By Michael J. Katz
As President Obama pushes his economic recovery act through Congress, Republicans, with little discouragement from the media, predictably scoff at the inclusion of arts funding in the stimulus package. We hear barely veiled sneers describing them as “wasteful” and “unproductive.” Listen to the rhetoric and you’d think appropriating money to the arts rates up there with sodding the mall and planned parenting.
It is easy to understand how such arguments resonate to the shrinking faithful of the far right. But they couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Take, for example, a symphony orchestra. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a roster of over a hundred musicians. Each of them plays a carefully crafted musical instrument, supporting hundreds of jobs in that industry. Each of them has had many, many years of music lessons. They play compositions, some written by contemporary composers, all distributed by music publishing companies. They perform at venues like Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl that provided construction jobs for hundreds and continue to provide jobs in maintenance. The concerts are supported by a base of employment that includes public relations firms, concessions sales, ushers, advertisers, shuttle buses, parking lot attendants and the occasional scalper. They record albums which generate jobs for sound engineers, music distributors and more.
Furthermore, there is a ripple effect. The success of the LA Phil inspires children to learn music, which means more kids taking more lessons, buying more musical instruments and attending more concerts. And that is only one orchestra, in one city; multiply that times every decent sized municipality in our country that supports an orchestra.
While a symphony may be the best example, it is far from the only one. Jazz orchestras, dance troupes, musical and dramatic theatre, all support a hierarchy of industry. Even an individual painter, sculptor or photographer supports economies that work their way upwards to every public and private place with a bare wall.
The truth is, if aid to the arts was judged solely by its contribution to jobs and the economy, the return, based on the meager percentage of GNP so grudgingly contributed, would be more than enough to justify the expense.
That, of course, does not even mention the richness to our lives and our society that is the primary reason for the NEA.
So why do so-called conservatives howl in terror at endowments for the arts? Mostly it is political expediency. The radical right can always find some portion of an endowment that went to an artist that offended their sensibilities. Nothing makes them happier than a tatted, pierced performance artist uttering or drawing something offensive or heretical. If they didn’t exist, these folks would happily create them. And, let’s face it; the recipients of arts grants as a group do not exactly fit the profile of today’s GOP, or what’s left of it. Ironically, these are the very people who protest the loudest at lyrics to rap songs or preponderance of graffiti. But try and get them to fund art and music in the schools, so kids can get a taste of classical or jazz, or musical theatre, or any branch of the visual arts, and they are the ones prattling about waste and abuse.
So let’s stop all this nonsense about arts grants being non-productive. Instead, let’s ask our legislative geniuses to make the executives at Citibank as accountable to the public as your local arts administrator.