The Power and Importance of the Arts

by John Lawrence

 Five days into the new year of 2009 – and three weeks before his first inauguration – President-elect Barack Obama came up to the Capitol Hill office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  The topic was crafting the urgently-need economic recovery legislation (the “stimulus”) essential to preventing another Great Depression.  As the two leaders talked about the components to be included in the bill – tax cuts (in vain hopes of securing Republican votes), infrastructure job creation, health services, alternative energy R&D – the Speaker requested a small, but important addition: funding to prevent local arts programs from collapsing.

In a bill that was likely to cost $800 billion, the support for theater, symphonies, community arts programs, museums and the like was too infinitesimal to even merit a discussion.  Maybe $50 million.  Pelosi invoked the legacy of arts funding under the New Deal, such as the Public Works of Art project that employed artists to create scenes of America for public buildings.  In San Francisco, Pelosi mentioned, Coit Tower boasts iconic Depression-era murals paid for with federal relief dollars.  Federal aid under FDR had helped sustain a community that was starving, even by artists’ traditional standards.

Over the next few weeks, as negotiations over the final design and cost of the stimulus dragged on, Pelosi never waivered from her request that arts funding be included.  Aware of the perennial battles over the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities because of their funding of controversial exhibitions and productions, Administration officials resisted.  They raised the memory of the “midnight basketball” provision that was used by Republicans to ridicule the 1994 crime bill, which some believe contributed decisively to the Democrats’ loss of the House later that year.  They suggested, as an alternative, a much larger amount for inclusion in the next presidential budget, an offer far from being good enough to accept.  It wasn’t that Administration negotiators opposed funding for the arts; they wanted to deny Republicans an easy target for attacking the stimulus package, which they had already announced they would oppose regardless of its provisions.  Pelosi cited compelling evidence that local theaters and museums not only provided jobs to thousands of workers in addition to those on stage, but also demonstrated that theaters and other arts venues often served as the essential anchor for neighborhood investment and revitalization.

Those familiar with the Speaker’s persistence will not be surprised:  the $50 million arts funding was included, and Republicans predictably heaped ridicule on the arts “boondoggle.”  Of course, they also opposed the entire bill, so the attack on arts funding received little attention.  The grants provided by the stimulus funding rescued dozens of community arts programs across the country, saving thousands of jobs and preserving vulnerable cultural resources that would almost certainly have disintegrated without the federal grants.

“So what?” a reader might wonder, taking a lyric out of a Kander and Ebb song from the 1960s musical Cabaret, a local production of which prompts me to write this story.  The show was performed by the reliably outstanding St. Marks Players in Washington, D.C. whose talented ensemble of actors, directors and musicians always includes budget analysts, think tankers, Hill staff and a wide variety of other astonishing amateur (and sometimes not-so-amateur) talent.  (My 17 year old was a cast member, but that’s not really the point.)

Playing to nearly full audiences through its two-weekend run, this production was Exhibit #1 of the power and value – economic, emotional and intellectual – of the arts in society, and why those $50 million were dollars well spent.  Virtually everyone in the audiences was familiar with the storyline of Cabaret, which recounts the slippage of decadent Weimer Germany into the horror of the Third Reich, viewed through the lens of a seedy Berlin nightclub and two star-crossed couples.  The power of the 40-year old show was stunning despite the comfortable familiarity of the songs and plot.  Often audiences were too shocked by the juxtaposition of the gaily singing chorus line and the eruptions of Nazi violence to remember to applaud, and even some of the cast were moved to tears by the emotion of the message.

More than one audience member speculated about the implications of the increasing vitriol and polarization so apparent in today’s politics and society.  Germans and other Europeans (my Polish grandparents included) in the 1930s could not believe the Nazi fulminations would actually overwhelm the established order and consume sophisticated, modern Europe and themselves, but they did.  Is there a contemporary lesson about the need for every citizen to confront intolerance and extremism rather than letting it run its course or assuming that rationality will always prevail?

Backstage, after the final performance, one participant reconsidered his recent thoughts of leaving the exhausting, stress-inducing world of community theatre because, he told me, the production rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the power of the arts.  Another tearfully speculated that, after years of serious health concerns, the show led him to consider formalizing his longstanding relationship with the marriage that neither Sally and Cliff, nor Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz could enjoy, because the show reminds us how life and love are uncertain and need to be embraced without equivocation.

Charmingly oblivious to the tumult building daily around her, flapper Sally Bowles cheerfully asks her increasingly anxious boyfriend what politics has to do with the two of them.   Here, too, is a lesson for today: however exasperating or annoying it is to deal with our political  frustrations, we are all going to live with, and be affected by, the consequences of the divisive and bitter mess that has come to embody American politics.   We can’t deceive, or drink, or flee our way out of that mess the way the characters in Cabaret futilely attempted; as the play reminds us, disengagement allows the engaged to prevail, regardless of how mean-spirited and destructive they may be.

The lesson of this single local production is to demonstrate again how the arts stimulate the thought and conversation, and even action, that are vital to our country and our communities.  Long after people have tired of the bloviating debate on the floor of Congress or the hyperbolic ravings of a talk show host (or a blogger, for that matter), the arts retain the power to create community, challenge convention, and provoke action.  They deserve the ongoing support of the politicians who are quick to seek the endorsement of artists for their causes and their candidacies.  And if those artists create troubling images or controversial messages, well, that’s show business; life can’t always be a cabaret, old chum.