Growing up, my Father had strange ways of teaching me about the world. Sometimes he would just utter an old Greek adage to illustrate a point. “A fish rots from the head down” comes most readily to mind. Regardless of his method, though, he would never expressly say what it was he wanted me to learn. Instead he would just suggest that I observe life and take note of what I noticed. One of his favorites that baffled me for years was when he recommended that I watch the way people interact, especially in those instances in which one of them is subordinate and poses no prospect of doing anything of benefit for the other.
This dynamic comes to mind when contemplating the issues of art and culture, especially as they relate to a civilization up to its earlobes in war, economic distress, and a malaise so pervasive it defies categorization. How do we accord art and culture in the post-We’re-At-(Undeclared)-War-In-Afghanistan-But-No-One-Bothered-To-Mention-It-So-Let’s-Pretend-It’s-Not-Really-Happening era? How do we treat art and culture when they arguably pose no obvious benefit to us as a civilization? And the unfortunate answer, as my Uncle Tasso would say, is that art and culture are taking it dry.
But before we proceed, we need to understand the slippery nature of the topic at hand. Like beheading a hydra, defining culture can be elusive—just when you think you’ve nailed it down, at least two more meanings spring up. In fact, in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, authors Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compile a list of 164 meanings of the term. Broadly speaking, though, three meanings come to mind when discussing culture. It can touch on excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, i.e., high culture. It can represent an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning, or it can manifest as the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.
Regardless of what definition you choose, though, what is palpable is a sense of cultivation or improvement—that culture’s driving force is the betterment or refinement of the individual, especially through education, through art, and then onto the fulfillment of national aspirations and ideals. Sadly, what is even clearer is how this view is lost in
the current political milieu.
Back on March 31st of this year Time magazine’s Richard Lacayo reported on the annual lobbying blitz in our nation’s capital called Arts Advocacy Day. That’s the one day when various art groups from around the country plead their case that art is not only intrinsically good for people, but that it’s good for the economy too. In that piece, he cited the following statistic in reference to the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget:
“Thirty years ago, the NEA received a modest 12 cents per $100 of non-military discretionary spending. Today that is just three cents per $100. If the NEA had simply maintained its 1979 percentage of discretionary funding, its 2008 budget would have been $613 million.”
To give the issue of the NEA budget some context, consider this: The budget peaked in 1992 at $175 million. But a mere three years later, the budget was slashed by a Republican House majority to $99.5 million, a 39 percent cut. The freefall continued up until 1997 when the same House voted to eliminate the NEA altogether, an idea that was mercifully rejected by the Senate.
Though things have calmed down in the last 10 years, the 2009 NEA budget request by the Obama White House is just $155 million, an increase of only $10 million. Admittedly, that would be on top of the $50 million that the NEA got in the stimulus bill. But given the boatloads of funds dispersed by the feds to financial institutions who represent themselves to be too big to fail, (when in fact all they are is too greedy to succeed), $205 million seems Uncle Sam’s version of rolling up a wrinkled $20, stuffing it into our unsuspecting hand, and telling us to go buy ourselves a Coke or something nice.
These are tough economic times that demand fiscal accountability. So what do we get for our hard-earned tax dollars from the NEA? We get the benefit of the express mandate of a designated arts organization by our government. It is an entity dedicated to bringing the arts to all Americans, while providing much-needed leadership in the field of arts education. Its influence has impacted the development and preservation of folk art, theater, opera, literature, dance, as well as other realms of artistic expression. Though the majority of direct public funding is still generated by a raft of other federal, state, regional, and local agencies, the role of the NEA as the de facto leader in its field can’t be understated.
But watching the federal government’s treatment of the NEA and of art and culture generally, I suddenly understand my Pop’s wisdom. The fish in this case, the federal government, has most definitely rotted from the head down. How else do you explain the gap between the proposed NEA budget and a Department of Defense budget for the 2009 fiscal year that comes in at anywhere from between $925 billion to $1.14 trillion, depending on whose numbers you use?
I am aware of how naïve this might sound. But there is no balance in our current state, no recognition or action to engage the things we know are our civilization’s lifeblood—our culture and the art that springs forth from it. What shocks me even more, though, is that there is no national dialogue on this issue anywhere in the mainstream media. The orgy of defense-related spending is now a way of life, beyond question because it flies under the radar of public perception
Suddenly my Father’s obsession with the notion of watching two entities interact comes into distinct focus: You measure character in a vacuum of potential benefit. How does a dominant entity treat a subordinate one when there is no perceived value to be gained? In this case, I am afraid Uncle Tasso had it right.
Michael Raysses is a writer/actor/National Public Radio commentator living in Los Angeles. E-mail him at MichaelRaysses@hotmail.com.