January 25, 2011

A Certain Sense of Self/ A Certain Love of Place

Recently our governor gave a state of the state address in which she told us that we cannot afford to have a State Arts Commission or Educational Television in South Carolina. Her words and the intention behind them made me realize just how great is the sentiment that the arts and humanities are expendable when times are tight. I gave some very serious thought as to how I would personally address this issue once again and decided to do whatever I could to impress upon our State Legislature why these government entities should not be abolished. I have been doing so with the help of friends and colleagues. But for everyone who feels that the arts and humanities should be preserved and also (perhaps especially) for those who do not, I am writing an essay/story in three parts: An Exploration of Self Worth for the Artist, The Social and Economic Necessity of Art, and The Reasons Behind The Lack of Support for the Arts and What To Do About it.

I would first like to address the commonly held dictum that the arts and humanities are things we cannot afford in times of duress. I have often found that “can’t afford” is a code for “don’t want” “don’t care” and “is not my interest or priority.” Although there are times when people and institutions truly cannot afford something, more often than not it is merely more socially acceptable and appears less callous to claim not to be able to afford it. It can’t always happen, but people have a funny knack of somehow getting and affording what they really want - even art and music. I saw an interesting example of this when I attended a great lecture by Walt Micheal last summer about people in Appalachia in the 1960's. What impressed me most about one of the people living in dire poverty back then was a collection of banjos that he had made by hand from armadillo shells!

Some will say that art is not important if you’re starving. I can tell them that this is not true. When the Soviet Union collapsed my family found that we still had extended family in Ukraine. I recall my family sending them packages of food. Our Eastern European cousins always wanted us to leave space in their food packages for cassettes of music. Could not a state budget hold art this dear? Can they not know that a fed body means little when it carries a starved mind?

A Certain Sense of Self, A Certain Love of Place

I lead a simple life. On the way to and from my jobs and my errands I would turn on the car radio and listen to National Public Radio. I loved Radio Reader in the morning on my way to teach a seminar. I loved Car Talk and What Do You Know on the Weekends. Most of all, I loved driving home after a successful residency to the strains of jazz and classical music on public radio. Much of my work over the past twenty years in South Carolina required a lot of traveling to teach art in public schools through the Arts In Education program of the South Carolina State Arts Commission. My most popular course was Chinese Traditional Painting and Calligraphy. I traveled across the state for two decades - usually listening to music on public radio or listening to CD’s of music that I had purchased after hearing it on public radio. My biggest contribution to the state and to artists around the world was probably the creation of the Society of American Mosaic Artists - which was funded initially with subgrants from the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center which received its funding from the South Carolina State Arts Commission. But that was such an immense undertaking that I will discuss it separately.

I developed a deep love and appreciation for South Carolina in my travels. I enjoyed the rich countryside and the simple nineteenth century architecture of small towns. I painted these scenes in hotel rooms or back home in my studio. From time to time, I applied for grants and fellowships to assist in the exhibition and production of this work. Some of these were South Carolina Arts Commission based. After my late night work was done, I watched Educational Television.

So considering my history, my aspirations, my work and about 90% of my leisure activities, it was difficult not to take my governor’s call to shut down the Arts Commission and ETV personally. It was especially devastating because although our past governors had advocated reduced spending, there has never been a call for the complete dissolution of the branches of state government devoted to the cultural and educational advancement of its citizens.

And yet I felt an odd sense of resignation - as if a flippant disregard for everything that has been dear to me as an artist over the last twenty years is something to be expected. It was a kind of resignation that I have often heard in the artist and scholar’s lament that in hard times “the arts are always the first to go.” I wonder how we became so passive and cynical. And I wonder how we got to the point where it has become an accepted inevitability that when our ship is sinking, instead of patching the holes and giving everyone a bucket to help bail us all out, we just throw everyone overboard instead - perhaps artists and intellectuals first.

We can talk about how to fix a broken system. Spend more. Spend less. Have the “right” party in charge of everything. But none of that will matter if we don’t fix ourselves first. And that means acknowledging that we can neither legislate humanity nor pretend that humanity is an expendable commodity. It begins with a sense of self, one’s presence in the world and one’s right to be here. It begins by understanding that some people contribute more, some less. Some contributions are more popular than others. Others are paid more, others less. But in human terms payment does not define worth and all contributions to a common good are valuable.

There will be a vote tomorrow by the House Ways and Means Committee in South Carolina. I hope that they will make the right choices. If we all have to cut back on expenditures so be it.
But like my cousins who left a little space in their box of food for art, I hope that our representatives have the wisdom to allocate that same kind of space in our state for the arts and humanities too.