“Jazz Lovers, Rejoice.”

A week ago, Senator John McCain stood on the floor of the Senate to rail against the “porkbarrel-laden” omnibus spending bill that is currently working its way through Congress. He rattled off the figures for various arts and cultural programs, and then snidely said:

“The list goes on and on. The next time you are in New York, go to Lincoln Center. We are spending $800,000 of your money for jazz at the Lincoln Center. Jazz lovers, rejoice.”

Click HERE for video (around min. 119). Appropriate responses can be found from Peter Hum, Jason Parker, and David Hill.  I just have a few thoughts to add.

First, there’s this photo of John McCain, posing with BJ Novak, at Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 8, 2008. He looks like he’s having a pretty good time.

More importantly, there’s the underlying assertion that art, and investment in arts organizations, is a waste of money.  I am reminded of last winter’s debate over the fiscal stimulus package. Opponents of the stimulus seized upon the $50 million allocated for NEA funding in order to try to discredit the proposal. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) said,

“It included wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs. As I asked on this floor last week, what does $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts have to do with creating jobs in Indiana?”

The implication is that arts jobs are somehow less valid than real jobs. Of course, this is FALSE, as Scott Lilly for Center for American Progress pointed out:

A government study completed last spring indicates that there are about 5 million people in America who work in the arts in some capacity—most of them in support of artists in jobs ranging from janitors to accountants. About 2 million of that 5 million are actual artists, of whom 37 percent work full time…

It is true that artists contribute much to society that can not be measured in dollars and cents, but art is a significant economic force across the entire country, not just in big cities on the East and West Coasts. I work with an organization that has helped communities such as Lowell, Massachusetts; Bangor, Maine; Richmond, Virginia; and Butte, Montana use traditional music performances as a tool for urban renewal, to enhance local property values, and to create jobs in a variety of industries not directly related to the arts. No one can deny the role of music and art generally in the rebirth and rebuilding of New Orleans. Mike Pence’s home state even has close to 30,000 people who make their living as artists and perhaps as many more who are employed by museums, symphony orchestras, and other organizations in support of the arts. When they lose their pay checks, it affects the economy in precisely the same manner as if anyone else had lost a job.

One question that might reasonably be asked is why there is not more in this package for the arts. Even if we exclude the 3 million people who work in support of art and art organizations and the 1.3 million artists who work less than full time, the remaining 700,000 full time artists constitute 0.5 percent of the workforce. That compares to the size of the NEA allocation in the stimulus, which totals six thousandths of 1 percent. In other words, artist representation in the work force is more than a thousand times greater than their representation in the stimulus package.

Arts organizations, from Lincoln Center on down to your local community theater, employ real people who do real work, despite Senator McCain’s philistine ramblings.

Or to put it more eloquently,

Too often in the past, we have thought of the artist as an idler and dilettante and of the lover of arts as somehow sissy or effete. We have done both an injustice. The life of the artist is, in relation to his work, stern and lonely. He has labored hard, often amid deprivation, to perfect his skill. He has turned aside from quick success in order to strip his vision of everything secondary or cheapening. His working life is marked by intense application and intense discipline. As for the lover of arts, it is he who, by subjecting himself to the sometimes disturbing experience of art, sustains the artist–and seeks only the reward that his life will, in consequence, be the more fully lived.

President John F. Kennedy, 1962

Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 2:57 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. John McCain can take a flying leap off a cliff!

  2. Matt,

    I’m glad you wrote this. This kind of pushback’s much needed, in your country and mine.


  3. A great nation deserves great art. But more than that, a great nation deserves great courage in its leaders. Unless and until the politicians stop pandering to the lowest common denominator and subjecting policy to cuisinarting for sound bites, we will never have the appropriate conversations about setting priorities in spending. No money spent for education or the arts is ever wasted, and has far greater returns than any other spending. Shame on you, Senator McCain! If you want to live in the Stone Age, why did you come back from North Vietnam?

  4. What a wonderfully thoughtful piece. I found this reposted on a friend’s Facebook page…and I’m glad I did. Art needs more advocates, who are literate and mindful of the range of work being done and the real need for that work in everyone’s lives.

    • Thanks for reading Roberto. I’m glad to hear our posts our getting around.

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