A few days ago, at a huge writers conference in Chicago, I met a charming and articulate man -- dressed in lizard cowboy boots and a very interesting sort of felt cowboy hat -- who happens to be a lobbyist for the arts. He was very excited to have just been a part of the effort to ensure the 50 million dollar funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the hope of continued funding for the organization for years to come. He was also happy to report funding for the organization whose conference I was attending. And he was full of anecdotes, one of which I found particularly compelling.
The great poet Philip Levine saw this particular lobbyist on his way into a meeting in Washington one day several years ago, and said to a fellow poet, "This is the man who lets us know how we are doing." The lobbyist told this story with pride in his work but also with some sense of responsibility.
Now I don't much care for the business of lobbying myself, and I told this charming man so, even when the lobbyist is asking for money for causes I very much support. Mostly I wish that there didn't have to be such a thing. But when our government has had such an egregious record in funding the arts as it has for the past eight years and when, clearly, the Republicans will do all and everything they can to take out any monies in any bills proposed that have anything to do with the arts, then I guess we are going to need all the smart and charming and hardworking and dedicated lobbyists for the arts we can get.
But why is that?
What on earth do Republicans in Congress have against painting and writing and dancing and teaching art in the schools? What it is about us artists that gets their panties all in a twist? What would Philip Levine himself say to Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or any of our other Public Servants, for that matter any of the men and women who nurse at the public tit but don't want a penny of public money going to anyone else?
There's a visible sneer in their faces and an audible sneer in their voices whenever the word "art" is mentioned. As though it were dirty or nasty or somehow something we should talk about only behind closed doors and only with intimate family members but not, somehow, in public, for God's sake. Reading? Fuggedaboudit. Museums? Oh, yeah, those are places where kids go on field trips that are no longer in the budget. Dancing? That's for sissies. Classical music? Isn't that something The Wife makes you go to once a year?
I don't expect Republicans to own up to having read anything more challenging than a Tom Clancy novel but would they really deny the rest of us the opportunity to do so? Is it really so hard to imagine that some people in the rest of the world really likes to hunker down with a beautifully written novel or a slim volume of poetry? Is it so difficult to get their narrow minds around the concept that some people actually enjoy going to museums and actually find looking at art compelling and interesting? That the preservation of paintings hundreds of years old makes us more civilized and compassionate somehow? And that that preservation is important historically? And that teaching the appreciation of the arts to our children is part of being civilized and educated?
And are they so completely out of the loop that the cannot even see the economic benefits of the arts to both our country and the world at large? A recent article in The New York Times http://http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/16/arts/16mone.html?scp=2&sq=NEA%20%20February%2013&st=cse made that very clear to anyone who bothers to listen. But clearly they aren't reading anything and they certainly aren't listening to anyone but themselves.
We got into this economic crisis in good part because our government has for the very longest time been incredibly short-sighted. It may be that we now have a president who is willing and able to take a longer view. If the Republicans will just sit down and shut up for a few moments. That, as far as I can figure out, is the least they can do. And as we know, Republicans always do the very least they can do.