Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Shoes, Shakespeare & Senator Coburn

Before he wrote an amendment to the Economic Stimulus Package passed the other day by the American Senate, I can’t say I’d ever paid much attention to Senator Tom Coburn. I had to look him up to find out what state he represented – Oklahoma. As a firm believer in the Arts and its impact on our national culture – and I’m not just speaking of “classical music,” here – I do not think much of Sen. Coburn, based on this one issue, politics in general aside.

I don’t have the background or the interest to write at length about the delicate balance between Art and Politics. There is much more to the Coburn Amendment than just seeing that no funding finds its way to the Arts Organizations of this country, which may explain why Sen. Schumer of New York failed to understand its potential impact on the Arts in the local economy of New York City. Some of the other details may make sense - except in the context of the past administration's support of, say, the Oil Industry despite their huge profits at a time when average Americans were paying almost $4/gallon at the pump.

My primary thought was, “isn’t this a package to stimulate the economy which means to get people out there to create jobs and make money so they can spend it?” The last time I received a “stimulus” from the Bush Administration was a tax rebate that didn’t go toward buying something new: it went into the bank because I had expenses that needed to be paid and a little bit went a little way, those days, toward putting gas in the car, if nothing else. So as a stimulus for the economy, what I did and what many other people likely did with their tax rebates really did nothing for the economy, however it may have helped them individually with more practical issues.

Art has been a trickle-down conception for centuries: whether it was funded by support from the Church, the local aristocracy or wealthy individuals who liked to have nice things to show off to their friends, it was rarely the artist who got rich from it all, though it is more likely the artist we remember than the patrons who made it possible. Not all of that art is “Great Art,” despite the overused term “masterpiece” in today’s marketing. But out of millions of artists who created art over the years, only a relative few succeeded into the Arts Hall of Fame, to use another overused marketing ploy. The point is to create a body of work from which the best will “rise to the surface” (call it the “trickle-up theory,” if you want). The assumption is, if there’s less to choose from, there are fewer chosen.

Perhaps part of the problem is the national view of Art. Too many people think it is elitist, where rich people go to glitzy theaters throwing “air-kisses” at each other against a backdrop of art that has no relevance to Life As The Rest of Us Know It.

Too few people have seen the look of intense involvement on the face of an inner-city youth, listening to a late-Beethoven String Quartet at a free concert. Or watched as a four-year-old toddler stopped his mother so he could stay and listen to some musicians performing live at a local library one Sunday afternoon.

Too many people equate popular acclaim with the highest quality – the “American Idol” approach to Art – or feel that only the most popular artists can give you the very best artistic experience. Too few people have seen an amateur group of local actors and musicians perform a complex musical like the original version of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” with all the intensity and skill of the original production I’d seen on Broadway, in many ways better and more convincing than the highly-acclaimed touring roadshow I had also seen when it came to town and left me cold and disappointed and which I would’ve blamed on the show, not the performance, if I hadn’t seen the original cast or had it later redeemed by Harrisburg’s Community Theater.

For every Pavarotti, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of fine tenors out there who could perform just as well and perhaps technically better were it not for that magic spark they lack that somehow earns them the imprint of popular success, whether it’s an artistic spark or a business one. But it has always been that way. Giving more people the “break” to present their art to the public makes it more likely one of those may develop that spark which will lead to success.

It’s like one of the arguments against abortion: that fetus could have been born and grown up to be the next Einstein.

If money has been cut to a school’s arts program because it was not deemed sufficiently stimulating to the economy, how will we know if that child who didn’t get to hear a concert, go to a play, take a violin lesson, sing Mozart in the choir – how will we ever know what the future has lost? And not just in terms of the artists but of the audience itself?

“Winning the silver is losing the gold.”

Even getting to compete is a victory of sorts, having the opportunity to get that close. Who can make a career out of the shame of losing a competition? How many winners of competitions can create enough careers to prove we as a nation have a healthy cultural climate?

Too many performers’ biographies stress what prestigious competitions they have won. This is not a biography, this is a resume. It tells us nothing of how well they play. But it is important for them to win those competitions because how otherwise do you get peoples’ attentions to be taken seriously?

