The current debate about whether artists should speak to policy or politics from the stage is framed to reinforce the default thinking about the arts as entertainment.
We see this in reaction to the Hamilton event from commenters on both the left and right: people coming to be entertained shouldn’t be subjected to a political commentary.
Defining Art as Entertainment in Policy
Is it possible that the government would limit public support to art that entertains and does not comment on current events?
David Brooks signaled
us when he criticized civic-focused artists in a New York Times column that praised the beauty of art while simultaneously faulting artists who “…prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence).”
It was worrisome last January
when Brooks wrote this. Now it seems like a warning.
His framing supports an argument for cutting arts funding and eliminating arts organizations from the charitable deduction altogether, or at best, limiting the deduction so that organizations that create political art or act politically cannot receive deductible donations. (We’ve long been at risk
for not being a good fit with the IRS charitable definition anyway.)
Building understanding of the arts as a public good has been the work of many people since 2010 and before — a new focus on building community through
the arts is a high priority at the National Endowment, ArtPlace, LISC, The Kresge Foundation, Americans for the Arts, local arts agencies and organizations, and many more.
shows that providing a new way of connecting the dots between the arts and places people want to be can pay off in more support, and in broader understanding of why the arts should receive the benefit of public funding (or public dollars foregone in the form of a tax benefit).
If the new holders of the national microphone choose to frame the arts as just
entertainment, they can (at the very least) undermine that nascent understanding of the arts as community builder.
What now? We’re left with big (huge) questions about where to lay our collective energy and leverage.
Do we put a lot of resources and time into saving the (relatively small) national funding programs, like the National Endowment for the Arts? Is the symbolism of these programs worth the heavy lift despite likely reduced funding levels? If so, how far do we go? What compromises would we have to make to get help from art-loving people with access to the new administration?
What will happen to arts organizations more dependent on public funding and private donations if they defend their right to comment on public policy? The federally supported Holocaust Museum leaders said
this recently: “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.” Will they be criticized?
Do we continue to put advocacy of the nonprofit arts toward policies important to our communities and democracy, but threatened by the new administration: Obamacare, immigration, Medicaid, equitable development, climate change, programs that provide benefits to people in jobs that don’t pay enough, opposing racism, free speech, free press…. and so on?
Investing a lot of effort into saving art funding streams will look (and be) self-serving. And it diverts valuable energy and resources and power that could affect the outcome on other important issues.
Working with people to enhance their lives and the places they call home IS the public value of the arts.
Government Controlled Art?
We have to talk about the even darker possibilities. It’s not just the threat to funding or supportive policy. The Nazis decided what true art was and removed art that didn’t match their view of culture. Jews were not allowed to create art. Museum directors were fired, books banned, authors fled. Personal taste became law, which preferenced one race. Government controlled art. It started with small statements. And ended in the murder of millions.
There’s no reason to think we could end up there. But it is time to be very awake.
We have big choices to make…right now.
Originally published on Medium November 22, 2016.
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