Reasons to Support Public Funding for the Arts

26 February 2009

"Music has to be recognized as an … agent of social development in
the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values —
solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite
an entire community and to express sublime feelings."  Jose Abreu 

I recently was listening to the radio when the news reported that some national leaders in the USA had objected to the recent Congressional economic stimulus bill on the basis that it included funding for the arts.  The radio included clips where Senators and Representatives were speaking in scornful tones about fluff arts programs that had no real substance and didn’t create "jobs". 

Excuse me?  I just can’t take that sitting down. 

This is a long blog post with some in depth discussion of the many reasons why public funding for the arts is a good idea.  For those who want just a brief list, here is a summary of the reasons:  (1) the arts improve individual mental ability and personal skill that crosses into all other endeavors in life, (2) the arts elevate the individual from a mere animal existence toward a higher and more enriching experience of human life, (3) the arts strengthen social structures at the level of the family, community, nation, and world. 

The arts solidify and build social structures as follows:   by strengthening the individual within the family and thereby strengthening the family unit, by building local communities through community networks that are drawn together and unified through their support of the arts, by contributing to the development of the national consciousness through the medium of art and, ultimately, by enabling nations to contribute to the greater world of ideas and the general uplifting of mankind.  So, the detail follows: 

First of all, there is no merit in the claim that funds distributed through arts programs do not create jobs.  A job created by or for an artist is no less a job than a job created for a plumber or painter.  The fact that the job is in the arts does not diminish its economic effect.  I am reminded, as an example of value, of the art and social history created and documented as part of FDR’s New Deal package. 

But even more than this initial red herring error, of their argument, I find myself deeply disturbed by the implied message that arts are somehow an extravagance unworthy of public funding in and of itself.  What an impoverished viewpoint concerning mankind!  Art, music, culture, spiritual pursuits — these are the very things that elevate mankind and distinguish us from beasts.  Without art, without beauty, without an aim to a higher or more noble purpose, what do we have but a vain existence trudging along the path of life toward certain death?  

A. BENEFIT TO THE INDIVIDUAL:  Each Individual Participant Benefits From Art, Not Just Because It Strengthens the Mind and Academic Pursuits, but Because Art Pulls Us Toward Experience of a Higher Level of Existence than the Mundane

Certainly (as it is said in Ecclesiastes), whether or not we have beauty in our lives, we all toil under the same sun and end up in the same place.  Yet Art (in the broad sense of the word, along with love and laughter) makes the journey so much more meaningful and worthwhile.  While gruel with some roots added in will nourish the body, a sumptuous buffet makes life better.  In the same way, art adds both light and levity to an otherwise base existence.  Why should we settle for gruel if we could have a life full of sumptuous buffet, in the spiritual and artistic sense if not the material one? 

There have always been people who believe that art is not a worthy pursuit.  The Calvinists, for one, banished art from religious services.  Always at risk of being perceived as worthless vanity, art faces danger whenever schools facing severe budget constraints must decide which subjects or programs to cut. 

Some years ago, I remember hearing an educator fighting on behalf of continued funding of the arts in public schools.  She tried to justify art and music by pointing out that children who take these subjects do better in their other academic subjects.  This is true.  Children who participate in music have significantly higher scores in both math and reading.  As a result of studies making this very point (and written about in books like The Mozart Effect), some educators play Mozart in their classrooms or during school math tests. 

This is rather simplistic, because in actuality real benefit from learning Mozart comes from the diligence of practice, from experiencing and learning about the internal structure of the music composition, not just as a side benefit of the fact that the music is soothing and will help children concentrate.  Though children do, indeed, perform better on their math tests even if all they do is listen while they take the test, they get the most out of music when they actually become immersed, embedded, and live and breathe it for a time each day.  However, for all of its many benefits for other academics, I would vehemently disagree with the notion that music is nothing but a means to a higher math score or simply another tool to use in fighting dyslexia.  To me, this concedes the argument much too quickly. 

The arts — uniquely — foster an experience that transcends the mundane, our daily experience of the world.  Through this transcendence, we are ourselves changed, transformed into something better, into a new and better realm of existence.  It is this capacity deep within our soul, which we glimpse through art, that elevates us above skin and bones and hunger and toward experience of the divine.  Art gives us a window into a higher plane of existence.  

