Why (Government-Supported) Arts Matter

editorial
Image courtesy Microsoft Office
Image courtesy Microsoft Office

The headline is shocking. “Firing of staff stuns Kansas Arts Commission”. The article┬áis about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s latest attack on the arts in Kansas.

And I have never been more ashamed to be from Kansas, even though I moved from the Missouri side only a year ago.

What infuriates me more, however, are the (at the current time) two comments on the article – which this is a primary response to.

“No beef against “the arts”. I just don’t see why we need government approved arts,” writes Mr. Writing III; and “Good….keep cutting back on the spending. We need to fix this budget. There is not enough money to pay for everything that everyone wants,” writes JOCOSuperman.

First off, it’s not government approved arts – it’s government supported. The Kansas Arts Commission, as well as the Missouri Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts provides grant money to artists to help do their jobs.

Which brings me to the second comment. Yes, our economy is in the tank. Yes, we need to make cuts. But I find it highly suspicious that these government workers who say we need to cut funding of traditionally Democratic and liberal topics such as the arts have yet to suggest taking a cut in their own pay and benefits. If the budget is really that bad, surely they can live on a slightly smaller salary and pay out a little more for their government-funded health insurance? I’ll believe they are serious about cutting funding the moment I see an article stating that their own salaries are also taking a cut.

As to why government-supported arts matter …. (You can read ten reasons why the arts matter, which many of these stem from, over at ARTSblog.)

Let’s forget the fact that the arts provides jobs. There are hundreds of people in Kansas alone that are employed in the arts field that are helped by funding from government grants, from teachers to arts administrators like the people at the Commission who will lose their jobs without help from government grants. The arts are an industry. Didn’t the Republicans run on a jobs platform?

Let’s forget that the arts are an economic factor. There are plenty of studies that show that the arts impact the economy positively, from tourism dollars (one of the main reasons people visit a certain place is the cultural options, from museums to music festivals) to economic development. If they really want to help the economy, killing arts programs will hurt them in the long run.

Let’s forget the educational impact of the arts. There are also plenty of studies that show how the arts help math scores, SAT scores, and how students who participate in the arts are more likely to be more involved in their community and less likely to drop out. Not to mention that the creativity that the arts teach are vital to any job, helping see problems as challenges and looking for new ways to do things. If Kansas specifically wants to be on the leading edge, as the billboards I’ve seen state, then they should be putting more money into the arts, not less.

So if we forget all that, why should government-supported arts matter? And why should the government support arts at all? The arts are what defines us as a culture, what defines us as human, and is our heritage. There’s a reason why jazz is different than opera – different cultures create different art, and to better understand another person is to better understand the art that person makes.

Many people who make the argument that arts don’t matter have a certain stereotype about what art is. The arts are all around us. Without art, there would be no film/TV (even The Jersey Shore has some creativity and at least shows why storytelling can be captivating); without art, there would be no technology revolution (many Web 2.0 people have admitted it was the creativity of the arts that led them to develop what they did); without arts, there would be no music on the radio and everyone would be wearing the same clothing day after day. Creativity is what brings us the next revolution.

The government helps because it’s what makes the Midwest different from the East Coast. It helps for the same reason it supports education, police and fire protection, road infrastructure, and making sure our food and water are as safe as they can be. To quote former Platte County commissioner Michael Short (from an article I wrote in 2004), “Of all the things we do throughout our society, when future historians look back at our civilization, it is the arts and cultural endeavors that define us.”