Art, for Art’s Sake

In a recent New York Times article, culture desk editor Daniel McDermon writes about how to fall in love with art. It’s a straightforward piece with sweetness and a deep valuation of art and culture at its core. It also builds on a precept that feels as if it needs to be dusted off and trotted out again: Art has value beyond quantification.

But if that’s the case, why do we battle for arts dollars, yet accept that cultural programming is almost always the first line item cut from a budget? Perhaps it’s because of the mercurial (unregulated) nature of the market; perhaps it’s because art seems relative. Perhaps it’s because we exist in the wake of the National Endowment of the Arts cuts of the ’90s (see David Wojnarowicz, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe) that still views art and artists suspiciously, like swindlers and charlatans swanning about in weird clothes doing odd, performative things.

In 2018, Rick Scott’s administration slashed arts funding from $25 million to $2.6 million—nearly 90 percent. This is just the most aggressive move in what’s become a war of attrition ($43 million in 2014 to $35 million in 2015). The numbers, though stark and terrifying, don’t tell the whole tale (though I bet it’s a story of sugar-coated “productivity” bias).

Governor Voldemort aside, the wider story should be about how artists function in a community and how that community supports them (or not). The question inevitably becomes: “What is art?” which itself gets back to trust/legitimacy issues. And, boom, we’re in a circle-jerk of righteous indignation; really just a loop-de-loop way of fracturing small groups already prone to infighting and sabotage.

Pushing past issues of ideology and personality, the meat of the question actually is: Why do arts and culture always lose? The answer might be that while the cultural community is good at raising hell (sign-making is fun, protests are exciting), as a whole, we’re not good at sustaining that pressure. They keep cutting because we keep accepting it.

The solution has to be long term, inclusive and perhaps even a little scary. Several years ago, a curator/arts advocate said something I have never forgotten: In other cities of similar size [to Jacksonville], the arts community is something to be reckoned with; but here, we barely look up when faced with a new indignity.

This bears out in the numbers. So it’s time the arts and culture sector stops waiting to be asked to defend its value, and instead grabs the mic and demands to be heard. When cuts are proposed, contact representatives; use our collective brilliance and wit to spotlight the absurdity and greed of elected officials and the powers that be. People (politicians) make decisions about the things they hear about.

This year, the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville (CCGJ) requested $3.4 million from the city of Jacksonville; they received $2.4 million.

It’s worth reiterating that, for every dollar spent on arts and culture, up to $5 can be generated. This is just a way to communicate value to cotton-headed politicians, but really, “econo-speak” of gains/loss almost does a disservice to the arts. Art is inherently inefficient and often not functional, but it is one of the things that inspires, challenges, teaches and helps us grow. Funding art for its own sake is valuable.

It’s almost impossible to think about ancient cultures like Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece without thinking about the extraordinary contributions of their artisans. Closer to the 21st Century, who imagines NYC’s lineage without the drunken paint splatterers of the ’50s, or the glamorous neo-figurists of the ’80s? Even in NEFLa’s backyard, artists affect culture: Who in the sphere of the arts casts their mind back to the early aughts and doesn’t recall how Lee Harvey’s prognosticating, cynical, Jesusville-spouting self helped define that era—and predict this one?

All this is to say: A timid, rabbity attitude of “don’t make waves, at least we’re not getting cut,” serves no one, not even well(ish) funded folks at the top—because eventually they’ll come for those dollars too … or put them on a path to an economic growth model (fill dem seats, sell dat stuff). Funding art for its own sake might actually be more valuable to a community in terms of things that make art compelling: risk, relevance and surprise.

In Duval County, an attempt to cut public school programs for art, music and physical education to pay for guards and counseling required in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting was ultimately defeated. This year, Duval Public Schools will have those classes. What about next year? And the next, and the next?

Begin by reaching out to city leaders, council representatives and culture vultures, show them the value not just in dollars and cents, but in people and transformation. Then break out the signs … and keep making provocative art. It’s not easy but, hey, we’re already in love.