One influential philosopher of music, Schopenhauer, tied this notion of transcendence into the concept of Plato’s ideal forms.  The form of music, in the platonic sense of form (I rudely paraphrase), draws our mind toward the the Telos of pure thought, rationality, and a type of mathematical experience.  I’ve read other philosophers who discussed how music operates in the mind in another dimension beyond time and space.  While I’m not going to try and re-find the article I read one time, about multidimensional experience and thought, I think I recall that the advent of PET scans has enabled proof that music does expand the mind and mental capabilities, in and of itself.  It’s theorized that this multidimensional, nonverbal aspect of music is the reason that music and mathematical ability is closely connected.  Yet I would argue, vehemently, that while music’s stimulation of the mind may have positive effects on other aspects of thought, this is not the most important aspect of arts education.  The experience of music (of art generally) — in and of itself — is sufficient to justify arts education, without regard to the effect that art has on other subjects. 

That’s because Art is enriching as a means to its own end, not just as an adjunct to other academics.  My 97 year old grandmother can recite Chaucer she learned as a school girl.  Yes, the act of learning how to memorize Chaucer created a skill — the skill of how to memorize — which surely served my grandmother well for 90 years.  But as much as this memory trick, knowledge of Chaucer’s poetic form has also enriched her life by adding a dimension of poetry that influenced her entire perception of and relation to language for all of her days.  Without regard to effect on memory, poetry is worthwhile for its own sake, for the beauty that it brings us. 

But wait, there’s more!

B. BENEFIT TO SOCIETY:  The Arts Enrich All of Society by Strengthening Families, Building Communities, Strengthening Nations, and Inspiring the World

Beyond enriching academic pursuits and bringing beauty to life, the social and uplifting function of art also serves to build communities and move people out of not only cultural but also economic impoverishment.  "How could this be," you ask? 

Today, I stumbled upon an interview of one of the 2009 TED* prize winners which enunciates some of the profound factors which give art a transformative role in society, perhaps our surest arguments that art SHOULD receive public funding and support. 

This talk was eloquent, and so moving, that I transcribed it.  It wasn’t how I had planned to spend my afternoon, but I felt as if the speaker captured thoughts that I’ve struggled to form in my own mind, about why art has had such a profound influence in my own life. 

Music has been a part of my life since I was a small child.  My mother was a professional musician, and some of my earliest memories are of playing underneath her piano while she practiced.  In my own household, participating in music was not optional.  I was expected to choose an instrument and practice as part of my daily routine.  And in addition to French horn, my chosen instrument, I was expected to learn "keyboarding" (piano) because that was part of being musically literate.  In high school and in college, I played in various bands and orchestras.  As profoundly influenced as I was by the deeply meaningful experience I had of playing music in an orchestra, it was hard for me to express exactly what that experience had entailed for me.  Even now, when I have friends and family who devote very significant time to the arts, I wonder what driving force motivates them to work so hard for their art.  

But today, I found that explanation in eloquent form.  The interview I watched was a video of Jose Antonio Abreu, a 2009 winner of a TED prize.  I was so stunned by his words that had to share them. 

But before I share them, I will answer the questions, "Who is this man?" and "What does he do?"  Maestro Abreu is a Venezuelan who in 1975 started a project, called El Sistema, to bring music instruction to at-risk children in Venezuela.  Today, El Sistema is a nationwide program in Venezuela.  It brings music to 250,000 children through participation in 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras, and 270 music centers.  His program began in 1975 with 11 boys and now boasts one of the premier symphonies in the world, the Teresa Careno Youth Orchestra, the national high school age youth orchestra of Venezuela.  (Click HERE for a link to a video of this orchestra.)

His words are so inspiring!  Hear what he has to say: 

[After discussing the beginnings of El Sistema and how it has grown into a national program  …  ]  "Today we can say that art in Latin America is no longer a monopoly of elites and that it has become a social right, a right for all the people. …


In its essence, the orchestra and choir are much more than artistic structures; they are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they [children in the el Sistema program] build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self esteem and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its sense. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, in the forging of values and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids. After all this time here, music is life, nothing else. Music is life.


