Against my better judgment, and knowing that it would likely only result in my blood boiling, I engaged in a debate with a friend’s relative in that most onerous of all arenas, the Facebook comment box. The topic was this year’s ballot issue 4B, the renewal of the minuscule sales taxation that allows the entity known as the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District to distribute funding to arts and cultural non-profit organizations in Denver. (More on the SCFD’s mission can be found here.) Here is the redacted exchange, edited for anonymity of the other party:
S.P.: It’s very important to vote against [4B]!…the arts can be supported by voluntary patrons.
(At this point an argument was made by my friend that Denver School of the Arts (DSA) is positively affected by SCFD funding, and I met this friend while attending DSA.)
S. P.: [4B is] about spending other people’s money, extracted from them through taxation. People who are taxed less, have more disposable income to voluntarily support causes dear to them. DSA was/is a big taxpayer funded boondoggle. Most of those who graduated are not [working professionally in the arts]. Those who are, arguably, would mostly be anyway. Other than a marginal case here and there, DSA is a wasteful use of other people’s money.
This was the statement that compelled me to join the debate. Here follows my response:
I’m a DSA grad and the Artistic Director of an early music ensemble in Denver. My livelihood as a professional musician depends on the revenue generated by SCFD. We pay taxes because as Americans, we contribute to the common good. We all share the same roads, streetlights, airports, and first responder agencies. Taxes pay for all of that. We can all enjoy the arts in Denver because of SCFD. I have a job because of SCFD. But I suppose you can continue to think that your life is encapsulated and not connected to anyone else’s, and I suppose you can try to buy your own roads and streetlights and hire your own personal firefighters and snow removal team. Best of luck refusing to contribute to the greater whole. If you aren’t going to buy into the system of taxation that supports all of us, I suppose we shouldn’t share our tax-funded snowplows with you, or let our tax-funded firefighters rescue you. But why isolate yourself like this? Why pretend that you’re somehow exempt from the basic things we all need as a society? Your premise is based in fear, that you don’t have enough, so you don’t want to share because you’re afraid of losing it all. Why not live on a premise of love and abundance, sharing a bit of what you have with love for your fellow countryperson so that we can all benefit, and rejoicing in the abundance that is created when we all agree to pay our fair share?
I also take umbrage with that outrageous statement that DSA grads who have gone on to work in the arts are “marginal cases”. Is Gabe Ebert, who recently won the Tony for his Broadway performances, marginal? Is Iyabo Boyd, who has participated as a filmmaker in the Sundance Film Festival? Aimee Schachter, who is assistant to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith? And these are just my classmates. I’d encourage you to call up Principal Bill Kohut so that he can rattle off to you the very long list of national and international competitions, international awards, and other prestigious accolades racked up by DSA grads. Who work in the arts. As a direct result of having begun their studies at DSA. Like me. I went on to study music at the Peabody Conservatory, which is part of Johns Hopkins. I’ve performed at the National Cathedral, at Rutgers with Amherst Early Music, just this summer with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Bravo Vail Music Festival. Yup, pretty marginal. Would you say that a high school football team was a waste of money just because the entire team didn’t go pro? I think not. Because somehow, sports seem to be the acceptable form of youthful edification in our society, whereas the arts are a frivolous throwaway. I guess business and corporate employers don’t value things that you learn as a young artist, like teamwork, innovation, collaboration, design, leadership, research skills, public speaking and interviewing…nah. Employers don’t care about those things. They care only about what was on that standardized test we all had to take.
S.P.: I’m certainly not saying that nothing good came from DSA, or that it was not formative in any way for those who attended or attend. As a DSA [relative of a student], I have many wonderful memories of seeing the amazing talent of the students highlighted. This, however, doesn’t mean I should vote for ballot issues that spend other people’s money, whether they are interested in supporting the arts or not. Art will not perish for lack of government support.
Also, SDCF resulted in government funding of what I will call ‘controversial art’, which put government’s finger on a scale where it doesn’t belong.
There are very good arguments that some services are best provided by government, though libertarian writers also argue that most, if not all, could be provided by the marketplace. Art does not really fall into the category of roads, firefighters, police and snowplows. There is no good argument that the arts require collective funding, unlike the other services mentioned. Conflating them is an intellectual fallacy. Museums, Art Expositions, Libraries, etc., were once funded by wealthy patrons and philanthropists. Today, tax laws allow any of us to support non profits that we have affinity with, and deduct it from our taxable income. This allows voluntary philanthropy, which seems preferable to me over coercion.
It’s also an intellectual fallacy to pretend that we as a society can function in the same ways that society functioned formerly. You mention wealthy patrons and philanthropists. These individuals existed during a time when the cost of living was much lower, and people spent four decades in the same position and collected a luxurious retirement fund at the end of their careers. If you think this is still possible for working people, you have not been paying attention. Our wonderful “free” deregulated market has allowed those at the top to pocket obscene amounts of money while the average working Joe makes the same minimum wage he would have earned 25 years ago. The people who could have afforded to support non-profit organizations in the middle of the 20th century find it impossible to afford philanthropy now.
A capitalist “free market” can support the arts…as long as people believe that they have a responsibility to contribute to their communities. Without that sense of stewardship, orchestras will fold and playhouses will close.
The concept of our democracy is that WE are the government, that WE, the people, are self-governing. To talk about the government as some nebulous disembodied phantom is another intellectual fallacy. When we govern ourselves, we hold each other accountable to contribute to the common good. If you feel coerced into paying taxes, you’re admitting that you wish not to participate in the contribution to the common good. If you say that you don’t want the government telling you how to spend your money, you’re saying that you believe that you are above being held accountable for doing your fair part to contribute to the common good.
Absolutely, art falls into the category of snowplows and roads. If you believe that the arts can be jettisoned, you must also believe that the species of the earth that hold our collective ecosystem together can be similarly jettisoned. And it is that attitude of exception that will sentence us all to a slow and painful death. The arts, like certain species, are not “extra”. The arts and culture of a city contribute MILLIONS OF DOLLARS to the economy. Artists touch every part of your day, from the moment you open your bag of dark roast (with logos designed by artists), to the television shows you watch in the evening (filled with actors, cinematographers, producers, stagehands, and musicians). None of these things from which you benefit would exist without artists. Artists who hold advanced degrees in their art. Artists who began their education at places like Denver School of the Arts. If you tried to live one week without the products of artists in your home, you would be miserable and struggling. Yeah, you could probably survive, but you wouldn’t have much of a quality of life. And yeah, we can survive without snowplows and paved roads, but it’s not a very nice life to live.
We are all connected. The arts are inextricably linked to every other aspect of our common life, our “ecosystem”, and to fail to support them cripples our way of life. We all have a responsibility to participate in and contribute to our common life, as we are able. For you to claim exemption from this must mean that you are suffering greatly and need others to carry your load for you. When you say, “I should get to keep all my hard earned money! You don’t get to decide where I spend it!”, you are merely saying that you expect others to bear the burden you are not willing to bear. This attitude of “someone else will take care of it. Not my problem” is not how we will succeed as a nation. It is how we will devolve into a wasteland of solitary rogues, every man, woman, and child for themselves. That’s not the America I want to live in. That’s not the America I believe in. E Pluribus Unum – this is the motto of my America. Out of many, one. A collective body, succeeding as one, a united people, helping each other, doing their share. I’m voting for the greater good of the American people on Tuesday. Sounds like you’re voting to keep your wallet safe. And when the recession hits Denver after the arts have failed and the businesses are no longer attracted to a cultured metropolis, when the jobs start disappearing because Denver isn’t a destination anymore, how safe will your wallet be?