The arts under attack in Texas. Again and again.

Artist/actor: Martin Burke

I am duplicitous to my own intellect.  I want to believe that art inspires,  that arts shows us what it is to be human, and that art is a critical function of a civilized society.  I want to think that we (the masses) should support the artists (the chosen few) in their ongoing endeavor to bring catharsis to culture.  That tax investments in the arts return enormous but not always obvious rewards to us in general.....but I falter.

Our governor, Rick Perry is pushing to gut all funding to artists and arts organizations across Texas.  And I have no doubt that, if we're collectively insane enough to elect him president, he'll get out his budgetary Bowie knife and try to rip the tax guts out of every arts organization across the U.S.  Goodbye museums.  Goodbye orchestras.  Goodbye art class in school.  Goodbye any art that survives or is nourished by taxes.  And my knee jerk liberal self wants to rise up and protest because I've been well trained to accept that any and all funding for the arts is good.  But is it?

And will America revert to the Dark Ages if we sever the financial ties that bind art to taxpayers like an unwanted backpack on a long journey through the desert?  The mantra on the right is to cut everything and the arts seem like a target rich environment for cutting.  It's target rich because the average American has no idea whether or not art really does affect his own life.  Art seems to be the province of the wealthy and the elite.  It's very inscrutability is it's barrier to the unwashed.  Just try explaining abstract expressionism to a room full of business students.  The blank stares are intimidating.....

So here's my conundrum.  I would never have had the opportunity to see Martin Burke perform in The Santaland Diaries if the city of Austin didn't provide some financial assistance to Zachary Scott Theater.  Martin has talent, not just training.  And it's the talent that makes me laugh and cry each time I see him perform.  In a sense, some projects, like big theater pieces and symphonies and large scale installations are like NASA.  They can't be cobbled together in home laboratories and they can't be funded with a bake sale.  And they do provide real economic value......down the road.  I submit that clubs with live music and theaters like Zach Scott and the Long Center and the Doughtery Cultural arts center are what led to the development of a rich and growing downtown which in turn aids developers of soaring residence towers, the owners of giant buildings for business in the downtown corridor and the creation of wealth largely due to the proximity and continued promise of art.  All within a mile of the state capitol.  All within a mile of the man who would cut and slice away crayons from school children along with funding for the opera (which I will gladly give up).  But not funding for businesses which fail with alarming regularity and often reneg on tax abatement agreements....

What floats the wealth of Sante Fe?  Could it be about 17,000 galleries that create the entire business  magnet for the town?  What's our one image of Sydney Australia if it's not the opera house?  Can you imagine people wanting to deposit tourist dollars in New York City without the Met and the Moma and the Guggenheim and countless galleries and shows?  Believe me, no one comes to NYC for the quaint and affordable hotel stays.....

Paris without the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and all the breathtaking (and tax paid) public architecture?  So I do understand the role of government funding of the arts as a boost to local economies here and around the world (Believe me, no one would ever go to St. Petersburg Russia in the dead of winter without the Hermitage.....) but is it fair to have tax payers foot the bill?  That's where my brain bogs down....

Then I read about the four billion dollar per year oil and gas subsidy for Exxon-Mobile and the countless hundreds of millions that municipalities throw at building stadiums so private businesses can have gladitorial shows for profit.  The idea in the first case that the world's second largest business would stop doing it's business if we didn't pay them to do it is ludicrous while the second example is just plain pitiful.

To some extent it is selecting who will get money and who won't that brings up the controversy.  Exxon can reward favors from Congress while artists generally cannot.  People in general are motivated to think that rewarding Exxon might buy them cheaper gas (fat chance....) but people don't have a selfish motivator in regards to the arts.  They don't see, tangibly, what art will do for them.  So doling out the taxpayer's largely unwilling largess becomes a popularity contest with the group promising the most understandable or doctrine rewards reaping the lion's share of the money.

They had an answer for this in Sweden.  I don't know if they still do it like this but in the 1970's I read that they would have a lottery for arts funding.  You applied, just as you would for a grant here but all were welcome to apply, there was no litmus test for the funding.  If you had an idea and a way to complete your idea you were in the game.  In the lottery, when and if you're name came up you were given living expenses, gallery space and  the opportunity to show your work at a gallery.  Didn't matter if it was liked or disliked, controversial or plain.  You got your shot.  Everyone had a chance at getting their shot.  No one arts organization was able to burrow in and suck at the teat long after their relevance fled to another school of thought.  I'd like to see something like that here.

But back to my bifurcated nature.  I pay taxes.  I have my own sense of priorities and ethics.  I think we should shut down every inch of corporate tax welfare in the entire system.  Tomorrow.  And we should put term limits on any arts funding.  Everyone goes free market.  Everyone.  Business, art, music, thought, food, experience.  It all goes free market. 

Can you make the case that opera is great for your town?  Bravo, put together a business plan, sell the seats and gather unto you your own donors.  People won't pay for it out of their own pockets?  Tough.  Rosetti and Verdi and Mozart had private sponsors for their art.  Get your own.  Want an oil and gas subsidy? Tough.  Find some private investors.  Sell your plan to a church group.  Market.

Look at it this way.  If we get a hold of the gutting knife and apply it equally,  eviscerating both the arts and ALL agricultural, oil and gas, construction, home interest credit, defense spending, government grants to pharmacy and all the rest we'll put so much money back into the pockets of Americans that.....they'll sandbag the windows of their MacMansions, buy more and bigger flat screen TV's and burrow in for the dark ages.  But at least they'll have their "own" money in their pockets.

Hmm.  This train of thought is too hard.  How did we get here in the first place?  When did art and business begin to need the taxpayers cash to survive?  What was all that talk about free enterprise?

Bottom line:  There may or may not be money available in the arts.  Artists will pursue their art no matter what.  And if they are starving they will, like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, get real jobs and do their art because it's straining to come out.  Because we use art as our own catharsis.
I've been doing photography now for thirty years.  I've had many shows.  Paid for all of them.  Paid for the frames and the wine and the cheese and the invitations, and the months and years of looking for the images and the time in the dark room slamming all the stuff out.  No grants.  No stipends.  No public money.  If people like the work they like the  work.  Sometimes we sell one.  Usually not.  But I do it because I like it and I do it to show my friends and family and interested strangers what I do.

And I support my art by selling my craft and technical skills, won from art, to companies that understand that their marketing efforts can be translated into a single, gestalt visual that adds value to their communication with their customers.  And I sell books that find their value on an open market.  And, as liberal in the bluest of Texas towns, I am still conflicted about footing the bill for the art of others when so many times the end users, for whom we've subsidized engagement, are the wealthiest in our communities.   But we don't know how much value art brings to the table down the road.  How much trickles down.  And I'm not willing to cut there unless we're equally willing to wean the businesses.  At least there we know where the profit goes.  And it's no better dispersed.  All or nothing.  That's a good motto for any artist.

"Art show us what it is to be Human."