The structure of El Sistema is based on a new and flexible managing style adapted to the features of each community and region, and today attends to 300,000 children of the lower and middle class all over Venezuela. It’s a program of social rescue and deep cultural transformation designed to the whole Venezuelan society with absolutely no distinctions whatsoever, but emphasizing on the vulnerable and endangered social groups.

The effect of El Sistema is felt in three fundamental circles: in the personal / social circle, in the family circle, and in the community. In the personal / social circle, the children in the orchestras and choirs develop their intellectual and emotional side. The music becomes a source for developing the dimensions of the human being, thus elevating the spirit and leading man to a full development of his personality. So, the emotional and intellectual profits are huge: the acquisition of leadership, teaching and training principles; the sense of commitment, responsibility, generosity and dedication to others; and the individual contribution to achieve great collective goals. All this leads to the development of self-esteem and confidence.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta insisted on something that always impressed me: that the most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no-one, the feeling of not being anyone, the lack of identification, the lack of public esteem. That’s why the child’s development in the orchestra and the choir provides him with a noble identity and makes him a role model for his family and community. It makes him a better student at school because it inspires in him a sense of responsibility, perseverance and punctuality that will greatly help him at school.

Within the family, the parents’ support is unconditional. The child becomes a role model for both his parents, and this is very important for a poor child. Once the child discovers he is important for his family, he begins to seek new ways of improving himself and hopes better for himself and his community. He also hopes for social and economic improvements for his own family. All this makes up a constructive and ascending social dynamic. The large majority of our children belong, as I already mentioned, to the most vulnerable strata of the Venezuelan population. That encourages them to embrace new dreams, new goals, and progress in the various opportunities the music has to offer.

Finally, in the circle of the community, the orchestras prove to be creative spaces of culture, the sources of exchange of new meanings. The spontaneity music has, excludes it as a luxury item and makes it a patrimony of society. It’s what makes a child play a violin at home, while his father works in his carpentry. It’s what makes a little girl play the clarinet at home, while her mother does the housework. The idea is that families join with pride and joy in the activities of the orchestras and choirs their children belong to. The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself, which also lies within itself, ends up overcoming material poverty.

From the minute a child’s taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor, he becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level, who’ll later become a full citizen. Needless to say, music is the number one prevention against prostitution, violence, bad habits, and everything degrading in the life of a child.

A few years ago, historian Arnold Toynbee said that the world was suffering a huge spiritual crisis. Not an economic or am social one, but a spiritual one. I believe that to confront such crisis, only art and religion can give proper answers to humanity, to mankind’s deepest aspirations, and to the historic demands of our times. Being that [arts] education is the synthesis of wisdom and knowledge, it’s the means to strive for a more perfect, more aware, more noble, and more just society.

With passion and enthusiasm, we pay profound respects to TED for its outstanding humanism, the scope of its principles, and its open and generous promotion of young values. We hope that TED can contribute in a full and fundamental way to the building of this new era in the teaching of music, in which the social, communal, spiritual, and vindicatory aims of the child and the adolescent become a beacon and a goal for a vast social mission. No longer putting society at the service of art, and much less at the service of monopolies of the elite, but instead art at the service of society, at the service of the weakest, at the service of the children, at the service of the sick, at the service of the vulnerable, and at the service of all those who cry for the vindication through the spirit of their human condition and the raising up of their dignity.

Wow.  He says so much!  I know that what I’ve written is far too long, but I hope, just hope, that if you have read this far, you will become or continue to be a passionate supporter of the arts in your community.  In your schools, in your home, in your own life.  Maestro Abreu was asking for the support of TED to build art in communities.  I would ask that you substitute the word "YOU" in place of TED in the paragraph above.  Won’t YOU support art? 

And as for this historic moment, congratulations to Maestro Abreu on his award!  His wish, granted by TED with funding of $100,000 for one wish to change the world?  His wish is this: 

I wish you [TED] would help create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the US and in other countries.

May this wish come fully to life! 

Here is the video, if you’d like to listen to the entire interview for yourself: 




*TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design.  TED is a new think tank, pulling together the best of modern ideas and communicating those to the rest of us.


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