Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cutting Contest: Romney and the Arts

"I don't know Art, but I know what I hate....and that's the NEA."
I think I would be correct if I said that over the past two years I have somehow kept my political leanings out of this blog. There may have been a few asides, but mostly I've tried to deal with things related to music. My Facebook page? Well, that's a completely different story, and a completely different venue. It's not every day, but every once in a while, I get so riled up that I have to post something on Facebook regarding John Bohner's latest fake tear-fest, or Michelle Bachmann's latest phony outrage, or something else that we are just now discovering about the dreaded Bush presidency.

You might have guessed, if you didn't know already, that I'm a liberal. Well, I'm a human being, but I tend to favor liberal policies, politicians, and ideas. As someone who favors these ideas in America, I refuse to be demonized by the right wing as someone who is un-American. If I was un-American, I wouldn't be so sad that the country is slowly going down the drain! Furthermore, I really identify culturally as an American. I love Europe and Japan, and even parts of Canada. But even while I lived in Winnipeg on and off for two years, I still felt out of place at times. 

I'm liberal, and sometimes I'm embarrassed to be American; but that's because of our politics, and when a select few numb nuts get a lot of attention for doing something stupid- NOT because of our overall culture. After all, without America, you wouldn't have JAZZ! (You're welcome.)

I think America COULD be the greatest nation on Earth. But it isn't just because some dumb reactionaries SHOUT it out loud! "U.S.A.! We're number 1!" Yeah, you say we're number one--- because you didn't learn any numbers HIGHER than one, because the education budget was slashed, because we sent troops and billions of dollars to Iraq for no reason, etc......Anyway, I could go on like that for days. My point is we should try to fix the problems so that we can be the greatest nation on Earth again. (Also, so I don't have to move again!)

I believe Obama and his administration are trying to do that. Unfortunately, in some ways, our system might be broken beyond repair. Also unfortunately, Romney wants to do the same things that got us here in the first place. Anybody remember the 8 years of W? Lower taxes for the wealthy and deregulation and subsidies for corporations were his specialty...

I realize you might not agree at all.  Ideologically, our nation is extremely polarized. It seems as though we are divided right down the middle. Current polls for the upcoming presidential election are a statistical dead heat, even though Obama is a few points ahead since a few days ago. So, for as many people that think like I do, there seems to be an equal number who would vote for Mitt Romney, a guy who was born with an oversize silver spoon in his mouth. Considering the problems we are facing in this country, and considering what caused many of them, Romney seems like the worst candidate you could have on the ticket; not only is he super rich, and a friend of Wall Street, but he's not a terribly charismatic guy. At least the right got the impression (whether it's true or not) that George W. Bush was a guy "you could have a beer with." Romney, as a Mormon, doesn't drink alcohol, but I don't get the feeling that even sitting and having a glass of water with Romney would be fun. He seems like a cold fish. And he shifts his positions on policy constantly; almost as if he really wants to be liked at any cost.

Believe me, if it really made sense that Romney and all of his "experience in the private sector" could turn the country around, I would want to know what he is proposing. But something NEW. Cutting taxes on the wealthy, deregulating Wall Street, and cutting social programs are not the things I want to hear about. (Romney's so-called private sector experience was as head of Bain Capital, a company which made millions with leveraged buyouts; sure, they helped some companies, but a lot of companies went out of business while Bain made enormous profits. Do we really want someone who made his money like THAT as President?)

Speaking of cuts, Romney wants to cut all federal arts funding in America. Well, he said he would cut PBS, NPR, and the NEA. They would essentially be eliminated. If you are a musician, or anyone who likes art and culture, you should be outraged. Romney said this in a recent interview in Fortune Magazine:

"Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own."

This completely misses the point of funding for the Arts. If you think that only worthy arts are the arts which can "stand on their own", meaning survive in the modern marketplace based on sales or voluntary philanthropy, then you must not think jazz or classical music is worth having around in the next century. If we only judge our culture based on commerce, then the music of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry is the best music in America. I'm not saying that those, ahem, "artists" don't have the right to exist. I'm saying that if we really based all of our music on commerce, then we would have no real art. Artistic expression is by nature not commercial: it's using the skill of a medium to express some kind of feeling or idea in different levels of abstraction. Sure, artists would love to make money, but look at how many of us do it for NO money! There's a lot of art that is really great, but it's not loved by millions of screaming moronic teenagers. Does that mean it should drop off the face of the Earth? According to Romney, yes.

