Donald Trump, Education — February 9, 2017

What Trump and our society can learn from the arts

by

There has been a lot of chatter recently about the Trump administration’s plans to eliminate federal arts agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Public Broadcasting Service. As has been reported widely, eliminating these agencies would only amount to a savings of 0.02% of the federal budget, but they seem to be perpetually popular targets of conservatives–even though the NEA budget, for example, is less than 50% of what it’s costing to provide security for Trump’s family in midtown Manhattan.

The larger problem, in my view, is the uncritical acceptance by the arts advocacy community of a philosophical justification for the arts that is based on the conservatives’ “economic value game”, which consists of placing an almost obsessive focus on money, metrics, and data. The intrinsic value of the arts has been lost in the shuffle in our rush to prove to those in power that we can play the game by their rules. This has led to local, state, and national arts advocacy groups commissioning “economic impact studies,” and using precious resources on grants to conduct surveys of the arts fiscal contributions to community programming.

In my experience, a big part of the problem is that the persons in leadership positions in these arts advocacy organizations are not, themselves, artists. They are well-meaning, and enthusiastic, and possess skills in organizational management, lobbying, or non-profit administration…but they never studied or made a living by dancing, or painting, or singing, or acting, or teaching any of these artistic disciplines. And if their job with one of these organizations doesn’t work out, they are just as likely to wind up managing a trade organization, or an economic development agency. The arts are where they work, not who they are.

What many of these arts groups’ leaders don’t understand is that we don’t support the arts because of what they do for the economy, or for learning in other math and reading, or for 21st Century Skills (whatever those are), or college and career readiness (whatever that is).

We engage in the arts because they help us to become more fully human. That’s it.

Matt Burriesci lays out the case beautifully in his recent piece for Salon.com. He says:

In his ’10 Reasons to Support the Arts,’ Americans for the Arts lead researcher Randy Cohen cites the following:

Arts promote true prosperity.
Arts improve academic performance.
Arts strengthen the economy.
Arts are good for local merchants.
Arts drive tourism.
Arts are an export industry.
Arts spark creativity and innovation.
Arts have social impact.
Arts improve healthcare.
Arts mean business.

I’ve worked in the arts for 25 years. In all that time, I’ve never met a single artist or cultural leader who has said to me, “You know what I’m really passionate about? Improving math scores, creating exports, advancing health care and helping local merchants”…Items 2-10 on the list are the real defenses that arts leaders parrot — that the arts are only valuable insofar as they are economically beneficial, or they are good for the “real” academic disciplines like math and science.

All of it is very clever, and at least some of it is true. But none of it has much to do with the true value of the arts and humanities. The arts and humanities have value because they make us better human beings. That’s basically it. They teach us history and encourage virtue, they help us debate serious issues in a respectful (or sometimes indirect) manner, they make us appreciate beauty, they make us more empathetic and they challenge our own beliefs. All of this helps ensure a skeptical, human and responsible citizenry. And if you don’t think that has value, well — what rock have you been living under?

When you don’t feel the value of doing art in your bones, you look for a rationale that you think will make sense to others like you. And for most of our arts groups, that means using the language of business to try to make the case that the arts are an “economic engine”, driving a positive ROI (return on investment) for your investors. Unfortunately, the results have been spectacularly unsuccessful.

We have spent far too much time articulating the economic and ancillary benefits of our disciplines and not enough time actually building and serving the culture.

If we’d like to discuss metrics, deliverables and results, then we must ask how our interests have fared by employing this economic strategy. The main reason you have a lobbyist is to advance your priorities as central to the republic, and to preserve those federal agencies and policies that support those priorities. Americans for the Arts has spent years and tens of millions of dollars advancing this neoliberal defense. Have we seen a steady increase in funding for agencies like the NEA and the NEH? Or have these agencies teetered on the brink of elimination for more than a decade? Funding for both of these agencies is far below what it was in the early 1990s, even as the federal budget has nearly doubled in size. For too long, arts leaders accepted a foolishly low bar for success: the mere preservation of these agencies has been accepted as victory.

Perhaps private funding for the arts has increased? Not exactly. When it comes to institutional philanthropy in general, we have seen funding for purely artistic and humanistic endeavors shrivel up and die. Gone are the days when national private foundations made unrestricted gifts to cultural institutions simply because it was seen a self-evident public good, or because museums, theaters and libraries obviously need money to continue operating. As a result, we have contorted our programs to serve agendas that would’ve seemed bizarre 50 years ago — after-school care, basic arts education (long eliminated from most public schools, another failure), even job training and cancer care.

Where, exactly, are the results? They are not to be found in the opinions of our policymakers. Regardless of political party, politicians love to mock the worthlessness of the arts and humanities — as Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have all done. You won’t find results in our educational system, which now almost goes out of its way to ensure that our children are not exposed to silly things like virtue, skepticism, empathy and aesthetic beauty. You won’t find results on college campuses, where liberal arts programs are being decimated across the country.

The strategy of advancing the economic benefits of the arts has failed. The failure has been demonstrable and total.

The arts community has been trying to play the game by the opponents’ rules–like playing basketball on skates, or fishing with a tennis racket–and the results have been about what you’d expect.

The point of the arts is not to enhance the economy.

Not everything is about money. Or metrics. Or deliverables.

Sometimes it’s just about singing a song, or painting a picture, or writing a poem, because it makes us feel.

Because music, art, dance, and theatre help us to get in touch with our emotions, or express our feelings. As humans, we turn to the arts when we are sad, or happy, or confused, or concerned.

Because the arts are the education of the emotions. An education our current political leadership, and much of our nation, seems to be sorely lacking.

The fact that we’ve been embarrassed about embracing these rationales is a big reason for how we got to where we are now, struggling to justify the inherent worth of art forms that have existed and flourished for centuries in societies with far fewer resources and leisure time than we enjoy now. And challenged nationally by a crisis of cruelty, insensitivity, and a stunning lack of compassion from our elected leaders

As Burriesci says, “We should stop being ashamed to believe in a value that cannot be weighed, measured, cut, or quantified — and to try and convince others to believe it, too.”

And as one of my artistic heroes, the late Elliot Eisner, said, “Our schools, teachers, and students might be a lot better off if schools embraced the idea that education means learning what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

This is the great power and promise of the arts–because music and the arts can provide the means for persons to figure out what to do, when they don’t know what to do. And that should be more than enough to justify the value of the arts in our society.

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