13 August 2009

Degrading the Arts

On Friday, 7 August, Rocco Landesman was confirmed as the new chairman of the NEA, following Dana Gioia (2003-09), a poet. Landesman is a successful and experienced Broadway producer and theater owner (he ran Jujamcyn Theaters, the third largest theater landlord in New York, after the Shuberts and the Nederlander Organization); that makes him a practical man of theater and the arts. At the same time, President Barack Obama, who appointed Landesman, has requested an increase in NEA funding and The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee of the new Congress has approved $170 million, a raise of $15 million over the last NEA budget. On the surface, it looks like the arts have been returned to a place of prominence and respect in our society after years of animosity and disdain under Presidents Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. Some arts professionals feel the corner has been turned: “I hope that time is over, the period when artist have been held as suspicious by the politicians,” says Michael Conforti, the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. But all is not as well as these indicators suggest. First, the Culture Wars perpetrated by the hard right may be in abeyance, but there is still fight in that old dog. Second, the current economic crisis is taking a toll among arts programs and artists, as it is among other parts of our society. Between the two forces, as former NEA chairman Gioia observed, we have “dismantled the arts-education programs that used to be part of every public school.” The delicate balance in which the arts exist in the United States makes them more vulnerable than other aspects of society--unless those of us who care about the arts keep a watchful eye and stand strong.

On 3 and 4 February 1993, the New York Times ran a pair of articles reporting the decline of arts education in American schools. Now 16 years later, we are once again in a similar stage with respect to drama, dance, music, and art in the schools due to the economic downturn that began last year. In “As Schools Trim Budgets, The Arts Lose Their Place” and “Creativity vs. Academic Study: How Should Schools Teach Arts?” Susan Chira described the loss a decade-and-a-half ago and pointed out what some educators feel will be the consequences. Most stressed how the arts help encourage the students’ creativity and imagination and develop their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. And now, in “Arts Programs in Academia Are Forced to Nip Here, Adjust There,” also in the Times (10 August 2009), Patricia Cohen described the straights in which college and university arts programs find themselves, presaging the same consequences for an even wider spectrum of Americans. Students at all academic levels, from elementary to grad schools, will find their programs, teachers, and classes disappearing as budgets shrink and endowments and subsidies dry up. Cohen’s litany of departments and programs in jeopardy is already disheartening, and the process has only just started.

Chairman Landesman sees the arts as an engine for economic recovery and development: “When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town.” He plans to campaign for increased arts funding on that basis. There is, however, another consequence to good arts education that’s hardly mentioned, one that is particularly important to contemplate when the arts are under attack from many quarters in our society. In a 3 February companion article to the two 1993 reports, “Arts Groups Step In to Fill the Gaps,” Glenn Collins pointed out that “early consistent exposure to the arts builds future audiences.” It also builds a citizenry that values our artistic and cultural heritage instead of being hostile to it. A citizen who has taken an art, theater, dance, or music course and who is thereafter encouraged to experience and enjoy this part of life is less likely to enlist in the forces that oppose free artistic expression.

We are fortunate now that the new administration not only isn’t antipathetic to art and culture but genuinely appreciates that part of our society and promotes it by example. When forces antithetical to the very principle on which our culture rests--the freedom to express ourselves openly--mobilize, institutions of learning must take strong, public stands to preserve the support of this vital element in society. There must be a philosophical commitment to spread the knowledge of America’s artistic life to all who call themselves educated; to reinforce the notion that the arts are for everyone, not just a peculiar elite; to assure that the arts are accessible for everyone’s enjoyment and enlightenment; to argue that our culture is as important a part of the democratic way of life as are the press and the law; and, finally, to teach everyone that we must support and encourage artistic diversity as avidly as we do the intellectual and political. The only way to counter those who would homogenize, standardize, and emasculate our country’s arts is to educate every citizen to respect, honor, and cherish this part of our society. We must constantly insist that this role of the artist be recognized for the importance it holds for society at large.

We in arts education must continue to remind ourselves, our colleagues, and our students of the real value of the arts to the vitality and honesty of society. Artists, as Hamlet notes, “hold the mirror up to nature” even when the reflection shows us as King Lear saw us: a “poor, bare forked animal.” Artists are the whistle-blowers of society. There are laws to protect whistle-blowers in industry and government; must we not also protect, indeed, encourage the cultural whistle-blowers?

Arts education reinforces the notion that artists see the future long before any scientist or engineer can invent it. Da Vinci saw flying machines half a millennium before the bothers Wright made history at Kitty Hawk; Cyrano de Bergerac envisioned men on the moon three centuries before any Apollo spacecraft was launched; Jules Verne put Captain Nemo in a submarine decades before a real one was built. For good or ill, as another Shakespearean character, Duke Theseus, noted:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

“Things unknown” are often also “things uncomprehended.” “Things uncomprehended” are often “things unwelcome.” It is the artist who is usually at the forefront of efforts to acquaint us with and explain these “things,” often whether we want to hear about them or not.

