Sunday, January 3, 2010

Arts and Government I: From the Duh Department

David Byrne has a basically spot-on blog-post about a $14,000,000 bailout for opera in Los Angeles, which I got from a post by Scott Walters, who manages to avoid the reflex to defend the arts organization involved. I understand the emotional draw -- one of my first responses was, "shit, this is basically an argument against the field of Opera, which we all know couldn't survive a day without state support.

For me, Byrne's argument all boils down to:
Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys. Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring — but funding for arts in schools has been cut to zero in many places.
In a perfect world, where we weren't choosing between opera and children's education, I would passionately defend Opera's right to state funding. But Byrne is right: the county doesn't have the money to support the students it has. How can it ethically put a big whopping $14,000,000 into one opera?

There's also another argument that's implicit in Byrne's post that I want to highlight because I don't think he does it quite strongly enough. Talking about the Bilbao museum:

The show that’s up there now is a Frank Lloyd Wright survey (previously exhibited in NY’s Guggenheim), and a permanent collection hodgepodge — not exactly reasons to make a special trip.
And then a few sentences later:
Funding future creativity is a real investment — there’s a chance these kids will build, write, draw or play something that will fill theaters, clubs, stadiums, web pages, whatever. The dead guys won’t write more symphonies.
If we don't invest in creating a generation of young artists, museums, opera houses, theaters are going to get trapped in time. Slowly, a vaccuum will be created--I say slowly because there are a few MFA programs in this country that will produce people to fill it, but it won't be convincing. Like the Bilbao, there isn't going to be that compelling, new work to really draw people to the venue.

And also, when Byrne says:
I sense that in the long run there is a greater value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon, the great works and the masterpieces. In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare — to say nothing of opry. In the long term it doesn’t matter if students become writers, artists or musicians — though a few might. It's more important that they are able to understand the process of creation, experimentation and discovery — which can then be applied to anything they do, as those processes, deep down, are all similar. It’s an investment in fluorescence.
He doesn't say that part of that greater value is that studies show that the best way to create audiences for the arts is to have children participate. A staggering majority of our arts audience today is people who participated in the arts when they were young. If less and less children get that opportunity, then--well, let's just say that however bad our decline is now, it could get even worse.