

And that, from where I sit, makes them useless. Because the whole point of the arts is what they tell all of us, the shared experiences they offer, the way they model human accomplishment at the highest levels, the things they affect us privately, one-to-one, and collectively, one-to-many. The arts are at the center of any culture, not the periphery, and whatever shared values and sense of community we have, they are in the middle of it.

In arguments such as these, inevitably we return to the importance of the arts, I suppose, or at least their potential importance. I happen to think that when we eliminate them we lose a good chunk of our ability to improve our circumstances, as individuals and as societies. And when we act as though they aren't a common good, we demean them by making them into silly commodities. I'm sorry. If you're thinking of Romeo and Juliet or Angels in America as commodities, as apps or wheat futures, you aren't thinking clearly. You are destroying the culture just as much as the Taliban did when it destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

I make a similar argument for state support of education: We as a community rightly assert that all of us should have access to education and should help shape its details. In Oregon, we have defunded higher education, and our universities are seeking to be independent of state oversight in return. That's a bad bargain, for the same reason -- we devalue education by reducing it to a market commodity; we lose our ability to assert certain values, such as accessibility, openness, rigor, when we shrug our shoulders and refuse to support our colleges financially. We allow them to float and adapt to a marketplace that values other things -- spas, luxurious living quarters and dining rooms, a many-splendored football team -- over accessibility and rational inquiry.

It's simple, really. When a common good is at stake, we agree to support it together. In Washington, a rich state by most measures, plenty of money is available to fund that $3 million, if the state has the political will to tax itself properly and to fight off the bad ideas of powerful interests. I'm not naive. No, Washington doesn't have that political will, any more than Oregon does. But maybe someone will figure out a way to block this particular bad idea. Good luck to them.

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