Arts Are at the Nation's Soul

Ernest Fleischmann is executive vice president and managing director of the L.A. Philharmonic Assn

The new Congress is debating public funding for the arts, a mere speck on the federal budget but a speck whose elimination would greatly affect the future of America's cultural treasures, and severely limit access to those that survive. Our leaders are basically telling us, in damning words similar to those of Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat cable!"

Once upon a time, the arts--and stimulating, creative exchanges of ideas--were cherished and preserved. Now, institutions of culture are tossed into the crowded marketplace of interactive technology, Hollywood theme parks and round-the-clock parades of the dysfunctional on TV talk shows. We are being cocooned into a plug-in world of videocassette recorders, CD-ROMs, infomercials and on-line systems. Live concerts, theater, dance and the visual arts are given short shrift, almost as if they do not reward the time or effort we may expend to derive the glorious experiences they offer. Between the movie industry, the television networks and their friends in Congress, we are being led down a dangerous path of least resistance, of "Dumb and Dumber."

Congressional hearings are under way to consider abolishing this country's keepers of the creative and intellectual flame--the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum Services and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. Some legislators seek to turn these agencies, and the institutions they support, over to the private (commercial) sector, because they believe that arts and culture should be defined by the marketplace. Others claim that taxpayers should not be "forced" to spend 67 cents per year on something that our former secretary of education considers corrupt and offensive to "mainstream American values."

They totally ignore the brilliance of the American system of arts support, which relies on three sources--private contributions (from foundations, corporations and individuals), earned revenue and a modicum of government grants. There is no "Ministry of Culture," nor is there a need for one.


As far as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. is concerned, the decimation of public funding would jeopardize those programs that generate little or no direct revenue--free and low-cost tickets to the Hollywood Bowl and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and free education and community programs, such as our Live on Campus and Neighborhood Concerts. Access to great music would be seriously curtailed, available only to an elite audience that can afford to pay for tickets that would become more expensive without NEA grants. The NEA not only supports the artistic advancement of arts organizations, but it also enables us to offer greatly discounted tickets to seniors and students, and to make more than 1,000 seats available for just $1 for most symphony concerts at Hollywood Bowl.


How is it that public officials, to whom this nation, and other nations, look for direction and vision, so flippantly send out a message that freedom of expression, artistic creativity and access to the arts for everyone are no longer worth a taxpayer's dime? In the language of dollars and cents, a thriving arts community stimulates a lively economy, boosts tourism and contributes to raising a city's national and international image.

It is true that abolition of the NEA will allow some bottom-line aristocrats to feel that they are making a significant attempt to shrink the federal budget--by less than two one-hundredths of 1%. None of them, however, have called for the dismantling of our military bands, although they cost more than the whole of the NEA, which funds all the arts. And our diligent representatives in Congress have remained silent about the subsidies with which our tax dollars (lots of them) bolster the profits of the nation's agribusinesses.

History does not measure a nation's greatness by its corporate balance sheets, or even by its military bands. It is to the writers, the musicians, the philosophers, the painters and sculptors, the builders of the great cathedrals that we look for inspiration, for the impetus to create and go forward to make a positive impact on the world's civilization. If, however, we follow the dictates of the anti-arts brigade in Congress, the impact of the United States on the cultural progress of our world will be one of shame and sorrow, of guns and jails, and bottom lines.


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