Our Soul Reponsibility

Libraries are wonderful places…but they’re a lousy deal for writers. When a library buys your book, you get one royalty. Then hundreds of people get to read your book for free, earning you no royalties at all. The Canadian government recognizes this essential unfairness and takes steps to reimburse writers through a program called Public Lending Right, operated and funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. Every year, the PLR sends a team out to investigate dozens of randomly selected libraries across the country. They search the catalogs for copies of your books, and every time they find one they record it as a “hit” and pay you a set amount for each. This year a single hit was worth an average of about $44, based on how long the book had been registered with the PLR. The checks arrive promptly every February, and can be pleasantly substantial. 41 countries have some system to reimburse writers for books in libraries. Countries without PLR plans include the United States, and all of South America, Asia and Africa. The PLR is just one example of the many ways various nations in the world seek to support the arts—and provide tangible assistance and encouragement to their citizens who work in the arts and the humanities—because they recognize the vital national importance of these activities.

Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin

Earlier this week, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey went to Capitol Hill to appear before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Their testimony had to be rescheduled because of an emergency hearing, but Kevin Spacey spoke to a group at the Capitol and later gave a brief summary of his comments on Hardball with Chris Matthews. He spoke movingly about the importance of art, music and dance within a society, and how every nation is enriched by giving support to the kind of grace, artistry and loveliness that lifts us above the mundane and causes our souls to sing and soar.

But it wasn’t all just poetry. As you can see here, Spacey also had some hard numbers about the return on government dollars invested in the arts. He spoke about how galleries and performing arts centers subsidized by the NEA are able to revitalize downtown cores by encouraging tourism and shopping. He pointed out that Broadway sold slightly over a billion dollars worth of tickets in 2010, and most of those tickets represented many extra dollars spent on transportation, meals, accommodation and shopping.

Sarah Palin appearing on "Hannity," March 10, 2011

We’ve had a lively discussion here in recent days about the Republican plan to cut funding for public broadcast media, which receives $445 million annually. But the national endowments for the arts and the humanities, each of which receive about $167 million, are both on the chopping block as well. That means everything from inner-city music programs to small-town galleries, museums and art classes for children. This is mostly because we have a new and noisy group of Republicans whose general view of the arts and education range from dismissive to derisive. This mindset was baldly expressed by their standard-bearer, Sarah Palin, last month on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News.

NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars—those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids. Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut.

"Cupid's Bow" along the San Francisco waterfront

This attitude is both narrow and dangerous. The three most vital institutions of a civilized society are education, the arts and a compassionate social safety net, and all three now seem to under attack in the pursuit of “fiscal responsibility.” But there really are more important things in life than money. I have an elderly friend who lives quite stringently on a fixed income, but always buys fresh flowers for her table. Somebody once commented to her that this was a pretty big extravagance, and if she gave up the flowers she would have more money to spend on other things. She looked genuinely puzzled for a moment and then explained gently, “But, you see, I need the flowers. They nourish my soul.”

If we balance our budgets but lose our national soul, we will have sacrificed something worth much more than dollars.

About filistro

Filistro is a Canadian writer and prairie dog who maintains burrows on both sides of the 49th parallel. Like all prairie dogs, she is keenly interested in politics and language. (Prairie dogs have been known to build organized towns the size of Maryland, and are the only furry mammal with a documented language.)
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6 Responses to Our Soul Reponsibility

  1. dcpetterson says:

    Beautifully said.

    If we give up our dreams for more practical matters, then what’s the point of practical matters?

  2. Chris Rich says:

    The NEA budget wouldn’t cover one Tomahawk Cruise Missile. I’m a former art grant writer but I have mixed feelings about the whole system after it’s been half eviscerated following the Mapplethorpe Fracas.

    In order to mollify the right, the grants have ever more impossible requirements and tend to support huge bloated spectacle things rather than well dispersed stuff. You have lots of top heavy institutions like the Boston Symphony Orchestra where the head, son of an old Republican Governor, awards himself a huge trophy salary of more than a million bucks while the stodgy old monstrosity is awash in red ink.

    The head of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra gets the job done for around 90k a year or less than 1/10th of Mr Volpe’s princely compensation. All this so wealthy blue hairs can feel great about being white.

    It is pretty comical when a GOP feathered bed gets in such a catbird chair. Shameless self aggrandizement seems to be an important feature of the culture.

  3. mclever says:

    Beautifully said, filistro. As someone who studied music, I can’t agree more.


  4. Chris Rich says:

    Here’s one of my special blog resources for all who care about these issues. By the way, Ms Fili, I do love Canada for this stuff and you convey it well.


  5. frk says:

    Art is expendable if we don’t mind dragging our pitiful mortal forms across a Kieślowski cityscape until we die.

  6. filistro says:

    @frk.. Art is expendable if we don’t mind dragging our pitiful mortal forms across a Kieślowski cityscape until we die.

    Well said! What a bleak and compelling image…

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