Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Year Without Art

Back in grad school, I saw a play called "Days of Absence".  It takes place in the South, circa the early 60's.  The action begins as the town's white population realizes that the entire African American population of their town has vanished.  One would think that a town in the deep south, at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, would rejoice, but instead, their orderly little society breaks down with the majority of their labor force suddenly gone.  They are paralyzed by the absence of something they'd always taken for granted.

"Days of Absence" is not a great play, but using a play at a metaphor just seemed right as scores of Atlanta artists are preparing to go march to the Georgia Capitol this afternoon to protest the 'zeroing out' of the budget for the Georgia Council of the Arts.  If this measure is enacted, Georgia will be the only state in the USA without a state arts organization.  This will prompt the NEA to also pull almost a million dollars of funding they provide to Georgia arts organizations annually.  Basically, the next musical tone you hear won't be a symphony visiting your kids' school, it'll be the death knell of Georgia's cultural heritage.

I know there are some - many, perhaps - that find the arts frivolous.  They believe 'the arts' are for the elite, and that group of elitists is getting what it deserves.  After all, when the economy is down, who needs Mozart, Moliere, or Monet, right?  Well, many of us would argue that these are precisely the times that the arts were made for.  After all, that greatest of American art forms - the blues - was not born out of an economic boon, nor was our greatest literary work - "The Grapes of Wrath" - penned about a particularly resounding season in the Sinoma vineyards.

Nope, hard times are precisely when people turn to the world of arts and entertainment for a balm, a breath of hope, or at least a distraction from CNN and Fox.

And those who argue that they can get by just fine without the ballet or the opera, hey, I hear ya.  I'll take Radiohead over Rossini any day.  But, the arts are a much more finely integrated field of disciplines than you might expect.  While your favorite television shows, films, and bands on your I-pod may not receive grants and arts funding, most of them were born of a society that valued arts enough to put them at the forefront of their children's and their communities' lives.  That's why I propose that anyone who is unwilling (from Tea Party reveler to Georgia Congressional Assembly member) to lay down the estimated 25 cents per taxpayer cost that the arts absorb per year in Georgia to go one year without the arts in your life.  Try it.

This means no plays, museums, dances, or concerts.  Easy enough?  OK, now add no movies (all those actors, directors, designers, crew members, etc were fueled by arts-based education and exposure to the arts in their communities, after all).  No television except news and chosen reality shows - no "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars" obviously.  No music at all.  Period.  Nada.  Your visual art exposure is limited to magazine ads and billboards, though most of those were designed by men and women who took their share of arts courses before they decided the arts were a stripped-bare, too hard row to hoe endeavor and took the more commerce-friendly route of advertising.  I say this as one who majored in theater and now makes a living writing scripts for corporate videos.  Glass houses.

No 'Lost', no Leno, no Lady Antebellum.  Just Larry the Cable Guy.  Ouch.  Great legacy, Georgia.

Look, artists are used to working with next to nothing.  For those who say artists are lazy folk just waiting for government handouts to see them through, I have to say artists are some of the hardest working people I know.  They're the ones teaching your kids all day and finding time to work in a non-union play that pays $250 a week on the side.  They're the ones designing costumes for a half-dozen shows in town on shoestring budgets to make ends meet.  They're the ones teaching art classes at rec centers so our kids will know that Rembrandt isn't a toothpaste and Salvador Dali isn't the guy who sang "Nine to Five".   Artists know how to stretch a dollar further than Willy Wonka stretches taffy.  Give an MBA and an artist fifty dollars each.  The artist will eat for a week.  The MBA will be broke by the second morning's triple shot frappe.

We don't need much to do a lot.  More is better, sure, but nothing...well, nothing begets nothing.  No arts funding, no arts advocacy at the state level, and we'll have more than a year with out arts.  We'll have a generation that experiences a slow deterioration of a state that gave us Ray Charles, James Brown, the Allman Brothers, REM, Ma Rainey, Curtis Mayfield, Robert Shaw, Howard Finster, Ossie Davis, Burt Reynolds, Joanne Woodward, Oliver Hardy, Holly Hunter, Julia Roberts, Pat Conroy, Erskine Caldwell, Pearl Cleage, W.E.B. De Bois, Joel Chandler Harris, Ha Jin, Carson McCullers, Margaret Mitchell, Flannery O'Connor, Eugenia Price, Ferrol Sams, Ann River Siddons, Alfred Uhry, & Alice Walker.

Metro Atlanta will certainly feel the sting - lost jobs, lost tourism revenue, loss of commerce in restaurants and shops near cultural havens.  But where it'll really sting are the outlying areas - suburbia, and the rural and urban areas that don't have any local arts organizations to speak of.  They look to the hub of Atlanta to send artists their way - to their schools, rec centers, churches, and community halls for events, education, and performances.  Those will be the first things stripped from arts organizations' budgets.

A year without arts?  It's coming sooner than we think.  Unless we do something.  Unless you do something.  Here's a link where you can:

Georgia Assembly of Community Arts Agencies