With a Government budget showdown looming, I’ve tried to pay attention to some of the federal programs and services that are being cut. In a clip Matt Marks posted recently, we learned that Republicans are proposing to cut the entire $167 million budget for the NEA, as well as other arts based programs in order to help balance the budget. From the same clip, Kevin Spacey goes on to argue the standard rhetorical line that the arts are good for the “soul of humanity.”
Considering that the stereotypical stance of the Republican Party is one based on conservatism and moral responsibility, it struck me as ironic that they would propose cuts to programs that enliven and nurture our human spirituality. Music, art, literature, film, and theater are often easy targets to get rid of because their intrinsic values are often overlooked in favor of programs and services deemed “essential.” In other words, it’s easy to measure the rise and fall of the GDP, and pay raises for military personnel, but it’s not so easy to measure the rise and fall of a healthy consciousness, or chart the uplift in your spirit.
Music is one of many aspects of humanity that isn’t easily quantifiable, and therefore, it is easy to see why it’s funding is so attractive to prospective budget trimmers. Besides, according to many, music is a business, and the success of the Black Eyed Peas and Justin Bieber should determine our cultural direction based on a supply-and-demand Darwinian model, right? The problem, however, is the mediation of art vs. entertainment, and of course, personal taste. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very much a fan of some mass-produced music, but it’s the difference in artistic merit between Justin Bieber and Steve Reich that is the hardest to put into concrete, measurable value. What I value in Reich’s music, as in jazz and other “art” music, is the complexity, detail, and time spent in it’s creation. The best art music refuses to be formulaic, even if, like a Broadway tune or pop tune, a formula is inherent in it’s production.
Is it the idea of the Republicans who want to do away with the NEA that music, like everything else they stand for lately, should be completely privatized? I believe that if they let this happen, music would not come to and end. It’s possible that the money saved by cutting corporate taxes would be reinvested into symphony orchestras and art museums. More likely, however, that money will go back in to the business from whence it came. Music and art will not come to and end, per se, but the cultural landscape would be diminished, although it’s impossible to say by how much.
For now, I’ll be privatizing my own spiritual uplift tonight by playing with Alex Graham and Chris Buzzelli at Vinology in Ann Arbor, MI. Maybe I’ll even listen to NPR on the way to the gig. Although my trio is not funded by the government, several other musical organizations that are playing this weekend are, at least in some capacity. This includes the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which I’m excited is back in business, and Alarm Will Sound at Le Poisson Rouge. More on this in the future.