America is not a country that nourishes its emerging artists. We of the art world live in the midst of a daily negation of our work and worth. Judged by the curious status symbols of the other side of society (money, success, The Card) we pale in comparison and learn to draw upon the survival instincts of the powerless. Smiling in the face of insults, doing our step'n-fetch-it shuffle as we sing for our supper.
"We exist," a writer said, "to be patronized."
The pathway between beginning and succeeding is the rocky road that "separates the men from the boys" and the genuinely committed craftsmen from part-time tourists who are passing through this surreal experience on their way to more concrete career moves. Not for the fainthearted are those bread-and-butter decisions between conscience and commercialism. (I recently posed as the "blackface" in a company publicity photo for a corporation that had hired no blacks; my friend, the photographer, needed the money.)
Our culture never has treated art as vitally necessary to national survival. Art is the luxury item on the budget, the afterthought, the financial leftover and poor relation of more worthy concerns. The result of that condescension is now seen in our situational ethics, crass materialism, conspicuous consumption and politics of convenience.
Artists feed the soul and guide the standards of a nation. The nation that disregards its artists will ultimately reject itself because the voice that calls collective introspection, self-examination, analysis and correction has been economically silenced.
An emerging artist may be granted recognition by other definitions within other contexts. The world sees a copywriter, teacher, marketing director, secretary, bellhop, waiter. But the society is reluctant to accord that artist his professional title _ writer, painter, sculptor _ because the word "professional" in America means no more or less than income-earning potential.
Zora Neale Hurston was a distinguished writer before publication, and given only measured praise afterward. But her survival struggles may have deprived the world of more than half her contribution.
An astute New York actress recently transplanted to this challenging area attended a meeting of the City/County Task Force for the Arts and made this observation: "You people are a little spoiled down here. In my city, we don't expect to have subsidized art. If what you're doing is good enough, it will pay for itself."
That sounded like good sense at the time, until the broader perspective was considered. New York audiences are among the most sophisticated anywhere, pride themselves on taste and discrimination, and hardly need to be convinced that art for art's sake has a valid place in the universe.
In less enlightened regions, the term "audience development" may comprehend basic education in the art form and a fundamental adjustment of values and attitudes toward artistic pursuits. Where that need has been identified, let the arts, civic and business communities cooperate fully in forming an organic, nurturing and supportive climate in which the arts will be appreciated, applauded and viably sustained.
As for the furious flap about government subsidies, let us be careful not to speak with a forked tongue. We have in recent years either intentionally or helplessly subsidized S&Ls, congressional overdrafts, agricultural waste and mismanagement and John Sununu. Major research grants have been allocated to determine if the Frisbee might be useful as a defense weapon.
These examples are not intended to imply that art subsidies are equally frivolous and therefore eminently justifiable. But the NEA, now the notorious symbol of all artistic endeavor, has suffered undue and disproportionate criticism that has unfairly attacked the entire principle of subsidized art rather than addressing the narrower question of what kind of art should be funded.
If, as I believe, art is the evidence of the mind of the Creator expressed in creation, any hindrance to that expression is an impediment to ourselves. America is now, educationally and artistically, a proud and puffed up peacock preening and parading in past glories as we press toward mediocrity. That is a shameful spiritual and artistic condition not worthy of our heritage.
Let us grow up and see with clearer eyes. Let us allow the visionaries among us to be seen and heard and granted a sphere of influence. Or let us blindly follow the path of Nazi Germany, Communist China and the former Soviet Union, whose more memorable atrocities began with the suppression of thought and the persecution of those unencumbered souls who dare to dream.
Althea England is a Tampa writer and actress.
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