Posted at 12:08 PM on November 20, 2008
by Sanden Totten
The economy is in the toilet and it looks like someone is reaching for the flusher. And one industry bound to go down the tube is the arts. Arts non-profits are already suffering. The trend in hard times is for giving to shift focus from cultural causes to social causes, says Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer.
But what if that's a good thing?
Hold your rotten tomatoes and hear me out a second! It's a valid question posed by the Arts blog known as, um . . . ARTSblog. They point to the trend of art supply outstripping demand:
"Take for example an article written in the Washington Post on April 23, 2008 which cites a study . . . that says in 2007, there were 402 more performances by theatre companies than the previous year but attendance was down by 36,000 patrons."
Here in the Twin Cities there is a gallery, sculpture or theater on almost any corner. It's a great thing, don't get me wrong. But could hard times help eliminate some of the clutter? Maybe create a sort of survival of the fittest for the art world, leaving us with the best and brightest organizations still in place?
Well, that argument seems reasonable. On the other hand, another side-effect of that market pressure process is that you end up with only the 'products' that appeal to the vast middle as a compromise option, 'that which will offend the fewest'. One likely result of which is that you end up with very little innovation or creativity going on - a situation antithetical to art in general, and the performance arts perhaps particularly. In the end your options end up severely restricted both in quality and in relevance.
So perhaps the question is in how one defines the *purpose* of art. Is art primarily an entertainment option, and thus legitimately something that can be reasonably left entirely to the mercies of the marketplace? Or does it serve other, less easily defined and marketed purposes? Does it have an educational purpose? Is it a venue for social and ethical pondering and critique? Is it a process by which we both process and mark our history, our values, our humanity? Does it provide food for our souls in a way otherwise unavailable?
Are these things valuable enough to our society that we might choose to support them outside of the relatively short-term processes that reflect the rough-and-tumble market forces? After all, prevailing market forces of the moment have frequently completely misidentified the value of artistic works and artists over the long term. VanGogh died destitute and unappreciated by the prevailing market of his time - would our society be served well by a philosophy that holds that popularity is the reasonable and best judge of what is valuable and what is not when it comes to art?