Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Maybe Taxpayers Can Save Art From Itself

Should taxpayers help fund the arts?

I used to think so, since in our increasingly casual society, the rigors and disciplines of art appreciation have gone into free-fall.  Despite the fact that cultural events help broaden the mind and speak to extraordinary beauty and creativity, pop culture teaches that if it isn't loud, obnoxious, transient, titillating, or easily-understood, it's not worth the money.  If the general public doesn't want to shell out the bucks to fund culture, is that a good enough reason to let the arts die?  

Where a community's taxpayers choose to put their money says a lot about their aspirations, their values, and their understanding of how humanity works.  Leverage a surcharge on sales taxes to fund football stadiums for millionaires to play in, and you see one scenario of a community's values.  Take a fraction of taxpayer funds to underwrite a modestly successful symphony, and you see one scenario of another community's values.  If your community has the will and resources to do both with tax dollars, there's yet another scenario of that community's values.

If taxpayers individually don't care about the arts, maybe collectively, they can still keep them around for those who do.

Taxpayers as Arts Patrons

But over the past few years, America's cultural scene - particularly in classical music - has been slowly shrinking past the break-even level in many cities across the country.  Sure, classical music has been cursed with declining popularity for decades, but in many of the communities that had been able to cobble together a budget for their orchestra, philharmonic, or symphony, economic fortunes have waned, along with populations.  And one by one, classical music organizations have been closing up shop.

Inevitably, before the last encore, arts patrons have tried to rally their communities for one last push to increase municipal arts funding.  But those communities have either decided the money isn't there even if they wanted to divert it to the arts, or they just didn't have the political will.  It's hard to argue for something that the vast majority of taxpayers don't want.

Which is one of the reasons I've changed my mind about taxpayer funding for the arts.  Yes, I still believe a thriving cultural scene provides an attractive resource that helps sell the community as a place with a high quality of life.  All the things arts boosters say about the arts still ring true:  corporate relocations tend to go where the arts are present; and our burgeoning "creative class" tends to cluster in places where the arts are well-funded.  The arts also provide a wide range of eclectic jobs that don't pay much, but help fill in some of the nooks and crannies of a city's skills set.

If we're going to get serious about our government budgets, however, and reform tax codes to benefit our economy, few sacred cows should remain.  Therefore, even though I'm a strong supporter of the arts in general and classical music in particular, I've come to the realization that I cannot expect my fellow taxpayers to help foot the bill for something they simply don't want.  Even if they don't recognize the inherent value in the arts.

When my city, Arlington, Texas, voted to raise the sales tax to help fund part of the new Dallas Cowboys' stadium here in town, I grudgingly voted in support of the proposal.  Not because I enjoy football, or because I looked forward to having a bunch of drunken louts trying to plow through our city streets after games trying to find their way home.  I simply couldn't avoid the economic benefit such a facility would bring to our community.  Some people groused that billionaires like the Cowboys' owner, Jerry Jones, had no business asking taxpayers to fund his enterprise, which is 100% true, but if Arlington didn't cough up the sales tax receipts, some other city would have.  That funding scam is bigger than us Arlington voters.

Behold What Oil Money Can Buy

According to its city's slogan, the west begins just to the west of Arlington in Fort Worth, that fabled cattle and oil town.  "Fut Wuth," or "Far Warth" as the natives say it in either their southern drawl or western brogue, has evolved from a raucous, brothel-strewn cowboy drinkin' town - whose downtown used to be called "Hell's half acre" - into a sophisticated sprawl of glassy office towers, wide boulevards, genteel neighborhoods, and some of the world's best art and architecture.  Most of the city's modern transformation has been paid for by generations of beef, oil, leatherwear, aviation, and even technology money.  The Amon Carter, Sid Richardson, Science and History, Kimbel, and Modern Art museums are known around the world.  Casa Manana attracts famous entertainers from New York and Hollywood.  Downtown's angelic Bass Hall hosts a decent symphony, even if it's not as famous as Dallas', just 30 minutes down the freeway.  Eminent classical pianist Van Cliburn retired to Fort Worth, where his quadrennial piano competition is considered the most elite of its kind on the planet.  Indeed, few cities of any size can boast a similar cultural pedigree.

Recent budget talks have the city gutting its percentage of funding to Fort Worth's prized cultural scene, however, and some arts patrons have gotten all up in arms.  Fort Worth has been cutting its spending on the arts for years, but with this new reduction, they might as well not be giving anything.

And maybe that's just as well.

If you don't live around these parts, you might not realize that most of our cultural icons are named as legacies for prominent Fort Worth families, such as the Carters, Richardsons, Kimbels, Basses, and so forth.  Plenty of heirs to these names exist with their family fortunes and then some.  I doubt that many of these people would welcome their family's name falling into disrepute, were their artistic endeavors to go underfunded.  It was self-aggrandizement that got these facilities built, and it will likely be self-aggrandizement that will keep their budgets afloat.  Isn't that part of how capitalism works?  Especially the tax write-off part every April 15?

