Art should be the last thing cut out of budgets

March 12, 2011
  • Rowland

When public budgets are tight, the first thing we always feel free to cut is funding for the arts. Art is so easy, so superfluous. It's just entertainment. Lawmakers can cut art funding while standing on their heads. Plus, it plays in Peoria. Yeah, that hard line on finger-painting ought to bump the re-election effort by another 2 percent.

It's easy to make the argument that government has no business patronizing the arts, because art doesn't collect the trash, it doesn't pave the streets, put out fires or fight wars. It's not an essential service that needs to report to work when it snows. It's just one of those luxuries that's nice, but that we can't afford when things are tough, yes?

Lawmakers are not a particularly imaginative bunch, so it might be difficult to explain to them that just the opposite is true: Art is an essential segment of society, and if we want to emerge from the recession stronger and be less likely to fall into an economic morass in the future, we should be increasing our arts budgets at this very point in time.

It's disappointing that art has become a partisan issue, because it cuts a broad, distinctly bipartisan path through our culture, promoting both new science and old values. As we fear for the future of American society, it is art that remembers and art that protects the past as it lays the foundation for the road ahead.

Indeed, as we look at this nation today, much of its perceived shortcomings, be they enumerated by those on the left or the right, can be traced directly to a neglect of art that has been ongoing through the better part of the last half-century.

Art provides the baseline for who we are, as it has for every culture in the history of mankind. No one drives across the country to see an arrowhead. But we will travel 3,000 miles to be amazed by petroglyphs. So, if you're seeking a clue as to what matters, two centuries hence, will our descendants be planning their vacations around the cruise missile or Mount Rushmore?

Those who believe our nation is going to hell in a handbasket might be right, even if they are approaching the idea of our demise from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Those on the right decry rap music with misogynistic and cop-killer messages. Yup, that'll happen when you put no premium on music and view its funding as a waste of hard-earned tax dollars. When quality music is not taught and revered, something will step in and fill the void, whether it has lasting value or not — and nothing against rap aficionados, but today everyone recognizes that name of Mozart; in another 200 years will anyone know the name of Snoop Dog?

Those on the left, some say, have become increasingly hostile toward religion — but what is to be expected when all its inherent beauty has been lost to a world that values boring old function over uplifting form?

When we sacrifice art we sacrifice beauty and when we sacrifice beauty we sacrifice our soul. Churches were once the wonder of the world, inspirational stone works of soaring beauty and divine inspiration. Today, many churches have all the inspiration of a bowling alley, with spiritual inspiration to match.

What do we say to our God when the best architecture we can offer him is prefab trusses? If we have no pride in our buildings, we can have no pride in our souls. And it is government that has taught us that style doesn't matter, that beauty has no right drinking from the public trough.

Our barns used to be marvels of intricate brick and stonework; now they're sheetmetal sheds. Compare the Tusing warehouse to any "modern" warehouse, or any old industrial building to any new industrial building.

Today's construction doesn't know Victorian and Georgian, it only knows Bigger and Cheaper.

When we stop designing, acting, singing, drawing and writing, we give up our control. Instead, we allow other things to control us, be it video games, reality television or Internet porn. When we ignore art we replace healthy with unhealthy.

Like exercise, poetry takes work. Everywhere you look, government is telling us to work out, to get fit, yet no one in government is telling us to write poems — and we are greatly underestimating this loss.

Art is the cultural fuel that inspires progress, invigorates curiosity and charges our intellect. From art springs science and industry, spiritual and economic vigor.

It pays to remember that advancing nations revere the arts, while declining nations ignore them. There are those who say we must cut public spending to save the nation; that is appropriate, but we must not cut in ways that will leave us with a nation stripped of beauty and creativity — in short, one that is not worth saving.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Reach him by e-mail at

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