Friday, April 28, 2017

A Defense of the Arts in America

Henry Miller once wrote "A corn fed hog has a better life than an American artist."  Years ago, that comment made me laugh when I read it.  However, times have changed.  What was humor then carries a dark cloud of serious disregard now.  The current President of the United States is someone for whom it may be said that his only serious connection to the arts may well be when he used his foundation's money to buy a portrait of himself.  His recent budget proposals reflect not only a disregard for the arts, but outright contempt.  Because of this, I wish to offer this defense of the arts in America.

When White House budget director Mick Mulvaney recently stepped forward to defend President Trump's current budget proposal, he stated that this was a "Hard power budget."  Not a surprising use of words when one considers President Trump's thuggish use of machismo and power language to cower his critics.  How on earth might people who believe in "hard power" ever be convinced that their proposals to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to zero are bad proposals?  What it says, is that those who ought to be the stewards of the culture of these United States choose instead to invest nothing in it.  It says, in very plain terms, that the great many artists, writers, performers and so many others in the creative professions - are worth nothing to this administration.

It is a strange thing to think that an oil and energy companies should enjoy an estimated 4 billion in tax subsidies - essentially saying to taxpayers that we ought to subsidize their business...but to the "Hard Power" advocates in the Trump administration, if a tiny fraction of that money is invested in American Arts, it is clearly a waste.  This kind of mentality betrays the social Darwinist underpinnings of some strains of Alt-right philosophy.  To them, the arts and arts related businesses should be allowed to fail if they can't make it on the free market.  In the majority of cases, if an gallery doesn't make it, it does indeed fail.  The law of the jungle still holds true.  But my argument lies primarily in the fact that our government sees our arts programs as a needless extravagance (even though they represent a minuscule fraction of our overall Federal spending), and I see our arts spending as absolutely critical to the emotional and cultural lives of the American people.

Winston Churchill, who enjoyed making paintings in his spare time, was once asked to cut arts funding during World War II.  And he famously replied "Then what are we fighting for?"  Clearly the legendary British leader saw that he and others were not just fighting Hitler in the conventional sense - they were fighting for the preservation of English and Western culture.  And that means, among other things, the preservation of their arts.

The creative arts are different than other forms of productivity.  The creative arts represent the various arenas concerned primarily in the cultivation of a meaningful inner life for the artists and the broader culture.  The creative arts are deeply concerned with the search for meaning and expression in human life.  What would this world be without them?  What kind of grey, dystopian society would result if there were none of the creative arts to "wash the dust of life away", as Picasso once remarked?

I walked through a hotel just yesterday and found myself thinking about this problem.  If there were no artists, there would be no art on the walls.  Even that cheesy kind of low grade graphic art - the kind which is made to simply match the curtains and fit the decor of a space without upsetting anything.  Take the art of the walls and immediately you would have a different space.  If there was no art there would also be no music.  If there was no music there would be no pleasant sounds making even a short elevator ride more relaxing.  Take away the arts and there would be no real literature to read at the end of the long day at work.  Your suitcase would be lighter but your heart would be duller.  Take away the arts even further and those who decorate the interior of a structure would simply vanish - and the interior of our most pleasing buildings would just be gray walls.  No colors.  No life. Pure function.  The ceiling would keep the rain off your head.  The air conditioning would still work. But you would walk into a colorless, music-less, artless building.  Your senses would be reduced to dull functionality.  A lack of even the smallest reaction.  Emptiness.  And this is only what no art might do to one building...not forgetting either, the creativity in the making of truly original architectural wonders.

What would result in a world with no art would be a planetary North Korea.  Bland and tasteless - repressive and soul crushing.  Though we should not forget that authoritarian leaders are more than happy to bring out art in the service of their own personal goals - so even there art survives, but only in slavish service to the state.  And that, is more like no art at all.  North Korea would not survive if it had its equivalent of Delecrox's "Liberty Leading the People" or Picasso's "Guernica."

                         "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix

As it stands here in the United States of 2017 we still have our full freedom of expression.  For that, I and many others, are deeply grateful.  Luckily, the founding fathers put our freedom of expression out of the reach of greedy men of the moment who might snatch it away - and destroy it forever.  Yet, my primary argument is with the contention that the U.S. government gives, by way of this proposed budget, that the arts mean NOTHING in terms of funding.  It says to the little boys and girls who are drawing with their crayons and spreading joy in the world - that a future where they hold a paintbrush, or act in a play, or write a book - it is not worth having.  Therefore, commit yourselves to something else.  Art is not worth it.

