So. They want to cut the arts. Just something else for the talking heads to get worked up about. Just another aspect of someone else’s lifestyle luxuries you’re being expected to support.
Except it’s not.
You’re driving home at the end of the day, punching the seek button because you are tired of the commercials, tired of the whole damn world asking you for money. And you run past the 107s into the 88s and 89s, down at the other end of the dial. Suddenly this swell of chords rises up, a voice threading through like the sap in the heart of the cottonwood tree down by the creek. That music blends somehow — in a way that lifts your heart — the light in the sky and the smell of spring rising from the thawing ground and the freedom you feel as you look at that sunset, all streaked with platinum and raw gold. You pass the cut-over cornfield and something about the way a flock of red-wing blackbirds with their two-note springtime song rises up out of those stalks, bristly and bleached beige, reminds you of a painting you saw a picture of one time, the brushstrokes thick as butter on good homemade bread. What is that painting, why can’t you remember it? But its intensity is in you now, held and upswirled and caught.
Here you are at your house but you don’t want to get out of the car because you want to hold this feeling inside of you just a little bit longer, whatever it is. So you switch off the engine to save the gas and click the key back to one notch for the battery. And the music carries on. Just beyond your front bumper is your little girl’s plastic tricycle, faded red and yellow and blue, nosed into the shrubbery. Ordinarily you’d let the familiar swell of irritation rise: I told her to put that away. But with such feeling in your heart, all through your body, there’s no room for irritation now.
Last week you watched your little girl wobbling across the stage in her dance class, like the ballerinas she has seen on TV. She loves Misty Copeland, who rode the bus around the LA suburbs every day to go to school and then to lessons, who was told you don’t have the right look for ballet but did it anyway. You found her this little class at your small town’s local arts center because PE has been cut in her school. So have the painting classes and the music classes you remember yourself (line up, boys and girls, play “Hot Cross Buns” on your recorders, put your fingers here, then here.) A bittersweet regret flashes through you. When did it get so hard to give your children what you had? The things they need but also the things the world calls useless but that in your heart you recognize as, well, beautiful?
This is art, that beautiful thing, right here. This is the half-remembered wheatfield and that choir of voices holding you behind your steering wheel in your very own driveway and the light in the sky in spring that makes your heart lift right out of your chest in the way it does when you look at the people you love and wonder how you came to be together with them, here on this earth right now. Art is everything that keeps that spirit alive and keeps it available for human beings, including you, to use. It is that spirit in you that confirms your own suspicion – which the world tries so hard to crush – that you are more than a machine for work and money-spending, more than a pair of hands attached to a wallet. It confirms the voice that whispers in you in defiance of everything the world calls common sense that not everything in life has a dollar value.
Because not everything in life does have a dollar value. That bobcat that dashes across the road in front of you, all tufted ears and speed, marvelous and rare. The whir of wild quail rising up. The feeling that comes on you when you pray, when you remember the loved ones who have died: the sting of tears, the tightening in your throat that hurts but that you welcome because it also opens you up to the knowledge that you need at a level deeper than air, even, than oxygen: you and your own small self are not all there is to this world, and not all there will ever be. Greater mysteries exist.
And it is the great, dirty successful trick of rich men and the politicians they have bought to make you believe they do not. That putting a dollar value on every damn thing about human and nonhuman life in this world is only realism, is only good business. I could throw numbers at you here — including the fact that arts cost an infinitesimal amount compared to everything else in the budget — but I’m not going to. Because dollars do not explain everything good and worthy in this world. Make it pay for itself! Apply that logic to your child, your church, the beef operation you are trying to keep going even as prices drop because the rich men have decided it’s more profitable to fly those slabs of cheap steak in from Argentina, the plant that provided a good living for your grandaddy and your great uncles and your daddy as a young man until we opened up the global markets and suddenly those plants closed and those jobs were gone. It’s a lot easier to tear down than it is to rebuild, especially things that take time to build over time.
Explaining things in terms of money only works for some people some of the time and cuts a lot of other people out while still not touching the essential things. Love. That sense you get when you’re outdoors in winter and the smell of the air and the light in the sky thicken something in your chest you are half-embarrassed to call beauty. What happens on someone’s face, in someone’s eyes, when they are dying, when that dignity and life in them is crossing over to the other side. Go ahead, put a dollar value on that. See how dirty that feels, how something in you turns away from it? That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what the billionaires and their pet politicians driving cut after cut to the budgets that will affect you where you are in ways you can’t immediately see and do not want you to think about. That’s what they do not want you to feel. Because you are more useful to them if you do not feel these things at all. If you are just a working pair of hands and a wallet. No heart. No mind. No soul.
When the music ends, you get out of your truck and slam the door and go in the house and there’s your little girl, her face upturned to you. Just before your arms close around her — so fragile, this beloved child, this creature you have given to the world — you wonder if maybe this is what art is. This lovely thing that needs your care and your attention to survive. This thing without which nothing in the world would be the same.