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Arts jobs are real jobs

February 11, 2009 |  2:30 pm

One puzzlement in the debate over the congressional stimulus bill has been the inability — or the perverse refusal — of many to include jobs in the culture industry as a legitimate concern. Politicians of various stripes, from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein to Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, seem blind to the simple reality.

Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress recently put it like this:

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) was typical of the opponents to the stimulus legislation who seized on the arts to discredit the overall package; he told the House chamber, “It included wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs. As I asked on this floor last week, what does $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts have to do with creating jobs in Indiana?” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) was even more emphatic, saying, “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous.”

Lilly cited a government study that showed at least 3 million arts industry workers are in support jobs —electricians, carpenters, seamstresses, janitors, accountants, publicists, etc. — and they'll be just as out-of-work as a Wall Street trader or a Wal-Mart clerk if an arts center cuts back or closes. So what gives? Why are so many blind to the simple reality that arts workers are real workers?

Elvis2_2 I chalk it up to our celebrity culture.

Funding for theater? Tim Robbins doesn't need money! Funding for art museums? Jeff Koons is rich! Funding for concert halls? Yo-Yo Ma is a superstar!

The glare of the celebrity spotlight obscures our view of the ticket-taker at Robbins' play trying to make ends meet, the preparator at Koons' museum exhibition struggling to put a kid through college or the education program coordinator at the concert hall where Yo-Yo Ma performs who has a pile of medical bills. Their jobs are at risk.

But they are anonymous, faceless. And of course, most artists are themselves obscure. Celebrity culture teaches us to equate the arts with fame, fame with success, success with money. Even in a national financial crisis, why would that need stimulus?

The distortion is severe. Whether Feinstein, Coburn, Pence, Kingston and the rest are just dumb, or whether they do get it and are cynically using the knowledge for their own political purposes is immaterial. People will still suffer, with no help from them.

— Christopher Knight

Credit: Andy Warhol, "Elvis," 1970; print. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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