"Our new president recognizes the value of the arts. His platform for the arts is ambitious and, in addition to restoration of NEA funding, includes an expansion of partnerships between schools and arts organizations and creation of an 'Artists Corps' of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities." Reading this sentence, with all respect and a lot of hope concerning the new US administration, I actually think the new president and the authors of the article fail to understand the true role of the arts in society.
For many years, American art served as an example for us in Europe. We admired its sense of freedom and its ability to break with conventions. But that was a long time ago: now we experience most of American thinking about art as moralistic and dominated by fear. Talking about spending 1 percent of the national budget for the arts would to most Europeans sound like a bad joke. Not to have a Minister of Culture at the highest level of government would be impossible for any European country. When an American artist comes to Europe and shows a CV proudly listing a $ 2,000 NEA grant, Europeans wonder why one would even mentions such an amount.
It would be easy to say, This is just a cultural difference, we do things differently in the United States. In part this is true, Europe doesn't have the same tradition of private sponsorship the US has. But this also has a reason related to "understanding the arts."
Most European governments seem to understand that they are, at least partly, responsible for their art and artists. I think there are two major reasons for this. The first one is quite simple and should be attractive to Americans: art is an important economic asset. In any European country, the arts are an important economic sector, contributing more than it costs. That is probably the reason why in Europe even conservative parties don't seriously oppose spending on art.
The second reason is a bit more complex and is connected to the question why society needs the arts, not just to make life more beautiful but as a requirement for society to function as it should. Society is kept together by values. As times change, many of these values lose their meaning and function, and as a result we have to develop new values. Artists have a very special talent: through their intuition they are able to give shape to ideas and thoughts that actually haven't yet found a visible form. By doing this, artists provide society with new values it needs to replace values that are no longer functional. Without this mechanism, without artists playing this role, somebody else would have to provide society with new values, which in societies where art cannot function freely often would be a totalitarian government or certain groups in society that have no doubts about their, mostly, conservative value systems.
I don't think there is anything bad about artists offering their services to social causes, but it is certainly not what art is about and should be about. By making it obligatory for artists to serve society in such a direct way, we take away their main strength: to be irrational, to be irresponsible and to have the courage to do what "normal" people don't do, but should be done anyway. Connecting art and artists with existing moral values would disable this major role of the artist in society: to help us understand continual change.
Arnhem, The Netherlands
Feb 6 2009 - 4:15am