I think that a certain level of commercialism is ok, and even essential for art to survive. But at what level? For example, can you imagine watching a television program that was ALL commercials? Even with the rise of reality TV and some of the crap that has always been on TV, there is still some great comedy, writing, and acting which exists. Advertising helps TV and the movies survive. But where do you draw the line? Would you want to hear this?"Honey, make sure you TIVO that half hour Doritos commercial....". Or this, "Hey, baby, I'd love to take you to that new Coca-Cola movie at the Cineplex." (And yes, when you consider how commercial movies and TV have become, I think we are getting close to that already.)

And consider this: if the playing field was really level, then perhaps things like PBS and jazz music could "stand on their own", as Romney believes. However, the fact remains that art only does but so well in a vacuum. People have to come and pay to see or hear it; otherwise, the artist or musician has to get a day job. The so-called "art" and "music" that becomes successful has to have some kind of backing eventually to be successful. When you have major companies with millions of dollars to begin with pushing crap on the American public, then that's unfair competition. If PBS and jazz musicians had the same kind of promotion as NBC and pop music, they would be able to compete. But they are starting with less. So they get less. 

I think that this is in some ways analogous to Romney and the ruling class way of "thinking" about everything. "People shouldn't need handouts, etc...Stand on your own two feet, etc....I worked hard, don't hate successful people, etc....". Romney is FAR from self made: his father was Governor of Michigan, for crying out loud! Life was not a level playing field for Mitt Romney. It's as if someone like him were to tell a poor kid from the projects; "You've got to stand on your own." (Sure, people can work their way up the ladder, but these days, it's more the rare talent and opportunities combined with luck than simply working hard.) In the marathon of life, Mitt Romney started at the 26 mile mark, ran the .2 miles to the finish, and declared himself the winner!

(By the way, if you have extra free time, you should read the wikipedia entry on Mitt's father George Romney. He was Governor of Michigan, and was actually in favor of Civil Rights in the 60's. He was born in Mexico, and campaigned for President; however, he dropped out before his birthplace became an issue(OHHHH THE IRONY). He actually did spend his early years in poverty, and when he became rich, he gave 4 percent of his money every year to charity. He also released 12 years of his tax returns during a campaign (OHHHH THE IRONY).)

Also, consider the fact that cutting federal arts funding(as well as the funding for Amtrak) does not save that much money, when you consider the entire federal budget. According to the Washington Post:

Here’s how it breaks down: In fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent $1.42 billion on Amtrak, $444 million on PBS, and $146 million on the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Getting rid of all these subsidies would have saved the government about $2 billion this year — chump change relative to the scale of cuts that Romney wants.

 I think that Romney, like most conservative politicians, likes to give lip service to things that sound good to their potential voters. Cutting the arts, while not actually making a dent in the budget, sounds like wasteful spending to red state conservatives, especially the ones who love Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, and can't possibly understand why their tax dollars should go to some East Coast Liberal choreographer who wants to put on a ballet inspired by the The Bay of Pigs incident.  

In all seriousness, it was the tour of a publicly funded Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit which sparked a debate on whether our tax money should go towards "filth", which is how Mapplethorpe's art was seen by some. From Wikipedia:

Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio series sparked national attention in the early 1990s when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by National Endowment for the Arts. The portfolio includes some of Mapplethorpe's most explicit imagery, including a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. Though his work had been regularly displayed in publicly funded exhibitions, conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association, seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called "nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material."As a result, Mapplethorpe became something of a cause célèbre for both sides of the American Culture War. The installation of The Perfect Moment in Cincinnatti resulted in the unsuccessful prosecution of the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati and its director, Dennis Barrie, on charges of "pandering obscenity".

 (In a way, Mapplethorpe sort of ruined everything for those of us who make a bold statement with Major Seven Sharp Eleven Chords, rather than Bullwhips Inserted Into Our....well, you get the idea.)

So, since all of that, the NEA has been a target of conservatives.

Furthermore, I happened upon an article written by William Osborne called "Marketplace of Ideas: But First, The Bill." Osborne puts it in incredible perspective:

Germany’s public arts funding, for example, allows the country to have 23 times more full-time symphony orchestras per capita than the United States, and approximately 28 times more full-time opera houses.  In Europe, publicly funded cultural institutions are used to educate young people and this helps to maintain a high level of interest in the arts. In America, arts education faces constant cutbacks, which helps reduce interest.....

