Not With My Money, You Don't!

Burt Prelutsky
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Posted: Sep 22, 2008 12:01 AM
Not With My Money, You Don't!

When Senator Jesse Helms passed away, I wrote a piece in which I praised the man. Because he was a controversial figure, I assumed I would be hearing from some of the folks who disapproved of him. One such fellow, a guy in New York we’ll call Bob, wrote to say, “Helms may have been a nice, polite man on the surface, but let’s face it, he was slightly to the right of Genghis Khan, although I think dear old Genghis was much more tolerant. Helms was a racist schmuck and a rabid homophobe.”

To which I responded: “I don’t approve of calling people racists these days because, usually, the people doing the name-calling are racists themselves. And, yes, I am referring to the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, the Obamas and their erstwhile spiritual leader, Jeremiah Wright. I also dislike the word ‘homophobe.’ Most people take a live-and-let-live approach to aberrant life styles, but do in fact disapprove of homosexuality, but are simply too timid in these politically correct times to admit it.”

In defense of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), which both Sen. Helms and I vehemently opposed, Bob wrote: “It’s true that there are some really shlocky artists out there, but the NEA supports much more than shlocky art, including many first rate artistic endeavors that nobody could object to.”

To which I replied, “Plenty of people have objected to Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and even, as we both know, to some of my own endeavors. That isn’t the question. The question is: why should artists who can’t support themselves be supported by the nanny state? At least during the Great Depression, you could have made the case that people simply didn’t have the money to spend on non-essentials, but that’s hardly the case today when people are spending $10 to see a movie and $100 to see a show on Broadway or in Vegas, and God knows how much on electronic toys and games.”

Bob replied, “The NEA’s endowment is so tiny compared to what European governments have done to support the arts that what is taken out of each individual taxpayer’s pocket in America amounts to literally pennies.”

“Why,” I asked, “should we care what Europeans do or don’t do? Considering that Europe gave us Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, is rife with anti-Semitism, and is caving in to sharia law in one craven country after another, why on earth would you suggest using them as our role model?”

“I am a classical musician,” Bob explained, “and an advocate for classical music. Because of the lack of support, many professional symphony orchestras are in serious trouble, and a number of them have been forced to go under, while several others are on the verge.”

I replied, “I happen to love classical music, and wish that more school districts would introduce it to our kids who, instead, grow up hearing nothing but Rap, Hip Hop and other similar trash. But I don’t think people should be forced to support through taxation that which they are obviously unwilling to support at the box office.”

“Say what you will about Europe, thanks to government subsidies, orchestras and opera companies over there are able to flourish.”

“Bob, as we both know, governments are notoriously generous with other people’s money. You keep bringing up the Europeans as a way to denigrate America, but you’re not preaching to the choir or even to the string section.”

“Symphony orchestras, opera companies and ballet troupes, are not idle luxuries of the frivolous rich,” Bob insisted. “They improve the quality of life for people all over America and provide employment for many gifted people.”

“I agree that they provide employment for serious musicians, but if people choose not to attend their performances, I fail to see how they improve the quality of life for anyone who doesn’t happen to be drawing a government-subsidized salary. Besides, the quality of music reproduction these days enables millions of us to enjoy classical music in our own homes for a fraction of what it costs to attend a concert. Plus, you don’t have to get all dressed up, drive downtown and pay a king’s ransom for parking.”

Bob, clearly not a man to be swayed by logic and reason, continued: “Abolishing the NEA just because of a few trashy art works makes about as much sense as cutting your whole arm off just to get rid of a hangnail. Also, the NEA does not subsidize artists like Robert Mapplethorpe directly; it funds museums.”

That left me no recourse but to throw a penalty flag. “That’s simply not true. The NEA definitely funded Mr. Mapplethorpe’s attempts to pass off scatology and pornography as art. As a matter of fact, on occasion when artists haven’t received the funding they requested, they have accused the government of censorship -- thus establishing for the record that they are not only hacks, but ignoramuses, as well. Still, while the failure to subsidize bad art in no way constitutes censorship, who, for heaven’s sake, is the government to determine which bad artists should or shouldn’t be encouraged to pursue their muse?”

Bob finished up by declaring, “Some people say that businesses and philanthropies should support the arts in America, but they simply can’t or won’t provide nearly enough support to keep symphony orchestras from folding.”

Obviously, Bob is not a bad fellow. I’m convinced that it’s not just his own livelihood he’s fretting about, but the sad state of classical music in America. Still, I had no option but to conclude our exchange by writing: “We don’t happen to live in a Socialist state…at least not entirely, at least not yet. I’ll remind you that Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler both supported the arts in a big way. But, I’ll remind you that it wasn’t all beer and skittles. Dmitri Shostakovich was twice denounced by his Soviet masters, and prevented from having his music performed for years at a time; that Boris Pasternak had to smuggle “Dr. Zhivago” out of the Soviet Union in order to have it first published in Italy, and then forced to reject the Nobel Prize for Literature; and that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to the Gulags; while, thanks to the Nazis, Fritz Lang, Thomas Mann and Billy Wilder, all had to run off to America, leaving German culture in the less than capable hands of Leni Riefenstahl and Herman Goering.

“Soccer,” I went on, “has never really caught on in this country, although a great many people love to watch and even play the silly game. Would you have the federal government subsidize professional soccer? In America, a capitalistic state, people are free to support whatever they like, be it football, baseball, basketball, rock concerts, opera, kickboxing or ballet. Even in our somewhat depressed economy, an awful lot of people seem to have come up with enough money to see “Dark Knight” and even pay for a tub of popcorn, so if they decide they don’t want to spend their dough to see classical music performed, I think it’s safe to assume they don’t want Uncle Sam picking their pockets to pay for it.

“Perhaps, unless you happen to be one of those rare soloists who can actually draw a crowd, it’s time that concert music stop pretending to be an actual vocation and, instead, like racquetball, checkers, gin rummy and yodeling, take its rightful place as a harmless pastime.”