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Why Invest In Arts? Because Of "We The People"

By Douglas McLennan

 Los Angeles Times - latimes.comJuly 4, 2003

If the State Ends Arts Funding, We Lose a Piece of Our Culture
* A painting or play won't pave any roads but it can show us who we are.

By Douglas McLennan,
Douglas McLennan is the editor of ArtsJournal.com.

In the last few months, states across the country have been slashing their arts budgets by up to 70%. Although half a dozen have considered doing away with arts funding altogether, if the California Legislature approves a budget proposal to eliminate the California Arts Council, this state will be the only one to follow through with the threat.

With a $38-billion shortfall to close, and with things like law enforcement, kindergartens and safe bridges hanging in the balance, it doesn't seem like much of a choice.

Besides, creativity won't go away if California doesn't fund the arts. Artists will still make art, and arts institutions won't close because they don't get state money. Public funding accounts for a tiny portion of most arts institution budgets look at the list of grants and you see hundreds of small awards, for $4,000, $6,000 and $10,000. Lots of interesting projects are made possible by it, but the funding is usually not essential to whether an arts organization lives or dies.

And yet. Though making a cut in the arts budget might be justified as spreading the pain, eliminating arts funding altogether makes it a matter of policy, not just money: Get government out of the arts.

The CAC's piece of the state pie essentially $18.5 million won't help much in closing a multibillion-dollar shortfall. It's not a choice between kindergartens and the arts, or roads and the arts. Every million saved is important, but the numbers don't add up. Can you even buy a decent highway overpass for $18.5 million these days?

Roads, police, even kindergartens are the basic services expected of government. Most countries even poor ones manage them to one degree or another. But is taking care of the basics enough? Can roads, police or kindergartens define who we are?

No, but culture can. Culture is nothing less than the collective expression of "we the people." It defines who we are, points the way to what is possible, communicates what we stand for. All of our accomplishments as a society in business, in science, as a political system flow from the creative expression of "we the people." Culture, in fact, is America's biggest export to the world. Culture is what helps hold us together as a people, defines our national will.

And that means government has a compelling interest in investing in the arts. Not as a matter of deciding what pictures get painted, not as a matter of supporting this or that artist, but as a matter of promoting excellence, the "common wealth." We certainly pay enough lip service to these ideals.

In Europe, there is no debate about whether the arts should be publicly funded; national culture is thought to be so important that the only question is how much. We have always been more conflicted Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans "prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful" but the fact that there are some 4,000 public arts agencies at every level of government in the U.S. shows some awareness of the importance of government's cultural responsibilities.

And what kind of investment are we talking about? Five percent of a state budget? One percent? How about .026% which is what the CAC's funding amounts to now, according to the council.

When the National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965, it was proposed as a democratization of culture, a way of bringing high art to the masses and building a nation whose cultural influence in the world could rival its military dominance. With the Soviet Union vanquished by the early '90s and agreement about aesthetic judgments increasingly difficult in a postmodern world, America's arts leaders spent the next decade talking up the practical usefulness of the arts.

Jobs, tax revenue, tourism, urban redevelopment, academic performance, community building, at-risk youth the California Arts Council Web site makes the case that just about every practical benefit you can think of flows from the arts. Why, the arts even "sustain brain development," "promote healing" and help in "treating Alzheimer's." Maybe the arts also whiten and brighten teeth (expect the studies any day). But no matter how many practical arguments are mustered, they can always be trumped by competing needs for food, medicine, shelter and protection.

Indeed, in attempting to reduce the arts to practical benefits, perhaps the case for culture has been devalued.

The argument has to be this: We the people have a stake in defining our state and national identities, in collective expression, in culture. Eliminating the CAC does little to close the multibillion-dollar budget gap, but in symbolic terms, the message is huge. We lose far more than the artists do.

California is a rich state by any measure. Are its leaders saying that the best they can hope to do is keep the lights on?

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