One Nation Under Arts

"One Nation Under Arts"

by Charlie Humphrey

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial
Sunday, September 27, 1998             

 

On the first Thursday of every month, arts administrators from around the city sit at a table, which is often too small, and talk about stuff.

They complain about the size of the bagels, they tease each other about moving up or down on the Post-Gazette's Top 50 Cultural Power Brokers List and they speculate about the identity of Pittsburgh's mysterious Anonymous Donor. The only thing they have in common, to be perfectly honest, is a profound interest the fate of the arts in Western Pennsylvania.

And to this end, they have worked together very well. They have been involved in an economic impact study (entitled The Economic and Social Impact of the Not-for-Profit Arts Community on Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh), they have devised a unified response to the Plan B proposal, and they are now working toward a single marketing campaign that will benefit artists and organizations throughout the region.

But by far their most ambitious task has been to come up with a singular case for public support of the arts. While the recent economic impact study is important, these arts leaders wanted to draft a rigorous case for public support that went beyond economic development issues, focusing instead on the importance of the arts in every day American life.

It took more than a year of discussion, guided by the very able hand of Westminster College President Emeritus and immediate past chair of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Oscar Remick, to formulate a paper. That paper, authored by Oscar, is an important document, and can be found on the web at www.pghfilmmakers.org.

As both witness and participant in these discussions, I came away from the process with a renewed sense of purpose for the arts. The thesis underwritten by these leaders is simple, though the ideas behind it are not: The arts are not a luxury for the rich. They are an inextricable part of a healthy democracy.

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In a democracy, we expect certain things. For example, we expect that government will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve democracy. And by democracy I don't mean some vague notion of the practice. I mean the unique American version that was founded on rights-endowed individualism and a profound belief in freedom from tyranny. Problems often arise when we confuse democracy with government itself. Government does not exist to preserve government.

Prior to the American revolution, government was something imposed. But in our version, government exists to preserve and defend the interests of individuals. And from this follows the responsibility of government for the basic elements of infrastructure. In crude capital, this means making sure roads stay open and bridges don't fall down. It means arresting and prosecuting criminals. It means making certain there is an education system that will ensure a literate - and therefore productive - population. We entrust money to the government, and the government, in theory, spends it to preserve democracy.

Education is where the term "infrastructure" becomes less concrete, if you will pardon the pun. There are elements of infrastructure that we can readily agree sustain a vital civil society, which is absolutely essential for American democracy.

But these elements often become vague the further they move from bricks and mortar. Who can say what, with certainty, are the elements of infrastructure in a sustainable civil society? The temptation to create a checklist is almost always avoided for fear of partisan, political haggling over the details. FDA? Yes. EPA? No. FCC? No. FAA? Maybe. And so the battle rages from all sides.

At a recent public hearing before City Council on the renewal of TCI's cable agreement with the city of Pittsburgh, Councilman Gene Riccardi asked an excellent question. He wanted to know why a percentage of his monthly cable bill should go to support the public access channel PCTV. In his opinion, PCTV (channel 21) airs programming that is sometimes offensive or objectionable. My response, when I got my turn at the podium, was to point out that Mr. Riccardi benefits, whether he knows it or not, from this form of free speech. He may never watch it. He may never create a program that airs on it. But in an era where fewer and fewer large corporations control the vast majority of television and radio programming, individuals have less and less access -- direct or indirect -- to the tools of media. Everyone in Pittsburgh is better off living in an environment where the ideas of the underserved are shared openly, without commercial interests.

The same is true of public education. You may never send a child to public school, but your life is better for living in a country where every child has access to a decent education.

Jefferson, et al, were very clever. Instead of creating a government that says, for example, you have the right to drink clean water, the founders of the Constitution envisioned a civil society where the private sector would transcend the enlightened self-interest of individuals, where necessary, and serve the common good. Without this willingness on the part of citizens to act on behalf of the civil society at large, American democracy would surely fail. So if good government supports civil society, so too, civil society must support the interests of good government. One result among many: Safe drinking water. Who makes sure it's safe? Government.

The language of American politics has mutated. Increasingly, the measure of good government has become economic, rather than civil. The emphasis on the role of government in economic issues has distracted us from the role of government in the vitality of democracy itself. The new global economy is an even greater distraction, as we fret over the mechanics of trade and ignore elements that make us uniquely American. We are feeding the belly, but it may not be a very balanced diet.

The creative spirit of America is so intertwined with arts and culture that even the harshest critics of the arts take it for granted. The health of individualism in this democracy depends on a free and open exchange of ideas and issues. We are a people of symbols, we communicate in metaphor and analogy. Art isn't some obscure offspring of academia. It is the core genetic material of all human communication.

Our times are captured and preserved in our art, but we co-op the devices of art for everyday communication. This was true from the time our ancestors first carved pictures on walls. What do we know of any period? We interpret from symbols. What were those ancient artists doing with those cave walls? They were not, I promise you, painting a picture for you. They were processing their current environment in the only way they knew how. Those pictures are at once both literal and symbolic.

And unlike clean drinking water, art isn't always safe. But, it is part of what makes democracy safe. It is one of many checks and balances that exist in a free society where ideas - good and bad - flow together unfiltered. The first move of any despot, after seizing all forms of mass communication, is to kill off the artists and the academics. What do all despots, living or dead, have in common? Fear of contemporary artists.

Government has an intrinsic interest in the vitality of art and culture. The argument is not economic. It is not even political. It goes to the very heart of American democracy and rugged individualism. It is not enough to heave the arts before the whim of market forces. It is easily demonstrated that the market will turn that art the color of the Mon river. The vitality of art and culture is essential to this American democracy, and the public has a right and a responsibility to ensure its future health.