The symphony, of course, is a little different, since such ventures employ a considerable number of people, and playing to a half-empty concert hall is far more discouraging - and harder to hide - than having half-empty galleries in a museum.  It's been commented by many classical musicians that here in north Texas, we have an extraordinarily rare number of symphonies and orchestras - up to five, depending on your artistic standards.  I certainly don't wish ill of any of them, but just as we have a number orchestras, we also are blessed in north Texas by many wealthy people who should be able to afford to step into the funding breach were tax dollars removed from the equation.

Not that I'm heaping all the responsibility for saving the arts on the backs of the wealthy, even though, "to whom much is given, much is required."  I'm well aware that money can't buy good taste, or an appreciation for beautiful music and good art.  So expecting the rich to bail out the arts might enable some woefully unqualified people to begin dictating artistic goals just because they're signing the checks.

How would that help anything?

At some point, then, more middle-and lower-income people need to be brought back into the art-appreciation fold.  More people buying more tickets will be one of the most sustainable and efficient ways to fund the arts, right?  But how do we do that?  Many arts organizations are already bending over backwards trying to attract more patrons of any economic level.

Is Pleasing the Public Bad for Art?

One solution I'd respectfully suggest is that we get back to the basics regarding what art is.  And this is the second reason I support the withdrawal of public funds from the arts.  Maybe a certain amount of good old American consumer economics is in order to help save our cultural jewels.  For example, some of the classical music I've heard at our local symphony halls really isn't all that interesting, and I say that as  a person who likes classical music.  If I don't care for it, how much do you think average music consumers would pay to hear it?

Probably not anything, right?  So how much of a cultural shell might our tax dollars be disguising?

I realize that within the arts community, playing pieces of music that aren't necessary popular increases the professional credibility of musicians and orchestras.  But how much ego should you let get in the way of communicating timeless music to audiences?  I recall attending a pipe organ competition at Dallas' Meyerson Symphony Center, and the music on the program was so awful, we audience members were literally being forced out of the concert hall in droves.  The next day, organizers of the competition dismissively defended their program as obviously too avant garde for Dallas - which, considering their attitude, said more about them than us.  If making a pipe organ shriek and blast like a malfunctioning ship's horn is considered good art, then you're the one with the problem, buddy.  Not those of us expecting to hear beautiful music.

Just as classical music that's considered "modern" is one thing, so is modern art.  Maybe I've already told you about another installation at the Modern Art museum that consisted of a white fluorescent light bulb.


That's it - a fluorescent light bulb, turned on, and bolted at an angle on the wall.  Shoot fire - if that's art, let's go to Home Depot - you'll go nuts!

If you weren't nuts already, that is:  thinking a light bulb mounted on a wall suffices as art.

While I can see the statement the artist is attempting to make, it's hardly worth the price of a $7 ticket, is it?  I mean, can you imagine Home Depot charging you money just to look at their inventory?  It's this kind of - frankly - stupid claim of artistic integrity that has contributed to the general public's dismissive attitude about art.  Granted, just as many people have a hard time appreciating Monet, so the general public's apathy is not entirely modern art's fault.  Some people just don't know what they see, which is what some of you artsy types may be thinking about me and my rant about light bulbs.

Will getting back to genuinely artistic art be the cure-all for all of the budget woes in our cultural districts?  Probably not entirely, no.  But does expecting taxpayers to continue helping out with the bills make any more sense than some of this stuff we're supposed to call artwork?  If tax dollars are removed from arts funding, how much will arts organizations be forced to return to the beauty most of us know can be found in more mainstream expressions of art?  After all, is art many people can appreciate necessarily worse than art most of us think is ugly?  To the extent that the general public disregards the arts, how much have they been pushed from the scene by arts snobs who still expect funding from the very people at which they sneer?

You might be surprised to hear me admit that despite some ludicrous examples, there are several genuinely clever and compelling pieces of art in Fort Worth's Modern.  So I visit from time to time, checking out what have become something like old friends.  On one of my visits, however, while walking through a gallery lined with ghastly paint dribbles evocative of Jackson Pollock in miniature, I overheard two ladies, perplexed, conversing with a young docent.

"Who decides this stuff is art?" one of the ladies asked with complete sincerity.

It took the docent so long to come up with some sort of reply, I was already in the next gallery before the reply came.

But I felt like stopping and saying, "the people gullible enough to pay for it."

1 comment:

  1. 'But is it art?' Rembrandt or Pollock; Mendelssohn or Schoenberg. I've always thought that with enough time and a lot of help, I could learn to appreciate the second-named. But alas, I have not succeeded...though I have to admit I've been doing a lot of other things, too. Maybe if your taxes could help me along the path...


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