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Perhaps one of the problems is that our economy is based not on what we produce but on what we consume. We are more concerned about how much money a film grossed during its first weekend rather than whether or not it was a good film. We determine who gets to watch or listen to what programs on television or radio by what the ratings are and how that translates into advertising dollars for the broadcast companies regardless of their commercial background.

Art is something artists produce whether people consume it or not. People who consume art often look for bargains – for a painting over the living room couch: what matters more, what it means to you or what you paid for it? – and artists often don’t make a living wage off their creations the first time around (leave that to agents, resellers, post-consumers). All you have to do is watch a few minutes of PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” to understand the investment in art consumption. Not every $10 flea-market find is going to end up with a $100,000 re-sale value, but very often we learn something about who we are or what we have through something that may have no intrinsic value beyond our own personal experience.

Somewhere, someone created that thing you inherited from Aunt Sally that you had no idea what it was or what to do with it, but yet somebody out there obviously thinks it’s of value. Someone probably created that thing to put food on their table, to help pay a doctor’s bill or put a child through school, to pay the rent. There may be something very real and very relevant in its back-story, regardless of its surface meaning, whether it’s something simply to bring a touch of beauty to a corner of a room or to give you a sense of some deeper connection with your inner soul.

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Another problem with “The Arts” is that there is no one Art we’re talking about, here.

For every type of Art, there are different varieties of appeal and purpose and with that, those who prefer one kind or style over another. People are offended by art that offends someone and if you’re offended by it, therefor it’s not Art.

It’s impossible to have a consensus on something that appeals to so wide a constituency. That is why we have political parties in the first place and why “bi-partisanship” is so difficult to obtain, because our systems of values and beliefs are so deeply entrenched, we now see compromise as a sense of failure (“losing the gold”).

One party’s view of success is the other party’s recipe for disaster. One political system’s patriotism is another political system’s propaganda. One culture’s religious writings are another culture’s mythology.

How can anybody find consensus in something so “cosmopolitan” and universal as Art?

Aside from the consumption aspect of Art in our modern economy, there is also the nature of Corporate America, a highly structured neo-feudal organization that can afford to set aside large amounts of money to lobby Congress for its own interests. The Arts are not so organized or “in-your-face” about what they do or why: no Senator is ever going to get as big a campaign contribution from an orchestra as they are from an industrial manufacturer.

People who complain about what international stars earn as concert soloists or as conductors of major orchestras as a reason to withhold government funding never seem to be bothered as much by what star athletes are paid by their baseball teams or what CEOs make in their corner fiefdoms.

If what Matthew Guerrieri writes about in a recent post at Soho the Dog is true, according to recent studies
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... “that means that the Big Three automakers' yearly economic impact is about 1.4 times that of the "non-profit arts and culture industry," as Americans for the Arts puts it. Which is interesting, since in the past year, the auto industry received 120 times as much federal money [as] the arts.”
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– then the National Endowment for the Arts should be receiving $12.4 Billion, not the $50 Million Senator Coburn is so eager to keep out of the hands of American artists (like his daughter, opera-singer Sarah Coburn).

I’m not sure this $50M - 1/13th of what the same bill describes as Costs associated with the Digital Converter Box Program (how does that, by the way, create jobs or stimulate consumer spending?) - needs to go to maestros’ or executive directors’ salaries or to build new palaces for the arts in cities across the land, not that $1M spent in each of the 50 states will really build that many palaces, right? But it could go to programs that would send artists from the community into its schools to introduce young students to the Arts, for example, perhaps not exactly a bottom-line victory for the present (however many jobs it might create for the moment) but one that might be a bottom-line victory for the future, whether it’s in terms of future audience, future contributors and maybe even future artists. It is a stimulus for something now with a long-range result that can still be stimulating for the nation’s cultural health 20-30 years from now.

“We need Shoes, not Shakespeare” is an old rant.

The trouble is, we need both. But it’s difficult to convince people that Shakespeare will be there to console and inspire us long after the shoes have gone out-of-fashion.

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P.S. - Here's some more coverage, from a blog about Classical Music on the Radio, Scanning the Dial.

- Dr. Dick

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