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Monday, June 30, 2003

A Better Case For Art

By Jerome Weeks

Good job on the Newsweek story. Smart analysis. I've passed it along to several editors/writers here. Years ago, as a theater critic, I complained in print that as accurate and heartwarming as all of the "arts are educational/arts are good for you" arguments were, they sidestepped what the arts are, that art as an aesthetic experience was deemed essentially worthless or embarrassing or controversial or non-productive. It was something no one talked about.

In effect, the arts accepted the entire business-political ethic: they'd better justify themselves on profitable/socially beneficial terms or they were going to die. Yes, the arts do have such benefits, but that's not what drives artists to compose or paint or write and that's not what makes audiences feel they must see or hear these works. Moreover, if the arts are predicated entirely on socially beneficial terms, they flat-out lose when they compete in funding for, say, cancer research or addiction rehab.

What's truly sad, truly maddening about the arts funding cutbacks in conservative/poor states like Texas is that they often happened alongside cutbacks in education, which frequently hit art classes first. So, in many cases, arts institutions stepped in to the education business, not just as a "way to build future audiences" (as they always liked to say), but as a way for school districts to shore up, on the cheap, nonexistent or miserable arts education/music education programs. In the current round of slashing, then, we get no public arts and no art in school, a double whammy that's leaving us with a cultural desert of only profit-making, mass media culture.

Frankly, if there's a convincing way to justify arts and arts education funding these days, it may well be as an alternative to, a stand against, the overwhelming success of popular culture. The dead end there, though, is that it leads straight to a sterile, conservative nostalgia -- the kind that has helped cripple classical music.

These days, my faith for our cultural future doesn't reside so much in public institutions but in the expressive needs, the roach-like indomitability, of poor artists.

Jerome Weeks
Book Columnist
Dallas Morning News

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