Poetry Fridays: Priceless

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Crunching numbers to try and plan a 2010 Poetry Festival that will come in on budget, I’m reminded of the arguments I’ve heard against arts funding over the years. The one that gets the most attention isn’t so much an argument as a confrontational question: Why should government money go to a bunch of elitist artists when there are folks who can’t feed their kids or afford health care?

Faced with the reality of where the dollars actually go for an event like the Poetry Festival, I know posing that question is to use a form of false argument. During the years when, as an “elitist artist,” I had to teach five sections of Freshman English to earn a poverty-level income, part of what I taught my students was how to recognize false arguments. If you’re going to teach people how to write solid, reasonable, persuasive position papers, you also have to teach them to recognize false or bogus arguments.

One of the classic forms of false argument is the “Either/Or Fallacy,” which is used in advertising all the time: Either you buy this brand of mouthwash or you’ll be lonely all your life. This is a bogus argument because it sets up a false dichotomy: there are countless other mouthwashes that might be just as effective as the brand being advertised and, if you are lonely, there may be factors involved that have nothing to do with the freshness of your breath.

Asking why funding should go to artists instead of the hardworking man on the street ignores the fact that most arts funding actually does go to the hardworking man on the street. (For the time being, we’ll ignore the fact that artists are among some of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet, and many of those that are successful came from far from privileged backgrounds.)

Working on the Festival budgets for the past decade, I’m acutely aware that for this or any arts event to succeed, to even exist, most of the funding must go to people like “Joe the Plumber.” Literally. Just ask the management of any theater, performing arts center, dance studio or museum how often they have found themselves desperately seeking a good plumber. Or electrician, carpenter or roofer. Ushers, drivers, parking lot attendants, caterers, box office staff, book keepers, security guards, traffic police, printers, maintenance crews, groundskeepers all have to be figured into the budget for an event like the Dodge Festival. And the performers and audiences who patronize local hotels and restaurants during the Festival create real income for real working people in the surrounding area.

More often than not it is the artists who are underpaid or not paid at all. Every playwright has had at least one production, if not many, where they were asked to sacrifice their royalties for the good of the production, and many actors have “donated” their paycheck back to the theater to keep a show alive. Why? Because the heat, electric, water and phone bills have to be paid. The meter reader doesn’t volunteer to give up his salary so the show can go on.

Even when repairs or set-ups for a theater or festival are done by a core of volunteers, the local hardware stores, lumber yards and paint stores have to be paid. And while those volunteers are working for free, the hardware clerk, the person in the lumber yard, the paint mixer, the cashiers, the kid who retrieves the shopping carts, the folks who wax the floors, wash the windows, make the signs, and stock the shelves all get paid with money that comes from funding for the arts.

The starving artist is a cliché; we all know artists will go on creating regardless of the financial struggles they face. The truth is, if all arts funding from every source ended, it wouldn’t stop art from getting made. It would simply become unaffordable for all those folks who are not artists but who will have lost their incomes. If you can imagine a world where your family couldn’t afford any of the arts we take for granted—no music for iPods, no favorite TV shows, no movies, concerts or plays—you can get some sense of the spiritual poverty that would result. It’s families who can’t afford to participate in the arts who suffer from cuts in arts funding.

When the announcement went out that there might not be a 2010 Festival, the first phone calls and emails I received were from poets who offered to do the work for nothing. It made me want to weep. All my life I’ve worked with poets, actors, writers and artists. Some had monstrous egos, but they were exceptions. For the most part I’ve found myself in the incredibly privileged position of actually knowing people who care more about bringing beauty into the world than they do about personal gain. The folks who complain about the art elite could learn a thing or two from them.

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The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10
For more information, visit the Poetry website.

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