Efforts to defund the National Endowment of the Arts are a quadrennial budget issue here at home. And in many countries, artists, like journalists, are censored, jailed, or even assassinated.
Dictators, nativists, and fundamentalists of all stripes are suspicious of art. And for good reason – because art calls on our better angels, challenges orthodoxy, asks impolitic questions, and may even subvert established class order. The enduring enemy of art is fear.
Countless works of great art have rocked the world, like the songs of Woody Guthrie and The Freedom Singers, or Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Alvin Ailey Dance Company, To Kill a Mockingbird, and George Orwell’s 1984 all changed how we think.
Many momentous shifts in our world order have been nurtured by artists, infusing the chaos of social or economic disruption with vision and beauty. Witness the Assyrian/Babylonian Empire, Athens, China’s Han Dynasty, and the Renaissance. For millennia, artists have prowled the borderlands between decline and reinvention.
Disruption today is manifest in our being the richest country on earth as we tolerate a stunning acceleration of extreme poverty, according to the U.N. But the strongest cohesive element among resources vital to the survival of our communities – like shelter, food, education, employment, and health care – may be art.
And while those with great wealth continue to build memorials to themselves in the acknowledged bastions of our greatest art: museums, opera, ballet, and concert halls, we must fight the philanthropic and political drift away from the accessible arts. We must remember that, for many, art is a social and spiritual safety net, where country music, jazz, folk dance, murals, memoir, poetry slams, and delta blues – all have their own place in the realm of great art.
But art and entertainment are wholly different entities and should not be used, as they so often are, in a parallel phrase. Entertainments amuse us and pass time while art is soul food and we must all make the case for its continued support by our elected officials, the wealthy among us, and the generations that will succeed us.
Anyone who doubts this should watch the Beethoven’s 4th Movement (The Ode to Joy) flashmob or the flashmob in a Madrid unemployment office when musicians begin playing “Here Comes the Sun”.And try to maintain a dry eye.