[NOTE: This is a blogpost I wrote for Riverviews Artspace in 2011.]
Have you noticed? –when money gets tight often the first thing that budget-teers want to cut is “the arts.” Why is that?
Well, Margy Waller, Vice President of the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund (now called “ArtsWave”) thinks she knows. What she knows is that arts funding cuts are made not because people don’t like art or “the arts;” not because people fail to value art; and not because they are unwilling to pay for art they like (if they can afford it!) Money for the arts dries up because of the way we think about the arts. And the way we think is: the arts are not my responsibility. That means that we think the arts are not a public concern in the way, say, that roads, water systems, police or fire protection is thought to be.
After more than a year’s worth of study and research, that’s the conclusion the Cincinnati folks reached. The prevailing view of most Americans is that art and the arts is a matter of individual concern, more like an entertainment than a public good. That is, they are nice but unnecessary, entertaining but inessential, provocative but impractical, valued but not vital.
Wrong not as a matter of opinion but as a matter of fact. That’s what the research shows. Thinking of art or the arts as only another commodity that reflects one’s taste, class, or personal disposition ignores a profoundly significant fact: the ripple effect of the arts on the community. Those ripples make waves of public good. Research shows that in communities where the arts are thriving:
- neighborhoods are transformed and revitalized, properties are restored and renovated, the streets become safer and more interesting, and people return;
- local businesses, restaurants, boutiques experience an increase in patrons and sales as the area becomes more vibrant and lively;
- communication increases as new connections are made, information gets shared from a more diverse population, and a deeper and broader understanding of the world as well as the history and richness of the immediate area is discovered and enjoyed.
This is the reality. This is demonstrably what happens in cities and towns with vibrant and lively arts communities.
If this is what the arts actually do, why then do we persist in thinking of art as “nice but not necessary”? Is it not necessary for a community to revitalize neighborhoods, help its businesses to prosper, and increase its connections and communication with one another?If so then support and cultivation of the arts is a public good and not simply a matter of private taste. It is a shared responsibility and should be a function of civic pride and even moral conscience. The arts in our community, then, should not be left to passive consumers but become part of what we as active, responsible, citizens cultivate and support.
In brief, that’s the conclusion the Fine Arts Fund of Cincinnati reached when searching for an answer to the question: Why do the arts matter ? Now, as an artist it’s encouraging to know that social science and communications research substantiates the social value of being an artist–especially when it is so frequently dismissed and often ridiculed by public policy makers or media mouth-offs. But frankly…that’s not why I do art. I’d like to believe–in fact I do believe–that my art has social value, even a social conscience. That’s part of the reason many artists show or perform their work. But that’s not at the heart of why art matters. I do art because it responds to one of the deepest of human needs: to make something, to be a creator rather than a creature of habit and routine all the time. It is my belief that when we have no creation in our lives, things go bad. To recognize the social and economic ripple effects of art is significant, probably essential for developing a shared sense of responsibility for the arts. But it is insufficient. If that’s all that made art matter it’d be like going to a an art museum to look at its architecture without ever going inside.
I care about ripple effects but I care more about the stone that enters the pool and lies deep within the quiet bottom of the pond. There’s an irony here. How can you say, put into words, why art matters when art exists to do what an argument, a spread sheet, or the newspaper can’t? Art is the one domain in life devoted to articulating exactly those elements of our experience that come before and lie beyond what we can say. Does that matter? Art is a different language. Asking why having that language matters is a little like asking why you need more than one string on a guitar. One string works fine; five just complicate the matter, right?
Looking at the “effects” of art on a community is not at all the same thing as looking at art, practicing or participating in it. Reframing why art matters from the personal and individual to its corporate and public effects may prove useful when arguing for a budget line, but in what direction does it advance our understanding? Is the ART that matters or its presence in the community? The meaning and the value of art tends to be displaced from its source in inspiration and creation to the service it provides other interests. But trying to separate them is like asking what matters more–a person or their personality? One flows from the other. Both are important.
Answering the question of why art matters as though we have to choose between shared responsibility or personal self-interest is a false choice. We all live in both domains. So it’s important to remember when thinking about what matters that creativity and inspiration are not committee functions. They’re a function of the soul, or the human spirit. Art is what keeps us lively by giving us a language for what can’t be said, a look at or a vision of what can’t be seen, and a sense of presence with a great mystery that can’t be known–the mystery of Life itself. Art is a way of making that makes us matter–more like a cherry blossom than being a chairman of some board. The cherry tree with all the ephemeral beauty of its blossoms isn’t very efficient or conservative; it’s not stingy with resources or calculating about return; all those blossoms–while nice–really aren’t very efficient, but they are absolutely necessary. The cherry tree is nice not because it’s economic and efficient but because it is beautifully effective! The arts not only are nice, like blossoms, they are necessary. The effect they have makes us more human. Art stretches us with its demands and consoles us with its beauty; it exposes us to novelty, insight, and invention and contains what is precious, prescient, and sacred. It’d be hard to do without those things and stay human. That matters.