Speaking to one of my Texas neighbors the other day, medical the conversation somehow steered towards the subject of art, one of the many topics I usually avoid chatting about with folks who pegged Ronald Reagan a Communist because the man once said the people had the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. So it really didn’t surprise me much when my neighbor grimaced when I let is slip that I was attending an art opening later that evening. I wasn’t extending an invitation, mind you. I’m not that foolish, in fact, I’m very suspicious of people that denounce art in general. Not breaking character, my neighbor went on to tell me that the liberals have corrupted the “good nature of God’s art.” Art should be to honor God, he confronted we with, emphatically.

It’s painful when people can’t see past the pulpit. It’s almost criminal when politicians, especially those striving to become leader of the free world, don’t show the least interest in the value of the arts. In a campaign year that has jobs and economy placed at the top of the debate list, why aren’t any of the candidates even mentioning the facts about a strong arts agenda? According to a just-released study the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year — $63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences. Using data from Dun & Bradstreet, nationally, there are 904,581 businesses in the U.S. involved in the creation or distribution of the arts that employ 3.34 million people.

The arts may be a timeless and universal language, but the only time you hear politicians talking about art is when they are really talking about censorship or making cuts to arts programming or funding. Why cut when goods produced by the arts are an important international export industry for the U.S., estimated at $64 billion in 2010?

With so many people working for arts businesses, arts education is a critical tool in fueling the creative industries with arts-trained workers as well as new arts consumers. Alan Greenspan, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, notes, “The arts develop skills and habits of mind that are important for workers in the new economy of ideas.”

Instead, we have the likes of Newt Gingrich who once said Public Broadcasting was a sandbox for the rich, and Rick Santorum who recently stated he does not frequent art museums. Ron Paul voted to terminate National Public Radio despite it often being the only news source for many smaller radio stations across the country, and Mitt Romney has flatly stated he’s planning to eliminate The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities if elected to the Presidency.

Aside from the economics, artists are important to us because of their ability to express what is deep or hidden in our consciousness, what we cannot or will not express ourselves. And museums are traditionally the neutral sanctuaries – entered voluntarily by the public – for this expression. What we see there may not always be aesthetically pleasing, uplifting or even civil; but that is the necessary license we grant to art.

I’m still waiting for a candidate, from either party, to be “heroic” enough to argue that the arts played an important part in shaping their character, and that without a strong arts mandate, we are a failed nation. But then, rogue politicians rarely get elected.

 

— SCOT C HART