A Tale of Two Cultures

As I come back from the sumer hiatus it seems appropriate that my first post should be inspired by someone who’s made a career helping us figure out what to do with our summertimes and also happens to be a local here in the Puget Sound region: Rick Steves.

According to the Seattle PI, Steves has decided to donate the money that he’s saved from the Bush-era tax cuts to local arts causes. Specifically, he’s “giving $1 million over the next 10 years to meet all facility costs  of his hometown Edmonds Center for the Arts as well as the Cascade Symphony Orchestra.”

In this time of shrinking arts budgets, it’s good to see some positive news about funding for arts and music in particular.

Beyond that though, Steves’ comments in the article give one something to really think about as they raise questions about the importance of music and arts in our culture, as well as the ideas around financial support and patronage.

I will be upfront and say that I myself tend to be of a mind that the arts as a whole would be better served by reducing reliance on government funding. Having watched the NEA funding battles in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, that taught me that what the government giveth, it can just as easily take away. Having art and artists in a state of dependence on the Government for their livelihood creates a dangerous and worrisome dynamic with regards to free expression. Funding can be cut if artists fail to please their government overlords, as we saw in those battles. But even without that, the mere threat of that can prompt a degree of self-censorship that is harmful.

But getting government out of arts funding creates a vacuum for which there is no easy replacement. This is where Steves’ comments about the importance of the arts and patronage really strike an important chord.

The simple fact is that in our culture arts and music are viewed as frivolous luxuries or entrainment. There is a real lack of any sense of the arts and music as something inherently ennobling and important in its own right.

One new area of interest for me is classical Chinese poetry. And if you spend any time studying classical Chinese poetry, you’ll quickly find that the arts and music are reckoned very highly in classical Chinese thought and civilization. Indeed, music, poetry, and calligraphy were all viewed as activities that a refined, noble person pursued for their own sake. Indeed, two of the Confucian classics that has formed the bedrock of Chinese thought and culture for millennia are on poetry/song and music. Indeed, as I was preparing to write this posting, I found this interesting post that talks about how Confucian ideals around music still influence Chinese culture today. In that vein, too, I think it’s noteworthy that some of the most vibrant activity in support of artistic, concert music is in China and other Asian countries heavily influenced by Chinese thought and culture.

Which brings us back to Steves and his donation. Imagine for a moment what the state of arts support would be if the arts were viewed not as entertainment but something central to being a good person and citizen?  If instead of expecting our kids in school to be playing football, basketball or cheerleading, instead there was an expectation that they would learn music and poetry?

What a wonderful world that would be.

And perhaps may be yet. After all, globalization is hardly a one way street. Maybe as we learn more and more about Chinese culture, we’ll learn the importance of this from them and slowly adopt it into our culture.