There seem to be two extremes in people’s attitudes toward the arts and humanities: useless and elitist, or vital and life-affirming. America’s universities, galleries, performance venues, and even competition shows offer a multitude of opportunities for artists to cultivate their craft and earn a living through art. And yet critics can easily point to slow job growth, market saturation, and technology. On the flip side, passionate artists become entrenched in their form, even adopting the mantle of “starving artist.” Patrons still reify certain forms of theatre and music as art, relegating others to “pop culture,” the tastes of the bourgeois.
It’s time to reconceptualize all this. It’s time to tear down the artificial barrier between high and low culture. It’s time to decolonize the arts and humanities. All members of society, no matter their self-identification as an artist or their socioeconomic status, benefit from being able to create and to enjoy others’ creativity. It is proven to lower blood pressure, support trauma recovery, and empower those with disorders. Quite a few local organizations, including Self Narrate, 352Creates, and UF’s Center for Arts in Medicine, are devoted to making the arts and humanities a participatory act. As an applied arts producer, I have directed and organized more than two dozen shows and workshops devoted to cultivating creativity for the participants’ health and happiness. My biannual festival Red Soul Days has used decentralized, feedback-loop creative experiences to empower survivors of bullying and domestic violence. My immersive art shows have dissolved walls between the creators and the consumers, the artist and the audience. We are vaulting over the garden walls and directly benefiting people’s lives. We have used the arts to help veterans with PTSD, teen victims of bullying, sexual assault victims, and people with anxiety disorders, to name a few. I personally have had dozens of workshop participants express to me that having the opportunity to paint their feelings on a canvas, seeing their story portrayed on stage, or simply being in a state of creativity have saved their lives. And yet the snide remarks emerge on every article about this excellent work, wondering how much of “taxpayer dollars” went to fund someone’s “pet project.”
Unfortunately, the money question goes both ways. In my decade of experience in the non-profit performing arts, I heard one alarming thing far too often: “I don’t need to be paid for my art, because I love it and that’s enough.” Or often, more specifically, “People who truly love their art don’t want money for it.” I have seen dozens of people shamed for wanting to have a career as an artist, or at least being compensated for their time and materials. I have seen non-profits justify having people give them not only months of free labor, but the full content of their creative souls, by insisting that they are forbidden by the tax code from paying anyone (they’re not).
How are we to command respect from our detractors when we don’t respect ourselves? We should not cheapen our art. The act of being creative is free, although any activity requires energy and time, and the pursuit of the arts is certainly not free. Passion does not pay for classes and materials; exposure does not pay the bills. (And as the joke goes, you can die from exposure.) More importantly, those who are using creativity to cultivate health and community need funding to support their efforts. We cannot say that true art is its own reward and pretend that that reward constitutes money. Why not pursue both?
The arts and humanities are more than cerebral or self-indulgent exercises. They have a palpable benefit to the community. However, they are also not endlessly sustainable. To thrive, no matter the level or cost of participation in creativity, the class barriers must fall and the dichotomies must dissolve. As they say, it takes a village, and only the arts and humanities can permeate all the houses of the village. If we let them.