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Susanne Mentzer Headshot

Define 'Charity,' Define 'Humanity'

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On his April 27 broadcast of "Real Time" on HBO, while challenging whether the Mormon Church is a charity, Bill Maher told viewers that donating to the arts also does not qualify as charitable giving. He brought up the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and how people who give to it get tax deductions for their charitable giving. He argued that this, too, does not qualify as a charity, because "unlike food and water, access to Mozart is not a basic human necessity."

I did not initially see the show since HBO is available only to those who pay to subscribe, but I saw some of it online. It has been eating at me all week. As a person who depends on the not-for-profit sector for my livelihood and for my connection with a world larger than myself, I find it disappointing to hear this line of reason coming from Mr. Maher.

The few times I have seen his show I have often been entertained by him and in agreement with his logic. I do not wish to and am not qualified to argue the tax status of religious organizations. Needless to say, I also do not want to get into a "pissing fight with a skunk."

However, I am qualified to share what I think of the arts and of non-profit arts organizations and their place in our society. I might add that unlike commercial art endeavors -- Broadway, movies, or commercial music -- the non-profit arts for the most part are devoid of greed, excessive income, and the obsession with the bottom line. As a matter of fact, many end the fiscal year in the red. They always have but at another time they were still considered "worth it" and donors stepped up to the plate rather than lose the group.

We artists are in this world to make a difference and rarely do it solely for the money. The majority of arts organizations survive with small budgets and depend on volunteers. Many are grass roots groups in small communities. They are light years away from commercial art yet they make a big impact. Certainly, I have been fortunate enough to work for large budget organizations but if I had remained at a grass roots level my motivation would be the same.

In 2009 Michelle Obama gave a speech in Pittsburgh:

It is through our music, our literature, our art, drama and dance that we tell the story of our past and we express our hopes for the future. Our artists challenge our assumptions in ways that many cannot and do not. They expand our understandings, and push us to view our world in new and very unexpected ways...

It's through this constant exchange -- this process of taking and giving, this process of borrowing and creating -- that we learn from each other and we inspire each other. It is a form of diplomacy in which we can all take part... And... people who might not speak a single word of the same language, who might not have a single shared experience, might still be drawn together when their hearts are lifted by the notes of a song, or their souls are stirred by a vision on a canvas.

That is the power of the arts -- to remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common; to help us understand our history and imagine our future; to give us hope in the moments of struggle; and to bring us together when nothing else will...

Trying to find my own words to express the same thoughts, I am not as eloquent as the First Lady, and for that matter nor am I as ironic or witty as Bill Maher.

I have always been amazed by charitable giving, especially by incredibly generous donors. We never had much money when I was growing up so we volunteered rather than making financial donations. Sometimes I have been guilty of wondering why people give to the arts when there are so many causes directly addressing the basic needs of human beings. I even struggle with this when making my own donations. But the idea of giving anything freely -- time, money, attention, goods -- is a one to be encouraged, not discouraged. Where one gives is a personal choice and most causes are worthy.

Many people find peace and solace through the arts. Music and art therapy are noble professions that help so many. There is a reason for this: the arts are a reflection of humanity and for many are a basic emotional need. If we only look at all humans as only needing food, water, and shelter, we are diminishing not only ourselves but also those we intend to aid.

The Oxford English Dictionary online defines charity as:

1. an organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need: the charity provides practical help for homeless people
[mass noun] the body of organizations viewed collectively as the object of fundraising or of donations: the proceeds of the sale will go to charity
2. [mass noun] the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need: the care of the poor must not be left to private charity
help or money given to those in need: an unemployed teacher living on charity
3 [mass noun] kindness and tolerance in judging others: she found it hard to look on her mother with much charity
4. archaic love of humankind, typically in a Christian context: faith, hope, and charity

I suppose if Bill Maher was using the OED definition he might glean that the arts are not a charity. Many folks do fund the arts and take a charitable deduction. Some fund the arts and choose not to take the deduction. My own parents never declared to the IRS their contributions to their church or other charities, as they felt it was the antithesis of altruism. That said, if people want to be generous to the arts and are benefited or even motivated by the tax deduction, more power to them. OED definition of altruism -- disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others:

For the record, the IRS website states:
Generally, organizations that are classified as public charities are those that
• Are churches, hospitals, qualified medical research organizations affiliated with hospitals, schools, colleges and universities,
• Have an active program of fundraising and receive contributions from many sources, including the general public, governmental agencies, corporations, private foundations or other public charities,
• Receive income from the conduct of activities in furtherance of the organization's exempt purposes, or
• Actively function in a supporting relationship to one or more existing public charities.

The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines charity as:

1: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
2a: generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also: aid given to those in need
b: an institution engaged in relief of the poor c : public provision for the relief of the needy
3a: a gift for public benevolent purposes, b: an institution (as a hospital) founded by such a gift
4: lenient judgment of others

The arts go back to early civilization, a word rooted in the latin: "civis" -- "citizen". Let me share the definition of civilization from the OED online:

1. the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced
2. the process by which a society or place reaches an advanced stage of social development and organization.
3. the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area
4. the comfort and convenience of modern life, regarded as available only in towns and cities

Perhaps through the arts we as citizens can realize a larger picture of humanity and need in our world and our place in society. The arts can span an infinite number of topics and ideas. The arts can actually give some people a sense of purpose. Even better, the arts can soothe a troubled soul by putting things in perspective. For some, the type of self-expression that is an intrinsic part of music, art, drama, comedy and dance is a basic human need.

Unlike food and water, access to Mozart may not a basic human necessity, but why should we limit ourselves to basic human necessity when we are a socially developed and civic-minded society? I rather like the first definition of charity in the Merriam Webster: "benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity."

The OED definition of humanity is:

1. human beings collectively; the state of being human
2. the quality of being humane; benevolence
3 (humanities) learning concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.

'Nuff said.