But we all know this isn't true!  It isn't true at all.  When we think of some of the great cities of the world, it is not an accident that such cities are often bound up with having profound museums, amazing theaters and gilded concert halls.  All the products of beauty and culture that have long contrived to make the dull regularity of daily life bearable for city people and country people alike.  I myself spent time in France and love that country very much.  It is interesting that being an artist in France has all the regularity of being an accountant or bureaucrat.  Art permeates the culture in France.  I remember sitting in bars and talking to random people who loved the poetry of Jacques Prevert.  Average people in France always had their favorite painters - and France claims its artists with great pride.  That comes from a culture that believes that art informs the life of the people.  And that the life of the people will ultimately be better if all segments of public life - including the government, acknowledge that art is worth something.

The creative arts are also important to American culture because we have often been a culture of endless work,  little play, and full throttled mass production.  American artists of all kinds have the ability to hold a mirror up to the culture and show the culture to itself.  And if we allow our government to say that art is worth nothing, then we are saying that we don't want to see what our artists may wish to say about our country, its people, and its culture.  We don't want to hear the poetry of Juan Felipe Herrer or we don't want to see "The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, September 11, 2001" by Graydon Parrish.  We shirk from holding the mirror up to our culture.  Could it be that we are afraid of what we will see?

"The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, September 11, 2001" Graydon Parrish (Used with permission of the artist)

At the end of the day, even if the cultural argument fails, it would seem to me that we should be able to understand that art jobs are JOBS.  I would think that that kind of ruthlessly capitalistic calculus would work on someone like President Trump.  All the mythos, all the things that Americans tell themselves about being free spirits - about working with their own hands, being independent and building businesses...all these things ought to ring a few bells with those who advocate for the rights of businesses - including arts businesses.  But strangely this doesn't seem to be so.  An arts job is seen as expendable - even worthy of elimination in the eyes of those formulating the Trump budget.  And this leads me to believe that they would prefer artists be silent - or complicit, which may be worse.  They fear the image of America in the age of Trump - and they would prefer to not have the nasty inconvenience of serious reflection in an age of demagoguery and deep political fractures.

Most artists would never contend that we are worth more than any other productive member of society.  But we would contend that we are worth as much as the rest.  And so if the United States government can spend billions subsidizing car companies - or billions subsidizing oil companies, or unthinkable amounts of money on our military - it would seem the smallest thing in the world to set aside a minuscule fraction of the federal budget for the propagation arts and culture.  The fact that the Trump administration doesn't even do this means that they not only do not value the arts - they mean to put the arts through the floor.  The message is clear.  Clearer still when we can place an order for 8.5 billion dollars worth of F-35 jets, and no serious public debate occurs on the issue.  Yet if we ordered 87 instead of 90 F-35s, we could fund the entirety of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The Presidential budget says, in effect, that these precious arts and cultural endowments are not worth 3 airplanes for the already mighty United States Air Force.

Though it may be hard to imagine it now - in Renaissance Italy there were cities and governments that placed tremendous value on the arts.  In Florence alone, city fathers were constantly scheming to get the finest artists of the day, artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leaonardo, Raphael, and many others - to create what today are some of the finest works in all of western civilization.  They eagerly awaited the great things their artists might portray about the history and accomplishments of their cultures.  Artists reaped the benefits of lucrative commissions, and their cities had great works of beauty and meaning brought forth in front of delighted citizens.  Today, many countries around the world - even with the stresses that most governments endure in trying to meet the needs of their citizens -  countries around the world still support their arts with small fractions of their budgets.  Even further, many countries have ministers of culture - who are themselves representatives in their respective governments as advocates for arts and culture.  And what about the United States?

Perhaps, as we go forward to resist this denigration of the arts by the Trump administration - perhaps a new rallying cry should be the previously mentioned phrase "Arts Jobs are American Jobs!"  A powerful thing to say because it is completely true.

Arts jobs ARE American jobs.

Conservatives, Progressives, Independants and all others - all groups enjoy and benefit from the arts.  So why aren't arts jobs held in higher regard?  Why is a subsidy to a huge multinational corporation considered essential, but not the pennies on the dollar spent for the arts?  The very fact that I have had personal experience with Conservatives, Progressives, and others buying my own work tells me that art in fact is a unifying force in an age of deep political divisions.  We need even the temporary healing that arts can bring in our culture.

We don't want to be an aesthetic North Korea.  We simply believe that the richest country in the world can do in peace what Churchill insisted on preserving even during a war.  Artists in America only want to be productive members of our society.  And we only want a government that recognizes that we are....just that.

Productive members of society.

This is our hope.