Thursday scatter: money and manure

“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure,” the indefatigable Dolly Levi maintains in Thornton Wilder‘s stage comedy The Matchmaker. “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

Actress Ruth Gordon in 1919, at age 23. Wikimedia CommonsFunny, isn’t it, that both money and manure hit the fan in the world of politics? This isn’t a condemnation. It’s the necessary nature of the political beast. You shovel and shovel, and spread and spread, and hope you’ve put the seeds in the right places. In tough times, the process tends to get heavy on manure and light on money — and these, as you might have noticed, are tough times. Do we spend our way out of our economic mess, or batten the hatches and risk total shutdown?

It’s a red-flag question for partisan bulls and bears, and trying to step through the muck dispassionately, looking for solid footing, is no easy chore. Dolly, I suppose, is a liberal, although at the time the play hit Broadway in 1955 she might have been considered an early Rockefeller Republican.

When it comes to money and the arts, Oregon has a long tradition of deciding there just isn’t enough manure to go around. The state’s system of cultural spending is a little more like the theory behind growing world-class wine grapes in a marginal climate: stress the vines, and they’ll concentrate their fruit better.

In the arts, sometimes that works. A lot of times, it just kills the plant. Even the vaunted Oregon Cultural Trust is essentially a pay-your-own-way plan, coming down to this overriding policy: If you want culture, make a donation. It was supposed to stabilize state funding for cultural matters and get arts advocates off the Legislature’s back. But last year at budget-crunching time, the Democrat-dominated state Legislature had no qualms about raiding the fund, which supposedly was an inviolable trust. It was, quite simply, a betrayal — or, in the cynics’ lexicon, just politics.

Meanwhile, cultural advocates keep pressing their case for better and more consistent public funding, arguing that the cultural industries create jobs, have a high economic multiplier effect on local economies, are key industrial attractors as the state makes its transition to a high-tech and idea-driven economic base, and work hand in hand with education to create and attract a sophisticated workforce. Less often voiced but I believe crucial is the argument that a solid arts and cultural grounding in the public education system is essential to the development of citizens who actually have the intellectual flexibility to know what they’re voting about and why. As John Keats might have put it, Truth and beauty, Jack: Is that such a tough political sell?

In a word, yes. The art that engages the political world is the art of the possible. And it is the Sisyphean task of arts advocates to persuade political leaders that backing cultural funding is not only a good idea, but also possible to do without risking a backlash at the polls. A Dolly Levi or three in the House and Senate might get things rolling.

Ah, people say. But can we afford this? Of course I believe in the value of the arts, but what about priorities? When people are going hungry and have no jobs or homes or health insurance, when our roads and sewer systems are a mess, when we face huge costs dealing with a stressed environment, let alone waging wallet-draining wars in a couple of foreign countries, how can we justify giving public money to an arts group?

Arts advocates roll their eyes over these questions at their peril. They are honest questions, and deserve honest consideration. Are the arts more important than all of these other matters of public concern? No.

But when it comes down to social services and cultural projects, the question always seems to be framed as either/or. In Dolly Levi terms, maybe we should be fertilizing the whole garden, not just the cash crop. Corn and broccoli: monocultural agriculture is an outmoded idea. Things grow better, more healthily, when they’re planted together: in diversity is strength.

I don’t mean to assign magical qualities to art. Many people live perfectly happy and productive lives without much consideration of formal aesthetics at all. I do, however, think that the arts are synergistic with all sorts of other social values, from education to (yes) a robust economy, that are good for the body politic — they can be the grease that keeps the gears from grinding. Do the public and its money have a vested interest in that? I say yes.

A couple of days ago Scatter friend D.K. Row posted this story, Portland area arts levy will have to wait a year — or two, on Oregon Live. In it, he reports that the Creative Advocacy Network has tabled its push to pass a tri-county levy that could bring in $15 million to $20 million a year for cultural programs. CAN had hoped to have it ready for ballots this fall. Now, it says, it’s aiming for 2011 or 2012.

This is probably a smart strategic withdrawal. The cold fact is, getting those votes this year, in this economy, would be a monumental challenge. And the case has not been made to the public that would be casting its votes.

Making that case won’t be easy, but it is both good and necessary to do so. It’s complicated by the fact that it’s so easy for detractors to point to their versions of the Defense Department’s hundred-dollar toilet seats: lousy shows, half-baked ideas, companies that fold in spite of public funding. Some people will claim that art is for the elite, and they will be partly right. Some will claim that artists are arrogant and subversive, and they will be partly right.

One answer to these complaints is that failure is an essential aspect of success, and that an arts scene that does not regularly fail is an arts scene too timid for anyone’s good. A healthy arts community is the research and development department of the broader culture, and good R&D is essential to continuing success. Further: a vigorous democracy needs to continually test itself against subversion, and make adjustments when it turns out the subversives are right. When the subversives are just being childish, well, sometimes the democracy has to be better than its artists and understand that a little kicking and screaming goes with the territory.

Arts advocates need to be cautious about being cautious. Politics is a hurlyburly business, and you don’t get anything without wading into the fray. But this delay, as long as it doesn’t turn out to be a capitulation, seems strategically right.

Time to spread the manure. Time to bring out the seed catalog and show people what can be grown. Hello, Dolly. Mind if we borrow your rototiller for a while?


PHOTO: Actress Ruth Gordon in 1919, at age 23. In 1956 she was nominated for a Tony for creating the role of Dolly Levi on Broadway in Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.” The play was the basis for the musical-comedy hit “Hello, Dolly!” Wikimedia Commons