What is it that defines great civilizations of centuries past? Whether Chinese dynasties or Egyptian civilization, it is art. Not the tax code, not the military hardware, but the cultural values woven into everyday life - pottery, clothing, drawings, stories, music, ancient murals of chiseled stone. Art defines our values in ways words can never do.
And people are intensely interested in values, more so than in policies, because values are about us, while policies are about political power. So values “talk” is the hot button of politics today. Funny that support for the arts isn’t.
Abolishing government support for the arts is the particular obsession of the new conservatives in Congress. It’s ironic. Because it’s so inconsistent with everything conservative leaders like House Speaker Newt Gingrich are saying about returning a materialistic America to an era of spiritual and moral renewal.
Listen to Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of one of Gingrich’s favorite books, “The De-Moralization of Society”:
“This is the final lesson we learn from the Victorians: that the ethos of a society, its moral and spiritual character, cannot be reduced to economic, material, political or other factors.”
By de-funding exercises like this one. After all, it’s as consistent philosophically to nurture creativity in the arts as it is stable families, home ownership, work-over-welfare or educational excellence - all part of the GOP agenda.
What some politicians haven’t learned, their corporate counterparts have. Atlanta gallery owner Fay Gold has advised corporations like Coca-Cola, Digital Communications, John Portman & Associates and many others about art collections. Many corporate executives know, she says, that art is as essential to the soul as food to the body.
“Art in the workplace,” says Gold, “sends a message that an organization is in touch - that it’s not afraid to take a risk, to be there for its clients.” But art challenges thinking outside the conventional boxes, and that makes some politicians nervous. As Gold puts it, “Some people don’t want to deal with abstract thinking. They want the narrative to be written in for them.”
Nurturing the arts shouldn’t be about liberal or conservative, or about rich or poor. It should be about lasting values and future generations. It should be about fostering the creative expression of whom we are as a diverse people - especially as the millennium approaches.
For government to deny any role in that legacy is to fly in the face of an essential aspect of the American character.
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