Last night I watched some of Real Time on HBO, hosted by Bill Maher.  The guests, Clive Barker, Ann Coulter, and D.L. Hughley, were talking about the arts and funding.  Of concern was funding the arts with federal tax dollars.  There was a general consensus that the arts should not be funded with taxes.  Strangely, this is a sentiment that I do not agree with.

Since most people can probably get along without ever experiencing great works of art, I wonder if there's a benefit to it.  My real question is one of soul.  We can go through the machinations of work and family every day, but there is an underlying essence, whether ethereal or divine, that needs to be enriched to make us whole people.

When talking with Berta at lunch yesterday, I recalled the concept of education.  I would like to get more proof for my position regarding other cultures and nationalities, but my sentiment currently lays out and relates to art as follows.

In many ways our educational system is deficient.  One of these primary ways is in showing students why they are learning anything at all.  Compared to foreign countries, our students show a severe lack of dedication to learning.  There is no doubt that disinterest in "book learning" is a problem for our youth.

But I don't think the problem is that American kids don't want to learn.  It's that they're not currently being enticed with any non-mechanical topic.  They have no link between their essence - that thing that drives them - and the knowledge required to achieve it.  We're very concerned about absolute test score average cutoffs and not very much about the raison d'ĂȘtre.

If you look at where American education succeeds, it's in the roundness that it provides.  In other countries, students are focused on what will get them into the economy.  This is important, but it's not fulfilling.  The social state that we have to maintain in this country - to pursue the goals of liberty and happiness - require that we do more than learn the one discipline that will pay for food and shelter.

I imagine someone with a French accent sending me "hatemail" now, asking how I can say that all foreigners have no appreciation for art.  What I'm saying, though, is that I believe that many people who don't receive the all-encompassing education that is typically available in the US don't have the experience or training required to put some things into a greater context.

A great example of this is a paper I'm currently working on, a critical analysis of the a movie based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  The original book title is Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus.  For my paper I'm choosing to compare the book/movie with the myth.  Without a full education in regard to literature, myth, and even philosophy, how can one really grasp the art behind the book?  After all, it's not really an academic discourse - it's a novel.

I believe there is also a calling for art beyond the level of students.  Even when the art is currently relevant only to a few people, the eventual effects can be profound.  How long did it take for great painters and poets to be noticed?  Unfortunately, many artists were dead long before they were universally recognized as prodigies.

All of this seems to require some definition of what art really is.  For me, art is entertainment that enriches that essence.  There can be art in many things.  I have recently found a lot of art in modern poetry written by living poets.  There is art in music that stirs me. 

At the same time, I don't really find art in painting.  I have nary seen a painting that I found truly moving.  About the closest I think anyone has possibly come is Michael Parkes, and I am wary about professing care for something so mainstream.

I find art in programming source code, which I'm sure a majority of Earth-dwellers don't.  An elegant swath of code can make things click in my head like no other art can.

So I've hit the inevitable argument of who gets to decide what is art.  Clearly if left to congress, then nothing will receive funds but performance pieces in which the artist pees on depictions of the Crucifixion.

On the other hand, if any kind of art can speak to someone, then who is anyone to say that what one person chooses to fund is any more or less valid than what another person does?  Couldn't one argue that the less popular art forms are the more deserving because then the less mainstream art might be exposed to more people?

It might be more important, following my own logic, to use NEA money to "re-popularize" art than to fund specific art.  And maybe that's partially what they're up to.

I certainly agree in some degree that "there are more important things, like education, on which we should be speding our tax dollars," but we can't improve education without also expanding the discipline of art within our schools.  Exposing students to newly evolving artists plays a key part in that.

Homeless people can't eat art.  Art doesn't save the economy or provide medication for the elderly.  These ideas are prosaic.  I dare not suggest that free art for the homeless might inspire them somehow to improve their situation when they have nothing else to look toward.  Art can be the inspiration for things that provide real solutions to these hard problems.

The funding for this art falls into that odd category that demands funding although it's not immediately obvious why.  This is similar to the thought that everyone needs to pay taxes on roads, not just motorists.  Why?  Because trucks deliver groceries to your supermarket.  Even if you're an avid walker and don't own a car, you should be paying road tax, and there is clear justification for it.

Likewise, funding art has trickle-down that you can't immediately see.  It may even be impossible to survey and quantify how the spiritual enrichment of one person can directly affect anyone else.  But to provide as an example an extreme case, I don't want to live in an America devoid of art, of soul, filled with uninspired automatons.

I also grow weary of the argument that sounds like, "If you like the arts, then you pay for it and let those who are disinterested direct their cash elsewhere," because that doesn't work.  The whole point of taxes is to get everyone to contribute an even share toward causes that have a benefit to most of the people.

If people were no longer taxed and could give their money to any cause they chose, many things would happen.  First, most people would keep their own money and nothing would get funded.  Second, of those things that did receive money, many things that people don't percive as an obvious immediate benefit would not be funded well enough to survive.  Things like roads, schools, and military.  Ironically, programs like the NEA, which receive many donated funds, would probably survive longer than any national healthcare program if left up to the populace to fund.

What is the solution?  Don't look here for one.  I just don't believe that the solution includes eliminating public funding of the arts.