With the kind of lefty, idealistic Facebook friends I’ve got, every visit to the trendy social networking Web site offers a deluge of invitations to join causes or align with groups dedicated to making the world a better place.
Clean water for the Third World! Save the Lakota language! End dog fighting! Help the veterans! Stop buying bottled water! Create a federal department of peace! Keep art in public schools! And, no kidding, one called “smack stupid people in the face so hard they might get smarter.”
At a certain point, one has to wonder if such loose, lazy sympathies have any efficacy. More importantly, one fears such off-the-cuff causes might actually succeed.
The only “cause” I’ve actually signed up for—I think a few dozen invitations are languishing in my inbox—is the “Call for Culture Friendly NM Rail Runner Schedule.” We finally have a public transit rail, but it actually is a commuter rail. The current schedule is tied to workaday considerations and gives very little consideration to the schedules of students, airport customers, recreationists or, indeed, cultural events.
The dream of catching a rock ’n’ roll blowout concert in ABQ, amplified by a few beers, and then catching the 1 am train back to Santa Fe remains a predictably distant dream. As it is, it’s hard to stay in the Duke City long enough to have a civilized dinner and still catch a ride. It seems more tangible—and effective—to add my support for an expanded schedule than to try and save the Lakota language.
The Rail Runner group now has 1,217 members, but I’m not sure it makes a damned difference to the Department of Transportation. What does it care, after all, about a Facebook I-care-enough-to-click-here group?
There are more than 2,700 members signed up to support Quincy Jones’ call for a secretary of the arts cabinet position at a federal level—not exactly a wellspring of popular support, but a related online petition in support of the same idea had nearly 230,000 signatures at the time of this writing. That’s a more impressive number, even if it doesn’t signify much more than vague agreement and finger twitching at the individual level.
And certainly, advocacy for the arts on the federal level is discombobulated and in need of cohesion and vision. But, at the risk of pissing off all my art buddies, I’m unconvinced that a new, high-salaried government job, which is likely to entail a lot of eating out, guest appearances and bureaucratic winnowing, will help anyone.
After all, most cabinet positions are about appeasing the broadest possible constituent base, rather than streamlining a vision and enabling effective progress. And when we talk about advocacy for the arts these days, we’re really talking about advocacy for arts education and for major institutions. Nobody in Washington, DC, sitting in a $1,000 office chair, is going address the concerns of inner-city graffiti bombers or indie start-up bands on their first tour or painters who can’t afford studio space and wind up keeping their tube of Alizarin crimson next to their tube of tomato paste.
No bureaucrat, in other words, is going to challenge the status quo. The status quo says that people who rise through the ranks of accepted institutions are anointed with the power to select new talent. The status quo says that children must drown in arts education, but support for organizations that offer regular programming to adults must be minimally funded if at all, unless the organizations are the grand icons of “culture” staffed by the anointed. The status quo says that there is nothing wrong with the relationship between the honest work of artists and the art market. The status quo says that art is gentle and beautiful.
Institutional support of the arts breeds institutional art. It may be that an argument can be made for some kind of cultural “trickle down” effect; the acceptance of the arts—even bland, state-sanctioned arts—creates potential for new and different artists to emerge at the corners and crevices. But on the surface of it, an arts secretary does nothing to create ingenuity and innovation.
New Mexico is clever enough to have a state-level secretary for cultural affairs. Rather than dropping duff on distant, federal demagogues, why not fund states or municipalities to do the work in their regions? Artists need commissions and cash more than cabinet posts. How’s that for a Facebook cause?
If lobbying for the federal government to help with something real in the community where you live is too much to ask, try going to a concert, try seeing a play, try buying a painting, try writing a poem. True, it takes more effort than clicking that computer mouse but, every once in a while, real life is even better than YouTube.
Support for the arts comes down to supporting your scene. And me and Quincy Jones? Different scenes.