Chastened and terrorized by economic depression, Americans are suddenly concerned about national deficits. The Fever-Pitch Party has filled Congress and 50 state legislatures with deficit hawks. Social progress is the mouse and the talons are sinking into its throat.
I could mount arguments that the recession was not an accident. I could proclaim naked emperor greasy self interests oozing through shadows of corrupt self-interest. “Look,” I would indicate – they’re grabbing money, power and resources while eliminating a century of social progress.” But it doesn’t really matter. Foxes have plundered the harvest, mad dogs are in control of the legislatures, and we have to consider a new reality.
We had established an intolerance for poverty without hope and set upon schemes to provide proper education and food, a basic floor of decent existence. We declared ourselves a nation that would tax ourselves enough to provide a glimmer of opportunity for the disenfranchised and depressed, the disadvantaged and disabled. People scammed the system on both sides. A few thousand children, a scant but noble percentage, used the assistance to succeed. For the overwhelming majority, a hand up became a crutch and then an entitlement and grew beyond the taxpayer’s tolerance.
There is no blame, only responsibility, and we share responsibility.
The arts have undergone a similar path. We declared ourselves a nation that was proud of its self expression, that our artists born in a free society had powerful things to say and amazing ways to say them. Often, they even made beautiful things that we could love as well as appreciate. We set upon schemes to provide a base of public support for our museums, art education, performance companies and even direct support to artists. Seed money became stipends to organizations, which grew in number, size and need.
Seeing the distant truth before others, many arts organizations have built strong beams of foundational, corporate and private support. But they face a dual challenge as a proliferation of digital arts put the stages and exhibition spaces on pixels disbursed on screens in the patron’s pocket. There is no reason to visit the museum, the painting is right in front of me, the sculpture rendered in high definition 3D. I do not need to attend a symphony concert – I can have Brahms and Glass in my earpods. We probably need our libraries, art institutes, conservatories, theatre companies and philharmonics, but the reasons need to be clarified, and soon.
Our social and arts institutions are not endangered, for the need is as great as ever. They are undergoing radical change, and you and I have a lot to say about how that change is going to go.
The need for social services – to fight poverty, to provide a civilization-enhancing education to as many children as possible, to provide essential services to people who cannot take care of themselves – cannot be eliminated by budget cuts. Non-profit organizations will become non-governmental organizations serving the third world growing in our cities. If America will not allow its taxes to be spent on preventing the hopelessness and desperation that causes misery and crime, America will have to find another way to pay for it.
The same goes for the core institutions that perpetuate art and culture. If we are unwilling to commit public – taxpayer – funds to stabilize our classic arts, we will have to cough up more than the meager social memberships we contribute each year.
The need will be greater than our non-profits can bear without massive infusions of private donations. We need to accept full responsibility for the independent funding of our peace and justice efforts, of our schools and museums.
But that isn’t enough. Philanthropy is no longer adequate. This is survival.
We will each – you and I – have to take non-governmental action. We will have to, each one of us, accept personal responsibility for making sure children do not die for lack of immunizations or food. We have to find a different way to educate our children, to make sure they get the history, and science and arts and physical exercise the schools can no longer provide. Each one of us has to organize non-profit ways of being in order to make sure the person next to us, the family next door, has the basic essentials.
And if we want arts, if we truly wish to be an expressive culture, then every individual has to take part in getting a kid a trumpet, the lessons to learn to play it and some exposure to Bach, Copland and Cage. Each citizen in the populace will have to take some direct role in making sure local theatre exists, that our museums have the energy to preserve our heritage and contribute to depictions of our current affairs.
If we want to be the nation we aspire to be, the civilization we claim, the great dream of America land of the free, we’re going to have to do it without further assistance from the government. Those guys are crazy, they have taken our money, stripped our economy naked.
It’s up to us now. Let’s get together and figure it out.