Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

In defense of fine arts – I

5 May, 2012. The following remarks were prompted by a discussion I had recently about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his critical stance on the National Endowment for the Arts.

As someone whose work is a contribution to American cultural life, I would like to further address a topic we touched upon, the National Endowment for the Arts. Arts organizations like mine (the Masterworks Chorale, Belleville, Illinois) have benefited from the NEA, so I support it. I suggest it is clearly in the nation’s interest to support the fine and performing arts, for the same reason that the federal government supports the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, the National Parks, and a host of national monuments and historic sites. (The Smithsonian Institution alone receives five or six times the federal funding received by the NEA–to say nothing of the exorbitant funding directed to national defense.) At the local level (Saint Louis, Missouri), we have the Art Museum (free), the History Museum (free), the Zoo (free), the municipal parks system (free) –all tax supported. Are these merely luxuries and frivolities? I suggest they are all part of a national patrimony that says something about who and what we are, and represents an enlightened vision of the kind of world in which we want to live.

Let’s consider some of the great sites and institutions of other countries, for example, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Parthenon, the Uffizi, the Colosseum, French cathedrals, and dozens of other monuments and “attractions.” To visit one of these places with anything more than mere curiosity, one must admit that it’s a good thing that somebody (read: national governments) saw fit to keep these institutions standing.

We are all at liberty to take an interest in art and music and dance and theatre, or not, but I suggest that, if we were each to examine our individual lives and experiences, we would see signs that all of us benefit from a public system which invests in some of the intangible expressions of a humanizing, civilizing way of life. Those expressions include art music, whether some people understand and care about it or not.

Have there been misappropriations of NEA funds? Yes, of course, and I believe that artistic standards need some careful reassessment. But, if our government truly is “of the people,” then it represents the public will to order its own way of life, and to invest in its own well-being. In a liberal capitalist system where freedom of action is easily abused, and aggressive private enterprise blithely tramples on its competition, the public must maintain the right, through its government, to moderate its own affairs, and keep the playing field level and civil, for the sake of standards of justice and civility. By the same token, this society must have the freedom and means to invest in its public cultural expressions, for the sake of a finer, civil quality of community life. To suggest that government is strictly about defense and highways, or bread and circuses, is to propose a very utilitarian, colorless, and ultimately oppressive way of life.

To quote from John Adams: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” (12 May 1780)

Now, there is an American ideal.

Commentary © 2012 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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