Sunday, April 8, 2012

Great Arts Blogger Challenge: An Educated, Supported Orange

Here's my third post for the Spring for Music Festival's Great Arts Blogger Challenge. I want to sincerely thank everyone who's voted for me, and I encourage people to vote again starting Monday! Let's bring Neo Antennae to the FINAL ROUND/countdown.        

            We’re reading A Clockwork Orange in my English class right now. Usually, every year, there’s one book that everybody can’t wait to read. This one in particular motivates everyone to call each other “droog” and “chelloveck” or wear long underwear and bowler hats the next Halloween.
            My favorite part of the book isn’t the plot, though, but Alex’s (the 15-year-old protagonist) description of things like music:
“And then, like a bird of the rarest spun heaven metal, or like silvery wine flowing from a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed.”
In A Clockwork Orange, Alex is violent and destructive, but he has an appreciation for the arts. Well, more like an obsession or addiction to them, as is evident in the quote above. Throughout the book, the reader both disapproves of and loves Alex. Yes, yes, music is a symbol for his free will, but a large reason that we still love him after all the unforgivable deeds he does is this glimmer of hope, his understanding of beauty and good.
            I promise, this does have to do with my answer to the prompt of Spring for Music’s Great Arts Blogger Challenge.

Candidate for Secretary of the Arts

Only... not. 

Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?

            What I’m trying to say is this: as demonstrated by Alex in A Clockwork Orange, music or any other form of culture and the appreciation for it are things that really make us human. That ability to connect to something so instinctively and strongly is a quality I’m sure every person on earth shares. Something so engrained in our species needs to have an integral part in our governing.
            Originally, my answer to this question was “yes,” then it changed to “no,” and now it’s back to “yes” again.
            If the government is supposed to represent our country and the people in that country, why do we not have a Secretary of Culture? Someone to represent the millions of artists and organizations that need funding and support? Someone to represent this thing that makes us all human? 
            The “no” period in my thought process for this question came from, I think, the most obvious argument against a position like this. Art is something that can be inspiring, heart wrenching, satisfying, or infuriating. Politics are not these things (except infuriating, a lot of the time). It’s instinctive and protective to want to keep the arts away from Washington. I wake up to NPR every morning and automatically push the snooze button if I hear “Rom-“, “Sant-“, or “Ging-“. To people who either make a career out of the arts or are just simply lovers of them, the idea of mixing them with something that’s usually associated with arguing and unhappy people is repulsive. Other countries have some oppressive ministries of culture. In China, the minister of culture in 2011 posted a list of 100 songs that had to be removed from Chinese download sites. They outlawed “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, people—they’re messing with classics. Even if a US culture representative didn’t go to this extent, the fact that SOPA became such a big deal means that monitoring the internet is not far off the government’s to-do list.


A symbol of doom, to many 
            While these thoughts ran through my mind, I realized that a “yes” answer to the prompt outweighed the “no.” Yes, I do realize that many responses to this question will be "no" because of the seemingly doomed future of any political venture. But let's not talk about the political likeliness or the actual process of establishing this position. Let's not be our cynical, government-hating selves. Let's talk about people and human necessities. 
            Almost exactly a year ago, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy. I had gotten to know many of the musicians during the past year before the filing. Out of nowhere, this family of musicians I had come to appreciate seemed to crumble, leaving most of us arts lovers in New Mexico with disbelieving expressions on our faces and a sense of emptiness. I know that sounds dramatic, trust me, but that’s how it really felt. Of course, we still have great organizations like Chatter or Santa Fe New Music, but this seemingly-solid, or at least should-have-been-solid, institute was more fragile in real life than it was in my head. Some blamed the board for the collapse of the NMSO, but it made me think of the unparallel ranking of “the arts” in the minds of actual people and of governments (thankfully, we now have the New Mexico Philharmonic, a new orchestra made up of many of the same musicians as the NMSO and has been sounding amazing). While the National Endowment of the Arts provides support, they are limited and have controversial choices for grant recipients. If we had a Secretary of Culture, we could see recognition and elevation of groups and organizations that we love. To me, and to a large population of the country I’m guessing, the arts are more important than many of the things the federal government is spending money on.
            Now, a Secretary of Culture probably would not vastly change the spending of the government’s budget, but perhaps it would remind Washington of what’s really important
            There’s something else that a Secretary of Culture could do that also has to do with A Clockwork Orange. In the novel, Alex’s music tastes are an anomaly. He walks into a record store to buy a Beethoven album, and he acknowledges the trashy-leaning tastes of the youth he lives among. While the book was written in the 60s, it was set about 40 years in the future—about now. And I’m afraid the author, Anthony Burgess, got that “anomaly” part of his future right.
            Arts education in America today is something that I can speak much more intimately towards than government funding. I was fortunate to go to an elementary school with a stellar music program. We learned what the instruments of the orchestra were, how to play many percussion instruments, the basic aspects of music (rhythm, beat, syncopation, etc.), and we were all pretty immersed in Bobby McFerrin. It's safe to say I wouldn't be where I am today with my love for the arts without this education. I do, however, know that this is certainly not the case for most of the children in the country during their elementary school years. Quincy Jones, the record producer who has for years been lobbying for a Secretary of Culture position, said,
"A month ago at my high school in Seattle, I asked a student if he knew who Louis Armstrong was. He said he had heard his name. I asked him about Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. He didn't even know their names. That hurts me a lot."

