The Value of Art

We are living in a pivotal moment for the future of the arts in America. While some countries such as Japan have made plans to cut governmental funding for programs in the humanities and social sciences, the U.S. could be facing some sacrificial cuts to the arts due to budgetary concerns as well. In the week leading up to his inauguration, President Donald Trump revealed plans to cut the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as a call to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is the parent organization of NPR, PBS among others.

Just as a refresher, according to the official website, the NEA “is an independent federal agency that funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.” Among the many grant opportunities the endowment offers are music, visual arts, theatre, literature, dance, opera, as well as arts education, research, the creation and strengthening of artistic communities, and many more.

It’s become a cliché that the arts have to fight for their space in the American curriculum, despite the fact that they have overwhelming approval and appeal throughout all walks of life. College admissions counselors look for them in transcripts and applications as indications of a well-rounded learner. Students find ways to repackage their seven years of band and strings as a more general indication of their discipline and work ethic and repurpose their love of theatre into the utility of public speaking. Even though employers may turn their nose up at poetry, they continuously cite reading comprehension and writing skills as priorities for a professional career.

The arts, it seems, at least in budgetary and policy concerns, are what we do until we need to do something else—in other words, until we grow up and make money. But what these policymakers seem to forget (something those in the arts already know) is that “growing up and making money” is what we do keep ourselves occupied. The arts are what we do to live.

We hear about times of turmoil and strife, say the Great Depression, when jobs are scarce and food is scarcer, when farmers and their families would pick up a fiddle and play in the night around a fire. We hear about the tradition of slave gospels during the 19th Century, singing of a balm in Gilead, as a means to endure the Hell and indignity of subjugation. We hear about the floods of Jewish immigrants, many of whom were or would become scientists, doctors, laborers, and of course, composers, writers, actors, and painters. For these people (and all of us), the arts were an escape of sorts, the essence of the spirit, the thing to look forward to when there is nothing left, the joy of letting something they create, something intangible, divine even, wash over them.

We see shades of this tumultuous relationship with the arts today in many ways, where people reach for that “essence of spirit” to help us cope with and explain the world around us. Most recently, we are reminded of the inauguration of Donald Trump and the accompanied rise in sales of dystopian literature. Amazon even claimed that they had sold out of George Orwell’s seminal dystopian work 1984. One can imagine Orwell reeling over terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Yet, 70 years after its publication, people turn toward literature as a mirror to our current reality.

Other forms of media continue to value the pursuit of the arts as not only an obsession, but also as soul food, while simultaneously illustrating the clash between those pursuits and the expectations of “the real world.” One example is the enchanting film (and Oscar frontrunner) Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which reminds us that sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to do what you love.

What we need to do is remember that art isn’t merely a privilege reserved for those with time, money, and talent. Art is crucial to our national character and the human spirit. We need to find ways to continue to support the arts as well as any form of free expression in the coming days, as the threat of these avenues becomes more and more of a reality. Here are some ways to do so:

–Visit an art museum or gallery

–Audition for or volunteer at a community theatre

–Support local musicians, both children and adults.

–Take an arts and crafts class

–Work on that novel you’ve had knocking around in your head

–Attend a poetry reading at a local college or university

–Take ballroom dancing lessons

–Submit work to literary journals and magazines

–Watch an independent film

–Frequent your local library

–Join a book club

–Dust off your old trumpet/saxophone/violin/guitar/kazoo and give it a go

–And many, many more…

Together, we can ensure that the arts continue to be valued not only in our private lives, but also in the eyes of politicians, naysayers, and nonbelievers. They may be wrongheaded in their efforts to minimize the prevalence of the arts in our lives, but we must show them that to err is to be human. And so, of course, is to create.

Chad Clem is pursuing his M.A. in English Literature from Virginia Tech. His research involves political satire and emotional rhetoric in Presidential campaigns. He has worked many jobs including as a journalist, a television production assistant, a paralegal, a property abstractor, and, perhaps most famously, as a clerk in a movie rental store. A West Virginia native, Chad is also a teacher and an avid movie buff.

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