The Unsustainable State of Art
If you want to make great art, you must suffer. If you are truly compelled, truly gifted, you will find a way to make art and be heard. So attest our collective wisdom and a handful of recent HowlRound articles. An artist’s poverty becomes a testament to the value of his or her art—an artistic virtue. She crams artistic pursuits into evenings and weekends, to fit around her day-job, because what artist can live on art alone? Young artists, making their way out of increasingly expensive educational institutions into unpaid internships (if they are lucky) and life-long professionals in the field alike stack jobs like coffee cups and unpaid bills. Here we are.
When I look back at the history of art, in America and abroad, there is a direct and undeniable connection between money for the production of art (and supportive political structures) and the preponderance of “Great Art.” The Renaissance was funded. You know Michelangelo wasn’t dangling from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel “for the experience.” I am reminded of a quote from The West Wing (originally spoken by John F. Kennedy), when Toby is fighting for the paltry NEA budget. He says, “There is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the Arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare.”
So, if you are comfortable living in a world where art is a bonus, art is extra, art is a night and weekend activity, you must also be comfortable living in a world where art is not a profession, but a hobby. You must be comfortable living in a world without Shakespeare, or Mozart. I am not comfortable with these ideas.
Shakespeare is a great example of the unease I feel with what I’ll call the “status quo” arguments. If Shakespeare were alive today in America, he wouldn't be a playwright. At best, he might be writing for HBO but, honestly, my bet is lawyer or Ad man (But, Nora, didn’t he write, “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers?” Yes—that’s my point). If child Mozart were alive today, he wouldn't be writing great symphonies. He probably wouldn't have had access to a piano in the first place, so maybe he would be a real life Doogie Howser. I bring up these two dudes because: 1. We generally recognize them as geniuses who revolutionized their respective art forms, and 2. they were in it for the money. Can you imagine aging Shakespeare working at a tavern to feed his playwriting habit, or Mozart’s dad dragging him all around Europe, incurring debt and disease, because he was just so proud of him? They had talents they could exploit for dollars and prestige, and did so.
So, if you are comfortable living in a world where art is a bonus, art is extra, art is a night and weekend activity, you must also be comfortable living in a world where art is not a profession, but a hobby. You must be comfortable living in a world without Shakespeare, or Mozart.
I am not comfortable with these ideas.
I don’t think that if you really have something to say, you find a way to say it. Because, that implies we live in a world where the people we don’t hear from just aren’t trying hard enough to be heard. I know a number of extraordinary artists in the country who give up making art, because they want a family, they want to go to the dentist, they want to eat vegetables. This is not a strategy to consistently retain our best artists, only those who get improbably lucky or have the highest tolerance for pain.
I don’t think that everyone can be an artist—I don’t think every person is born with the talent, the drive, or the dedication to produce great art. But I do believe anyone could be a great artist. Our Shakespeare could be anywhere right now. I know he or she cannot grow up in a vacuum.
Would you expect anyone in any other job to do it well (or at all) if they weren’t being paid for it? Why is it okay then for an artist? My theory is we don’t collectively value the arts—even artists. The internet is a tremendous tool for the democratization of resources. But, we have successfully raised a generation to believe that music is not something worth paying for, because you can get it for free. We have successfully cultivated a culture in which we can abdicate personal responsibility for the survival of art, because “everyone is doing it.” The internet and new technologies are changing revenue strategies, and we definitely need to look at how to best utilize them, but for every Justin Beiber there are thousands of artists who are not making the system work for them. A system that survives on the exceptions is not sustainable.
In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started a series of Federal art programs as part of his New Deal to support artists who were out of work. He believed that it was a cultural detriment for violinists to be building roads—it was a bad investment. Now, we are encouraging “road-building” (or the modern equivalent—Starbucks) as a great job to give you your nights free. If we can shift one way, we can shift another.
In Boston, a number of our great cultural institutions hail from about the same period of time, due, in large part, to a handful of philanthropists who believed that for America to be a great nation, we had to have a great cultural infrastructure. Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of these amazing people, said, "Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… So, I determined to make it my life's work if I could."
The museums she helped to build are sandwiched between a number of the greatest hospitals in the world, hospitals that are pioneering treatments for diseases, revolutionizing medical procedures, extending the life-span. Too often, we are forced into a conversation about ranking importance because of budgets. Is it better to cure AIDS or Cancer? But what if I asked you, “Would you rather keep your right arm or your left?” You started to think, “Well, I’m right-handed, so I could probably get away without the left,” right? The correct answer is, “Both. I’d rather keep both. And, why are you threatening to cut my arms off?” The suppression of the arts, the commercialization of the university system, the dismantling of the middle-class, the celebration of mediocrity, are all related, and, frankly, insidious. They are all the subjects of larger and more elaborate conversations about class, race, sex, and, well, everything problematic in America today.
We need to change the question. We need to change the conversation. We tell stories, but we don’t (or can’t) tell the story of why we matter. We have internalized half a century or more of unsound rhetoric. We have the opportunity to make more Shakespeares and that is more than a part-time gig after-hours. That is a multi-generational commitment to value art. Let’s please stop celebrating how we are keeping a boat with no bottom afloat. Let’s raise the alarm and change this nonsense. We might not all be able to be Shakespeare, but we can all be a little more Mrs. Gardner.