Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

In defense of fine arts – III

9 May, 2012. The third and final installment in a discussion of the value and significance of public funding for the arts.

In advocating the elimination of national support of the arts, some people are arguing economics. I suggest we look beyond that, and  consider our fundamental values, because the money we spend is an indication of those values. There’s government money spent in support of all sorts of projects representing all sorts of values, whether it be environmental concerns, energy alternatives, space exploration (originally sparked by national defense!), scientific research, urban renewal, education, arts and humanities, etc. If we’re going to say, there’s no more money to go around, so let’s cut it all out, everybody’s on his own, then fine. But that’s not going to happen. In a democratic society, we have the means to reach a consensus about our values, and commit our resources to promoting those values. Neither Republicans nor Democrats show any inclination to change that — they are simply squabbling over which values to promote.

I’m suggesting that, 1.) the arts, education, and humanities ought to be counted among our society’s values; and 2.) although some of our cultural patrimony does not take a visible, palpable form — dance and music, for example — it is no less real than painting, sculpture, and architecture. Consider for a moment those tangible arts — the things you’ll find in a publicly funded museum, for instance — from the opposite point of view, as performing arts. They are all about performance. The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s David, the Arc de Triomphe: these are all examples of bravura artistic performances — it’s just that the performing is essentially completed, and is preserved in a concrete form. Great music and dance are more fragile than that, and notwithstanding recordings and videos, which are mere records, like art prints — in genuine terms, these art forms must be continually re-created. But they are no less real, and possibly even more profound. Because they are performances in sound and movement that take place in time, they have a dynamism and emotional power that is not limited to two or three dimensions.

Although all of these things might be described as leisure pursuits, they are not mere diversions. Entertainment is a very broad term, including everything from Seinfeld to professional wrestling. The best art and music is intended to offer much more, to prompt people to think and feel. Not all live performances are world-class, but any good performance has much to communicate to a receptive listener/viewer.

Perhaps even more important, performing arts are not just about the product (e.g. the concert, the CD, the video), but about the process. It’s not just the concert, but the preparation that matters. What sets classical music apart from most other kinds of musical entertainment, is the sheer number of performers, amateur as well as professional, that can participate in a choral or orchestral performance. The power of a community of sympathetic individuals coming together to a common expressive purpose is not to be underestimated. There is in this kind of musical enterprise a dynamic process of cooperation, symbiosis and resonance that is virtually unmatched in all of humanity’s constructive activities–and without benefit of sound systems and enhancements, editing, light shows, or smoke and mirrors. In an average-sized program like mine, concerts can involve up to 100 people, not counting the audience. The individual and collective rewards for the community of such a patently social artistic endeavor are immeasurable. And nearly anyone with some elementary skills can participate: it is the most democratic of art forms. Is there any more fundamental American value?

Commentary © 2012 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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