[See “Update” from February 15th below.]
Quickly, which of these pictures doesn’t belong with the others? If you selected #3, the Guggenheim Museum, consider yourself smarter than most members of Congress. Seems that Congress can’t tell the difference between a casino, a golf course, and a museum.
The Senate pulled the plug on 50 million dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts that was originally in the stimulus bill, a pittance really, given the size of the stimulus package. But it then added insult to injury by attaching an amendment prohibiting the use of stimulus funds for, “any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway-beautification project.” And even Senator Schumer signed off on this one. (He claimed that it was an error. Hmmm. This is the guy who recently brought us “Annie Oakley” Gillibrand as the junior Senator from NY. ) New York Magazine, 2/12/09.
It appears that Congress, unlike the president, is willing to accept the notion that the arts are just another form of recreation or entertainment. The arts do entertain, and good entertainment is to be prized, but this is not all that they do. The Germans have a term for what that arts can help accomplish: Bildung. The word is not easily translated, and there has been much debate about how it should be understood. But what can be said here (this is a blog, after all, not a treatise) is that Bildung suggests (personal or social) growth through education, experience, and creative endeavors. Golf, for example, for all of its virtues as a sport, or casinos, for all of their character producing vices, will not generate Bildung. But spending time with (great) works of art may, if one is open to them. To put the matter succinctly, art is an individual and social good; it is educational in ways that casinos and golf courses are not.
I support the stimulus package. (As a matter of fact, I would argue that it’s too small.) I understand that there was a need to get the stimulus package through asap. I understand that the Republicans remain caught in a time warp. With tax cuts as their only mantra and the market still a god, they deserve John Boehner’s bombasts and Eric Cantor’s cant. But come on, did no Democrats read this amendment? First, the Democrats should have defended the money for the arts because of the unique role that they play in society. (Let’s not, for example, forget the role of artists in the WPA during the great depression.) Second, in practical terms, there is billions in this bill for people in all sorts of industries, but not a penny for artists, who also need jobs, and the non-profits that help support so many of them. Let us also not forget that the performing arts are economic engines in many communities, and yet we invest relatively little in them as a society. We expect them to live off private charity or outrageously priced tickets. The result: too many poor and middle class folks are cut off from the performing arts. (Are you listening Schumer?)
And yes, the package is also unfair to those who work in zoos and aquariums, typically non-profits, whose budgets surely will be cut in these hard times. While it’s not clear that zoos generate Bildung, although they might, they are certainly educational and serve the common good. (And they too employ people.) Obviously Congress can’t tell the difference between this, a non-profit educational institution,
Qualcomm Stadium (The name says it all)
UPDATE, February 15, 2009. “Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force.” The New York Times reports that the 50 million for the arts was salvaged in the final bill. In addition, the offending language comparing museums to casinos was removed. Democrats, all is forgiven. Republicans, you are still in the dog house. Here is an excerpt from the Times column.
As the details of the final bill were being hammered out, tens of thousands of arts advocates around the country were calling and e-mailing legislators. Arts groups also organized an advertising blitz arguing that culture contributes 6 million jobs and $30 billion in tax revenue and $166 billion in annual economic impact.
The tide turned. In addition to preserving the $50 million allocation, the final bill eliminated part of the Senate amendment that would have excluded museums, theaters and arts centers from any recovery money.
“It’s a huge victory for the arts in America,” said Robert L. Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts, a lobbying group. “It’s a signal that maybe there is after all more understanding of the value of creativity in the 21st-century economy.”
That Senate amendment, proposed by Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, had grouped museums, theaters and arts centers with implied frivolities like casinos and golf courses.