For some reason, Friday turned into "Save the Arts Day" here at the Radio Ranch. We had pianist Alpin Hong stop by the WOSH studios in the morning to promote his appearance that night at the Grand Opera House--and to talk about how he visits schools wherever he performs to give free shows for kids in order to "save his art form". A little later in the day, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center sent us a press release about an event they held with area teachers showing them how "the arts" can be used to improve performance in the classroom and even deal with issues like bullying. The money for the program came from a Kennedy Center grant to "preserve the arts in schools". And then in the afternoon, came the story that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra had posted a $1.8-MILLION loss in their last fiscal year--touching off a debate on how to "save the Symphony!"
I'm always skeptical of these "save the arts" efforts because "the arts" seem to be burgeoning in today's society. I can turn on my TV and find hundreds of outlets featuring comedy, drama and musical performance. Nearly any piece of music ever recorded is just a few mouse clicks away. And billions of photographs, illustrations, paintings and animations are available on millions of websites to be viewed in high-definition brilliance. One could argue that this is the greatest period ever for artists of all types--as the access available to them and their audiences has never been as wide as it is now.
What is being "threatened" is a very narrow band of "the arts" as defined by a stuffy few (usually academics) who like to use their expertise in the genre as proof that they are "smarter" and "more refined" than the general masses. And these "arts" are usually confined to and controlled by an expensive infrastructure. One cannot teach one's self to play Beethoven "properly"--you must learn from an instructor (with a masters degree or a doctorate). You cannot perform opera in a community center--you must have an acoustically-perfect opera house (constructed with public tax dollars). Paintings cannot be "fully appreciated" by viewing them in a coffee table book or on a computer screen--they must be seen in person (from a safe distance) at large museums (maintained with more public tax dollars).
As much as "supporters of the arts" like to think that their forms of entertainment are somehow above the economic realities of needing to be self-sufficient, the reality is that what passes for "fine art" today is just what got the most financial backing at the time of its creation. You don't think Bach, DaVinci, and Wagner didn't expect to get paid for their songs, paintings and operas? They had wealthy, private "patrons" who gave them financial support. There were probably thousands of other pianists and painters who produced just as good of work--but nobody was giving them a penny--and they had to hang it up. People vote with their pocketbooks, and today's society has decided that it appreciates other forms of "art"--and no amount of taxpayer funded school programs are going to change that.