An immature society needs the arts

Ken Willaman

April 08, 1992|By Ken Willaman

AFTER a huge protest from his constituents, Mayor Schmoke wisely rescinded his plan to cancel city subsidies for the arts. But there looms another, bigger challenge. These same concerned Baltimoreans must make their voices heard in Washington to preserve the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA's problem isn't economic. Indeed, its total annual budget is less than the cost of a half hour of Operation Desert Storm, less than the city of Vienna spends on cultural activities. Rather, the NEA is accused of hastening the decay of our moral values. Those who make this spurious claim are cynical politicians who would further divide an already divided society.

These critics pose two questions: Who can make the "proper" choices when it comes to making federal grants to the arts? And should the government be in the arts business in the first place?

A quick answer to the first is none of us. Only the passage of time determines that art which makes universal, eternal statements about our humanity (or lack of humanity). Nevertheless, the panel that selects recipients of grants from the NEA is basically conservative. Of 17,337 applications in 1991, it awarded 4,239 (totaling $152.5 million) grants to museums, symphony orchestras, universities and other institutions.

The awards didn't go to individuals. Even the widely criticized grant to the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was awarded to the University of Pennsylvania to mount an exhibit of his works.

A poem by Ramona Lofton appeared in a literary magazine that was granted $5,000 from the NEA. Six lines of it were excerpted, sent to key members of Congress in January and then circulated in the White House. This quickly turned the NEA into a campaign issue. Ms. Lofton received three free copies of the magazine as her total compensation. The $5,000 grant to the magazine was .00003 percent of the NEA's budget. One wonders if the republic can survive this headlong rush into moral depravity!

Not a few of America's artists are pointing out through their work that all is not well. And after all, isn't that what artists do? Writers, film-makers, painters always have been at the head of the pack showing our darker side -- that part of us that we will deny, sometimes until it is too late. It was too late in Germany after Adolf Hitler outlawed the expressionists and saved the Third Reich.

Do we need the arts at all? Only if we feel we must understand ourselves -- our nature, our character, our soul. That's the role of an artist -- to stretch limits, to define the future before the rest of us understand the present.

And for those who reject all this high-mindedness, consider what you look and and listen to and live with that enriches your life every day. The music you hear, even if it's hard rock that drives you to distraction, was composed by artists. The clothes you wear were designed by artists. The TV sit-coms you watch were written by artists.

Even Archie Bunker's chair, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution, was designed by an artist. As Oscar Wilde wrote: "It is art that makes life . . . I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process."

The answer to the second question is yes, we should continue to provide funds for the arts, in Baltimore, in Maryland, nationally. Not to do so would be a sign of our paranoia, the paranoia of a society not yet mature, not yet ready to view itself honestly.

And the degree to which avant-garde artists slip through the conservative cracks is the degree to which we can say we are growing up.

Ken Willaman plays the cello in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

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