Food for the soul? Arts funding takes a beating in ugly economic times

As I wrote recently, America's charities are going bust at a terrible rate in these recessionary times. But another non-profit sector is ailing and in need of help as well: The arts.

Theater companies, groups that perform for underprivileged people, and opera companies, have been forced to shutter, taking with them all the actors, writers, designers, musicians, and crew they employ. Part of the blame falls to high ticket prices -- if we can't afford to give $20 to the United Way, we certainly can't afford to spend $100 on a ticket to a show.

But blame also goes to the low value our government has placed on the arts for years, dating to way before this recession. For years, it's been politically cool to sneer at the people who manufacture our country's culture and self-expression, and now that times are lean, those charities lack support and are first to fall.

Last month, Senator John McCain stood up before Congress and derided the $50 million earmarked for the National Endowment of the Arts. "Tell me how that creates any significant number of jobs?" he said. I thought of my many friends who are involved in some of America's most lasting and important international export industries: entertainment. Many of them, having chosen this field as their careers, are now suffering, and it's not like they can suddenly get a job in marketing or banking in the current climate.

I also thought of how FDR helped get us through the Great Depression, by not only putting emphasis on national infrastructure, which the government is doing, but also by establishing the Works Projects Administration and its offshoots like the Federal Art Project and the Federal Theatre Project, which documented and decorated the country in ways that, 80 years later, we're still finding incalculably valuable.

Of course the arts creates significant jobs -- why fight tooth-and-nail such a small amount of money in a then-$920 billion stimulus bill? It's this sort of anti-artist attitude, prevalent most in politicians who see no cultural downsides to pouring billions into the military-industrial complex, that equals a new kind of elitism, one that assumes that creative industries are not productive ones. Such me-first policies have helped destroy as many institutions as crooked Ponzi schemes.

The arts, of course, are vital to America's health and self-image. Just look at some of the jewels that came out of the Great Depression, including "Over the Rainbow" and The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, and the germ of Walt Disney's entire film canon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of them were created not by single artists slaving cheaply in an atelier but by complicated art-producing systems that required support. Most cultural historians believe that, in fact, during periods of economic privation, the expressiveness of a nation flourishes. It won't, of course, if the stimulus only benefits those who make guns and bridges.

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