Money, Money, Money
By: Frank Cadenhead
October 13, 2012. It certainly is the first time, and probably the last, that I will be able to join my home town, San Diego, together with the French city, Lyon, in the same sentence. But two similar stories in these cities have struck a chord.
The first is a surprising item in Musical America news on Thursday: “San Diego May Double Its Arts Funding.” Councilwoman Lorie Zapf was quoted as saying “It was looked at as an extra, that we have to ‘cut here, cut there.’ This is actually a big revenue generator for the city, so when you’re cutting arts and culture programming, you’re killing the golden goose that provides money for our neighborhood services, for our public safety.”
This was, remarkably, the same line of thought in a press conference a few months ago by Serge Dorny, the intendant at the Lyon Opera. He had commissioned a study about the economic impact of the opera season on his town. Each Euro spent, he says, produces far more than that in economic benefit to the city. Restaurants and hotels get a boost during performance nights, etc. He also noted that, in a review of the internet’s vast content, the city institution receiving the most international attention – aside from the famous soccer team, Olympique Lyonnais – is the opera company. This talk about art as an “economic benefit” in these two cities in different parts of the world needs to be said from time to time. Money for the arts does have an economic “radiation” effect in the city. It is not simply put in a pile and burned.
This “dollars and cents” argument would be particularly surprising for the French attending the Lyon press conference. “Are you shocked?” Dorney asked the assembled journalist. He was very aware that speaking about money and art at the same time is generally considered déclassé in France but he believed, like Councilwoman Zapf, that in these grim economic times, extraordinary efforts need to be made even to justify existing funding levels.
For the French, speaking about assets and costs is something only done when absolutely necessary. Americans always feel free to inquire about the price of things and consider this a normal topic of conversation. In the social historian Robert Darnton’s book, “The Great Cat Massacre,” he compares how fairy tales are altered in different cultures. In the French version of the goose that laid the golden egg, he notes, the owners tell nobody about this goose, while versions of the same tale in other cultures have no such restriction.
But what about art “ennobling the human spirit,” or being the “pinnacle of human achievement” and so forth. This high falutin talk was avoided by the San Diego Councilwoman. She knew that words like these cannot be part of any American public dialogue about art or creativity. She would be publicly ridiculed for such “elitism.” The textbook that explains this is one of the essential books for anyone who wants to understand America: “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” won the Pulitzer Prize for Richard Hofstadter in 1964. While America has always had more than it’s share of word-class genius in literature, ballet, music and art, the awareness of this creative wealth, and the country’s cultural life in general, is rarely publicly examined by political figures or the popular press. Well-known avant-guard artists and celebrity intellects – so popular in France – are unknown in America.
We often forget to stop and wonder about the art before our eyes. ‘Hurry, we’ll be late!” “Is she is still capable of singing Norma?” “I hope it’s not the same dreary set.” “We need to get to the parking lot before everyone else!” But Bellini’s opera is like a Schiller play, like an El Greco, like a poem by Keats – an absolute triumphant work of art.
The creation of art is, without question, the “pinnacle of human achievement” and those who achieve do, in fact, “ennoble the human spirit.” They are infinitely more important that, for example, those wildly-celebrated athletic contests where the one with the best pharmacist wins the gold metal.
Wise men know this. An instructive example of this would be Francis I (King of France from 1515-1547). One of the most powerful men on the planet, he understood that in the universe of time he will just be a sentence or two in the history books. His respectful succor of Leonardo da Vinci in his final years is legendary. The king knew what was really important, what was really eternal and what was really divine.