In “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann asserts:

It is all very well to say with Voltaire, “I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” but as a matter of fact most men will not defend to the death the rights of other men: if they disapprove sufficiently what other men say, they will somehow suppress those men if they can.

All around us, we see this suppression--these days often called “political correctness”--by both the right and the left. In a recent administration, according to a book by former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John E. Frohnmayer, the first President Bush tried “to cripple the N.E.A.”; later, even President Clinton wanted to reinstitute the decency clause for N.E.A. awardees. Now it is budgetary concerns and the economy that are looming over our cultural diversity, even as the current administration seems to encourage multiple voices and creative impulses. (Elsewhere, forces of repression, usually in the form of religious zealots, suppress or attempt to suppress voices of which they disapprove.) Lippmann makes the point that we need to hear the opposing, unsettling voices on the basis that “because freedom of discussion improves our opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity.” He likens the situation to a visit to a doctor whom we pay “to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet.” While we are free to seek additional opinions, we must listen to them all to determine the truth. As Lippmann observes, “any . . . sensible human being . . . learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters.” We arts educators must constantly remind the world that the artist is the loyal opposition, duty-bound to speak for--and to--the people.

The importance of this function is easy to demonstrate. We have only to look at the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe where writers like Vaclav Havel, later president of a free Czech Republic, and Janusz Glowacki of Poland constantly reminded the rest of the world what life was like there and evoked images of what it ought to be. Challengers in the Communist world were not alone, either, as witness Athol Fugard’s and Mbongeni Ngema’s pointed opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Today we hear of outspoken voices among Muslims, Hindus, and other cultural groups which suffer under authoritarianism and suppression in many parts of the world. Apart from the few political dissenters, whose voices were often silenced, only artists kept the world apprised of the conditions.

I was reminded of this all-important service artists provide when I attended a performance of Eimuntas Nekrosius’s The Square by the State Theater of Lithuania, presented in 1991 as part of The New York International Festival of the Arts. Briefly, the play tells of a prisoner for whom “everything is against the rules.” When he is finally released, he has been so conditioned to do only what he is told that he fails to start breathing again after an X-ray because the doctor did not instruct him to. He dies, literally, because he does not know how to be free. Freedom, Nekrosius is saying, cannot merely be legislated or declared, it must also be learned and prepared for; it also has its dangers. The reality of this lesson, dramatically and clearly demonstrated onstage, is becoming evident all over the region, particularly at this moment in the emerging democracy of Russia. Doubtless this is a message many people would rather not hear. Democracy and freedom are supposed to be the answer to all problems: once free, everyone’s life is supposed to be wonderful. It takes an artist, however, to point out the truth, unpalatable though it be, and to do so in an accessible way that may not be possible for the journalist or political essayist.

A society that ignores its people’s voice, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asserted in a 1991 interview with David Frost, cannot “work because it denie[s] the human spirit.” Jack O’Brien, then-artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, in the March 1991 American Theatre, bemoaned the dissolution of “the link between civilization and the arts.” He reported: “With suspicion that the arts are too expensive or esoteric for them to understand or enjoy, many people have removed all consideration of art and culture from the ‘here and now.’“ These folks, O’Brien observed, have abandoned support for the arts to “the decadent rich, the only ones, in their estimation, able to enjoy them anyway.” It is this link we must reforge through arts education. It is a fight we dare not lose.

Unless all Americans are educated to esteem art and artists as indispensable contributors to the future--everyone’s future--campaigns to silence them, censor them, and abandon our support for them will succeed. Unless we all recognize the arts as a necessity, not a luxury, when we are confronted with the choice between more art and more guns, we will always choose the guns. The training camps for this battle are our schools. It is not enough simply to offer arts courses to those of us who have a personal and abiding interest in our cultural heritage and have elected to make our lives in the arts. We must redouble our efforts to include and maintain the arts as a strategic part of the curricula of all liberal-arts and general-education programs, to assure that those who make careers in the sciences, humanities, and business also appreciate the importance, as well as the pleasures, of culture and art.

In the face of academic budget cuts; federal, state, and local arts council drawbacks; and political efforts--from both sides of the spectrum--to suppress dissenting voices, those of us in arts education must fight publicly to maintain and increase programs in elementary and high schools, colleges and universities that introduce all students to our cultural heritage. If we lose this struggle, we shall surely see the prescience of William Blake’s 1808 admonition: “Degrade first the arts if you’d mankind degrade.”

[An earlier version of this essay was published as "Open Forum: Arts Education: 'Without Fear or Favor'" (ATHENews 6.1 [February 1992]: 3).]

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