At What Cost Art?


Musicians in the Time of COVID. Photo courtesy of Luke Frazier and PBS Western Reserve

Some years ago, a friend announced to her parents that she wanted to go to art school. Her mother responded in words that carried a clear message, albeit strangely, asking, “Whaddaya gonna do? Cut paper?” Maybe she meant construction paper or poster board factory work?

The sentiment that art is not a real way to make a living is widespread and long held, existing well before the COVID-19 crash. Be practical, we’re told, think of the future, what kinds of jobs are in demand, how are you going to make a living?

Recently many artists I’ve talked to have mentioned the widespread coronavirus shutdown has not just hit them hard in the present, but it’s at the absolute worst time. Art shows and summer seasons generate many artists’ largest chunk of annual income and, poof, it’s gone. And there’s a triple whammy for artists who also worked in the service economy (e.g., restaurants, retail stores) to supplement their incomes. Yes, starving artist. No, not romantic.

But it’s the passion that counts, right? After all, artists do it for the love of what they do. How can they expect…

Expect what—to make a living and be fairly paid for their labor? For the time, effort and attention they give to something that then carries joy or magnificence to someone else, or at least provides a fun diversion or a little bit of beauty to hang on the wall?

Sure, I get that passion can be its own reward, and that many artists have to do what they do to survive in this world and be able to look in the mirror. But that passion also counts, as in cash money.

The arts organizations I talk to are pretty persuasive when it comes to the arts’ role in the local economy. Art-related activities, events and employment generate real dollars that make the wheels go ‘round. Check with the Ohio Arts Council for details. Making art, be it orchestral music or woven tapestries, is essential, and not the stuff of impractical dreamers who should have studied finance.

So, when it comes to grants and assistance to individual artists and arts groups—government or otherwise—count them in.

Lessons from our current upheaval are many, including the importance of devoting resources (including money) to efforts that promote healthy ways to connect human beings. Guess what, art does that.

Arts contribute to the economy, but they also add something so far beyond financial metrics that it may as well be another language. A language of the heart and the spirit. A language that diminishes the feeling that there is an “us” and a “them.”

The picture above is from a concert I stumbled across when walking my dogs. The musicians were members of the Cleveland Orchestra (not exactly your typical garage band). The audience was black, white and Asian; young and old. The music was free and the enjoyment shared.

Go ahead, put a value on that art.

Luke Frazier
The Arts & COVID-19: What Now?

This column is shared from our friends at PBS Western Reserve

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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