Quincy Jones wants YOU to establish a Secretary of the Arts
Many adults accuse my generation for being culturally ignorant and void of good taste. Some of the time, however, I don’t believe this is the fault of my peers. Many public school programs don’t have the money to pay for consistent music classes, and even if they do, most don’t spend money on educating students about jazz legends or iconic operas. The music tastes of many teenagers and kids today are handed to them by radio stations and iTunes top 10 lists. While there is sometimes great music from these sources, not much of it shows kids the history and evolution of the arts. We learn about the history of our country and the landmarks in literature—why isn’t arts education a required course? If the lack of cultural knowledge has been going on for decades, the younger half of the US population is bound to become less and less knowledgeable about classic culture as these culturally unaware kids become parents to culturally unaware children. Sure, we live in a world where you could just Google any aspect of culture, but education makes learning about these figures and historical moments understandable and fundamental. Instead of having to go look for something that a kid might know nothing about, education would show him enough to become inspired himself. A Secretary of Culture could make strides towards better arts education in the US, even if it’s by small steps.

Dudamel with young musicians--El Sistema, a youth music program in Venezuela, is overseen by the government. It's the reason we have Dudamel toay (photo by Leo Ramirez/Getty Images)
Another necessary result of quality arts education is the psychological benefits. The arts make us happy. That statement is simple, but it’s one of the truest sentences I know. If a child never was exposed to the arts before entering the classroom, learning an instrument or hearing a piece of jazz he never knew existed could be life-changing. Not only would he have a passion in life, but he would do better in other subjects and have a community of peers waiting for him outside of school. Doesn’t every child have the right to a passion? Coming from experience, I can say that being passionate about something is the thing that makes me grateful to be alive, to live on an earth where I can pursue it. For many people, the arts can be this passion, and education can foster it.
            Culture is what makes us human. While our species has created politics, militaries, and social issues, the arts are something so natural that they take no effort to connect millions of people. So why does culture not have a seat, or more appropriately, a throne, in the US government? A Secretary of Culture could not only bring arts organizations funding and support from Washington, but could make progress in advancing US arts education in schools. Of course, the actual process of creating this position, electing someone, and getting it started would be difficult and controversial, but let’s not look through the perspective of a politician here. This position is something that the people of America need, and that should be more important than the threat of annoyance and arguments.
            Alex from A Clockwork Orange has qualities that many would categorize as evil; he’s violent, destructive, and narcissistic. But his love for music gives a glimmer of hope, makes him a human that the reader can empathize with. In a novel about free will and the possibility of a government that can take it all away, the arts symbolize choice and humanity. A society like A Clockwork Orange is probably the last one America would want to have, and the arts need an important place in our country’s makeup in order to stay away from one even remotely like that dystopian society. Maybe we also need a national “Listen to Beethoven with Your Droogs” day. I would miss a day of school for that. 

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