If America averaged the same ratios per capita as Germany, it would have 485 full-time, year-round orchestras instead of about 20. If New York City had the same number of orchestras per capita as Munich it would have about 45. If New York City had the same number of full-time operas as Berlin per capita it would have six. Areas such as Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx would be nationally and internationally important cultural centers. The reality is somewhat different.

I've spent a lot of time over in Denmark. The Danish pay from 40 percent to 70 percent of their income in tax. They don't mind, at least my Danish friends don't: medical care is free, all school is free, mothers get 2 YEARS paid maternity leave(fathers I think get a YEAR). Plus, they seem to be able to get funding for jazz concerts as easily as we buy lattes from Starbucks. Yes, it's easier for Danish people to put on jazz concerts than it is for Americans to put on concerts here. They get paid for playing jazz, we play for tips. Or we "pay to play."

Conservatives love to call Obama a "socialist". Well, I've been to all the so-called "socialist" countries. Why? Because that's where the jazz gigs are happening. I've barely toured the U.S. in 20 years of being a touring jazz musician. I've been everywhere else. Maybe it's because there is money for culture in all of these "socialist" countries. I think Obama recognizes the importance of music and art and education in our society. Does Mitt Romney? If there is no profit margin, then I doubt it.


  1. "Here's one for you nineteen for me!" THAT'S where we're headed, and I think it's a disaster.

  2. George, when you say that people who appreciate the arts shouldn't vote for Romney, you are literally preaching to the choir. I know that I'm oversimplifying your thesis, but still. Over 50% of Americans are already NOT gonna vote for Romney. Of the pro-Romney voters, I don't think many of them are gonna swayed by arts funding. I think your essay makes two important points that are both diluted by the other point. I think it's still possible to sway even the most philistine, tone deaf, art-hating Americans that Romney is the wrong leader for our country. Also, I think that even some of the most passionate Obama supporters can benefit from your perspective on music appreciation.

    The most provocative paragraphs are the last two, where you applaud Danish socialism. I've literally spent 18 hours of my entire life in Denmark, but it's a pretty amazing place, based on a pretty small sample size.

  3. You couldn't be more right about the situation in the 'so-called socialist countries.' I'm an American, currently living in Norway, and the amount of public funding for, and funded organizations serving the arts is staggering here, especially considering how small the population they serve is. I'm not saying that America should jump to this level of governmental commitment to support for the arts, but some fraction of this seems reasonable, if we are to be the 'greatest nation' and all. Instead of moving in a direction toward promoting the arts and creating something our nation could display to the world and say, 'look what WE as a nation have created,' we have a candidate who is considering cutting the National Endowment for the Arts. Great art and music can be a nationalistic cause. Art and culture are often the fastest exports from a country and when we have great art to export all Americans can be proud, and all Americans will benefit. We need to move past the mentality of thinking of arts funding as being solely for those directly involved with the arts and realize that this funding has wide ranging benefits for all Americans.

    If Mitt Romney can't understand this, then he is absolutely unfit be our leader.

  4. First time reader. Found your blog to be very fascinating. Oh and...

    "Taylor Swift and Katy Perry" - I puked in my mouth a little bit. I'm not American nor live in US. I could care less about Mitt Romney. But I do listen to US music. And it's kind of blasphemous to put Taylor and Katheryn Hudson in the same sentence. Used to think Taylor as one of the kiddie music singer, but I went 180 on her after I listened to her discog in full. And after learning about her rise to fame, I can say she deserves what she gets right now.

    Can't say the same thing about Katy Perry (who I prefer to call her with her real name, Katheryn Hudson) or Lady Gaga (a.k.a Joanne) or the other top dogs from US mainstream scene.

    Catching up with trends is a hard thing to do with the amount of bad acts able to succeed with questionable quality of music. But there are always be few good things popping up every now and then. Have a good day!

  5. Thank you for making an eloquent case for the role of the arts in our society. I am sharing it with my friends.

  6. A.) JAZZ did not come from america you idiot.
    B.) As an American I am sad an empty sac like you is here
    c.) Obama ( when the democrats lost their ass ) was all about budget cuts for the arts but in an election year now he wants to give out pay raises.

    as an artist you are really comfortable with the federal socialist muslim obama telling you a.) how much money is enough and b.) controlling the artistic culture.

    when it comes to politics you are idiot. plain and simple.

  7. and there is NO poll to address one idiot stating 50% plus are not voting for Romney...luckily i come from a family of means, let the dicktator get another term and we are out! living large on the beack in panama!


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