Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

In defense of fine arts – II

6 May, 2012. The following is a continuation of my discussion of the National Endowment for the Arts and the issue of public support for the performing arts.

Some will point to our accelerating national deficit as an area of grave concern. Yes, of course, this is a valid concern. But compared to excessive defense spending, NEA is a drop in the bucket — it just so happens that NEA has been the object of some controversy, so it’s politically savvy to take aim at something like that, diverting attention from the more serious, less-easily-soluble budget dilemmas. Obscene amounts of money have been spent compiling a nuclear arsenal, and now more obscene amounts of money are being spent neutralizing that arsenal in the interests of international disarmament, and replacing it with other, conventional and stealth weapons and defense systems. Obscene amounts of money are wasted on experimental weapons systems that don’t pan out. Every time a plane is lost, as in the recent crash in Virginia, that represents many millions of dollars. How come there’s so much money to blow on that sort of folly? By my estimate, the cost of the NEA for a year is roughly equivalent to five downed F-18′s.

Some critics ask why performing and visual artists shouldn’t be out there hustling for their income like everyone else. Indeed, they do it all the time. The fact is, the cost of art, music, dance, etc. far exceeds ticket admissions income. Arts organizations depend primarily on support from the private sector from people who recognize their contribution to a higher quality of life. Artists don’t sell a tangible product that can be commodified, mass-produced, and sold cheaply at competitive rates, although in fact they try to keep admission prices affordable, which means losing money. The arts, like education, are never going to be cost-effective — that’s just an inappropriate set of criteria — but I suggest that an enlightened society would eliminate support for these intangibles at its own peril.

What it comes down to is a value judgment, and I suggest that all of us are far more favorably affected by the constructive cultural aspects of American life than we know. Society is not equivalent to the government, but government is one of society’s principal means for ordering itself, and we in society have a right to direct that government to uphold certain standards of living, and that includes not only law and order, but aesthetic values, too: museums and libraries and parks and worthy arts organizations.

Balance the budget — yes! — but if there’s excessive spending, let’s get after the real drains on the coffers — it’s not arts and education. That’s small potatoes. And it’s an easy mark for noisy politicians who want to score quick political points but really have no idea how to get to the heart of the problem.

Commentary © 2012 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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