There is an article that was published on Gawker.com circulating the internet which is titled "Do Not Give a Dollar to the Opera". The article states that in a world of finite resources, there are more deserving charities than an arts organization, and that by giving money to an opera company you are basically killing children who are dying of malaria. Wow.
Listen, I understand the basis for this argument. Most people have a conception that opera is an elitist art form anyway, one that is only for the rich, and is therefore just a way for wealthy people to entertain themselves. It's got this "Let Them Eat Cake" feel about it, so why would any generous, responsible person give any money when there are legitimately hungry, homeless people in the world?
Well, putting aside the idea that opera is an elitist art form (it's not, it's just an art form that not everyone is particularly familiar with), if you're going to get behind this argument, then you have to argue that as long as there is any human suffering in the world, nobody should support the arts in a charitable way -- if you have money, you should only give it to human beings in need. The problem, in my opinion, with that argument is the following:
a) You really can't tell people how to spend their money -- I mean, instead of telling them not to donate to the arts, why don't you tell them to stop buying frappucinos and give that money to hungry people? Why? Because it would never work. People looooove their frappucinos. That doesn't make them evil, it's just a fact.
b) Comparing the arts and human suffering really is an apples and oranges comparison -- no sane person would see a hungry child and say NO! I would give you this bagel but instead I'm going to donate my $1.50 to this theater company so they can portray your suffering! Most people who are wealthy enough to support the arts already donate to humanitarian causes as well.
c) In the United States, if people do not support the arts with charitable donations, not only can the arts not thrive, they cannot really exist. Arts organizations already have little to no government support, but cannot operate with standard business models in order to make a profit because that defeats the purpose of making something artistic as opposed to making something that is just commercial.
So in essence, in the society in which we currently live, the author is arguing that as long as there is human suffering in the world, arts organizations should be abolished. I'm afraid I don't agree with that.
The reason the arts as a whole were created in the first place was as a balm to relieve human suffering. I happen to be writing this article on September 11th, 12 years after a performance I was scheduled to sing at New York City Opera was cancelled because of the tragic events of the day. However, two days later the performance went on as planned (it happened to be a dress rehearsal with invited audience of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado). Did it seem banal and trite to those of us about to march on stage and sing and dance after the horrific events we had just experienced? Yes, of course it did. But what besides the beauty of music and art and dance and theater and film has the power to affect the human psyche in a way that can actually benefit the society as a whole? Arts organizations were some of the first to start helping people in the aftermath with the healing process.
Can art stop humans from hurting each other? Maybe not immediately, but it can certainly affect the sentiment of the general population. Inner city schools with thriving art programs are proven to have less violence and crime as well as improved academic achievement. That's just one example.
Can art feed hungry people? No, it cannot. But it can create human beings who are both happier and more sympathetic, therefore more generous in their desire to ease the suffering of their fellow man.
Can art cure disease? Not directly, although using art therapy in hospitals has been proven to speed rates of recovery. Art presented in places where the population has little or no money has proven to make life much more bearable and create one of the most important incentives for the survival of the species -- the will to live and to thrive in order to be able to create something new.
Please -- if you have an extra dollar, do help human beings who are suffering. However, if you have a million dollars, know that if you give some to an arts organization -- even an ailing one -- your money will not be spent in vain. You will be helping to create a society of more understanding and generous people, and your money will go further than you probably even realize.