Perhaps Mitt Romney's persistent memory lapses about when he quit working for Bain Capital, the media's excruciatingly restrained coverage of the titanic Libor scandal and our ogling fascination with purveyors of deep fried poultry who worry about too many gay people gobbling up their tasty sandwiches provide a timely trifecta with which to reopen some rather pressing questions about what type of society it is within which we wish to live.
To phrase the essence of the problem succinctly, beleaguered Huffington Post readers are more likely to be presented with a family platter of celebrity divorces and wardrobe malfunctions at our daily media orgy than to be enticed to ponder insightfully about art, music or culture, even though the latter are the very activities that ultimately describe and indeed determine our collective fates. No one wants their vegetables anymore, it would seem.
This is an unfortunate situation because it indicates art, music and culture are failing to do their jobs properly in contemporary society, which is something we ought to change. In the absence of cultural stories told through art, music, theater and the like, we are left solely with current events as our only tool with which to understand our lives and plan our futures, we don't learn vicariously anymore; but by the time news becomes "current," it's usually too late for us to do anything meaningful to affect the outcome. The recent shooting in Colorado is a painful example of that.
State of the Union
To establish a baseline for our discussion we need to take an honest look at the actual condition art, artists and musicians find themselves in today. To do that, let's consider the findings of the recent 2012 National Arts Index which aggregated publicly available data over a ten-year period to see how things are really going. Here's what the data tells us:
Annual arts, music and culture budgets for all arts institutions and education programs are down. National audience attendance down. Arts institution payrolls down. Book sales down. Musical instrument sales down. Recording sales down. Corporate arts funding down. Overall nonprofit fundraising results down. Government funding of arts and music down. Number of employees in arts and music down. Total number of arts, music and culture institutions still existing in America down. Copyright applications down. Personal expenditures on arts, music and culture down. Number of volunteers in the arts down. Public television viewing down. Attendance at orchestra concerts down. Attendance at operas down. Attendance at ballet and dance events down. Attendance at professional theater down. Attendance at motion pictures down. Attendance at art museums down. Citations of arts or culture in bibliographic databases down. Visual and performing arts as a percentage of all college degrees down. Total number of employees working for arts, music and culture institutions down. Arts, music and culture as a share of foundation funding down. Arts, music and culture as a share of household discretionary spending down. State art and music funding per capita down. US share of creative goods traded down. Return on assets for arts businesses down. Nonprofit arts organizations operating in the black or with surpluses down.
If you do not see a trend here, you have made a choice to ignore plain facts.
Why is this happening though? Why is such a broad spectrum of art, music and culture failing to reach an audience nowadays -- failing to impact society in deeply meaningful ways? And more importantly, how can art find its way back into our lives to help us now when we need it most? And is it any wonder the Federal government wants to reduce the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts yet again this year? Art is not making its own case.
Time to Get Real
As a first step, museums, theaters, orchestras and other purveyors of culture must become considerably more proactive in addressing the real, large issues within which society actually lives. Too many cultural institutions have become inward focused, navel gazers, forever asking what constitutes art and obfuscating meaning behind overly complex explanations that do little to help the people they ought to attract and serve; turning our once great institutions into mausoleums for ideas rather than classrooms for exploring and managing life.
Human existence is real and art needs to address that: 47 million Americans currently live in poverty. That means 22% of all children in this country will go to bed hungry tonight. 2.2 million family homes are in foreclosure this week with another 9 million or so expected to go under soon. We are the murder capital of the developed world. The United Nations ranks our education system 21st best (watch out Cuba, we're gaining on you). And our healthcare is the most expensive on the planet, but only the 37th most effective ... for those who can afford to buy it.
Art and music need to address these realities. It's not enough anymore to wait until a disaster occurs then play the memorial concert or erect another scarring monument to our collective loss. Art should instead lead the way in a real community conversation about life. Culture needs to get real.
Of course, the last time I dared remind the faithful that some of their stodgy disconnected rituals may not be helping, and suggested art and music could instead be vibrant and meaningful and connective, the collective sound of monocles popping off noses and pearls being clutched nearly overwhelmed the words I wrote. Nevertheless our future is too important to sit passively by while some of the most important experiences created by humanity fall into shambles.
Visitors spend on average a mere 17 seconds per painting when viewing art works in museums these days, so uncompelling are our presentations. They spend far longer on entertainments that feel connected to their everyday lives, I assure you. Museums were once tangible manifestations of idealism. But bottom-line sensibility has, alas, taken its toll. So what will remain for our children in the place of our once great houses of culture? Cafes with art? We need and deserve more.
Never before in history has our culture been so bereft of courageous institutional leaders of vision, intelligence and integrity. We simply do not have the formidable figures the public identifies with telling the truth anymore. There are nearly no national artistic or business or political leaders nowadays who articulate in bold and defiant terms the moral imperative to address the rapidly broadening gap separating the weak and poor from the wealthy and powerful, the escalating xenophobia and hysterical fear mongering, the thinly disguised racism behind our public discourse, the class inequality, the maldistribution of educational opportunities, the babbling irrational talking heads on television, the erosion of women's rights, the lingering stench of homophobia, the corporatization of democracy, and the national economic decline we are enlarging by concealing our problems underneath layers of debt and financial chicanery and shallow thinking.
The predominant market way of life with its addictive seductions and pacifying pastimes seems to have sapped our collective energy for meaningful analysis and logical decision-making. Art can change that if we have the courage to let it play a more active role.
It's so much easier though to hold difficult questions at bay -- to talk about art and music only in vague pseudo-academic terms, to pontificate about protecting the treasures of the past when we should be working instead to connect our most profound ideas, ambitions and dreams to our future. One cannot speak publicly about the meaning of great art or great music or great ideas without raising terrifying questions about who we are and why we have become this way and what the next chapter of our life should be. Fortunately though, these are the very questions that art is most well equipped to answer for us.
Life should not be only about seeking success; art and music reveal that to us. And culture should not be about parading around fund raising galas pretending to understand art one secretly finds meaningless just to appear intellectual or accomplished. One of the worst things the baby boomer generation did was teach our young people they should become "successful." What a colossal mistake. What an incentive for and incitement to fakery. Indeed, society does not need more success. It needs greatness.
Centuries from now may it be said we were bold and visionary in our efforts to live courageously, that we let art and music lead rather than follow in the quest to create dialogue over misunderstanding, to fight for freedom against all forms of barbarism and oppression. That we made our art real and our lives better for it. Art has the power to ignite a renaissance in America during this new and unpredictable century upon which we are still embarking. Let's let it do its work now.
What do you think? Why are art and music facing so many crises today? And what can we do about the situation?
Please share your ideas below.