04/20/2012 08:27 am ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

If You Fund It, They (Still) Won't Come

Q: Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does saving them mean?*

Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Well, first of all, the arts bubble from the latter half of the last century is bursting, as predicted by the late Alice Goldfarb-Marquis in her book Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding. Arts funding and profitable arts work is drying up, and drying up quickly. I've written about this from both a jazz and classical perspective, and this excellent blog post by David Beem provides the perspective of an accomplished classical insider (the post went viral in the music community this weekend). Basically, people are concerned that when incomes in the arts disappear, then the arts will disappear, so we should do something to save them. Who are these people? They consist of:

  • A small percentage of the general population who love the arts and want to make sure that they are there for the next generation, and
  • Artists and arts-related businesses (recording labels, agents, venues, etc.), and arts educators, all of whom want to continue making a living in the arts. These groups lobby for funding, and attempt, as much as possible, to package their thinly veiled self-interest as a priestly calling. (All of the romantic bunk about the long-suffering artist, living in poverty, selflessly wrestling with demons for the sake of humanity is part of this mythology; it's seductive, especially for the young.)

The rest of the answer to this question, then, is simple: They want to "save the arts" because people enjoy making music, and they like dancing, acting, painting, and writing poetry and narrative. They would also really, really like it if those activities paid the mortgage for a nice three-bedroom ranch in the suburbs or a hipster condo in the Village. "Saving the arts" is code for "let's patch up and re-inflate the arts bubble."

The question then tells us more about the people asking the question than anything else -- and I don't mean the contest judges, I'm speaking broadly about the arts community, whose voice is reflected in this question. What do I mean by that? The question is phrased vaguely, as all of these types of questions usually are, in a manner that does not properly define the topic. It asks about saving "the arts" -- ok, what does "arts" refer to? Pop music? Club Music and Electronica? Country and Western? Knitting? Of course not -- this has nothing to do with these and most other forms of artistic expression. They are referring to the high-brow, elite, and sophisticated fine arts, as exemplified by the Western traditions in art, dance, music, theatre/film, and literature that have been canonized over many centuries.

But really, the premise is absurd. Save the arts? You'd no more be able to "save" the arts than you could destroy them. This gets us back to the folly and hubris (that I wrote about in my last post) of trying to shape or manage a culture. We in the arts community, however, will have none of it. As a whole, we are completely enamored with the idea that there's some piece of legislation, some law, some new government position, some new agency, or some new education initiative, that can create demand for the arts; all they need to do is find it and/or fund it and just watch the box office revenue come pouring in. Unfortunately, it never does.

The means to this end are taxes, grants, awards, surcharges, tariffs, exemptions, rules, guidelines, Ministers of This and Secretaries of That. In Canada, as I wrote last time, they even have laws in which one group of Canadians tells the other 99.99% of Canadians that, when they turn on their radios or televisions, they have to listen to or watch a certain percentage of art that was made by racially (well, politically) pure Canadians. (We all know that, left to their own devices, these ill-informed and ill-educated Canucks might-gasp-actually listen to music of their own choosing, and we cannot allow that. Pass a law! Save the Arts!) So, we see here how the supposedly "free-thinking, freedom loving, and iconoclastic" arts community quickly embraces bureaucracy and political coercion when they think (wrongly) that it will line their own pockets.

Why not just admit the obvious? Perhaps 5-8% of the population will be interested in engaging with the fine arts in the first place, so create the structures that will support those numbers. This means that not every town will have a symphony or an art museum. This means that universities should consider building unique programs that respond to regional demands and capitalize on the strengths of their faculty, rather than just blatantly duplicating the programs that are found within 100 miles in each direction. (My colleagues at Grand Valley State University will attest to the many unsuccessful proposals I have made in this regard over the years!) This also means that not everyone who likes to paint, sing, or play the trombone will be able to make a living from it. In fact, almost no one who likes to paint, sing, or play the trombone, will be able to make a living from it.

The arts, broadly defined, are thriving like never before. I've written about that several times, so I won't repeat myself here. The problem is, the arts are not thriving in the ways that the conservatives in the arts (yes, they're conservatives, not political conservatives, but conservatives nonetheless) would like them to thrive. Hence, "saving the arts" is just code for "saving my arts job." It might not be pretty, but it's probably true.

*This is the fourth round question for Spring for Music's Great Blogger Contest, from which I was eliminated. I expected the last round question to be one that would try to draw the bloggers out on how to increase arts attendance and engagement. I'm sure we would have had the usual "solutions" dragged out in turn-education, state funding, federal funding, community outreach, unique programming, etc. This question seems out of sequence to me. The previous question-whether there should be a Secretary of Culture-is one of the possible solutions for "saving the arts," so it would make more sense to go from the general to the specific, not the other way around. Still, it made me wonder how I would answer it if I were still in the contest, so I did!