The Nation's Pulse

Needless Things

How many starving artists do we really need?

By 7.15.11

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On their recent visit to Southern California, Prince William and wife Catherine and about 1,300 bodyguards toured Skid Row. Nothing too unusual about that. We expect British monarchs-in-training to spend an hour or two slumming it when they visit their former possessions. Such expeditions give a boost to their innate British snobbishness while providing a great photo opportunity: ("Kate, how about a hug for that half-starved rickety lad with the big eyes!") What is more, it shows that today's aristocrats really, really care about the underclass, unlike yesterday's aristocrats who used them for target practice.

On Skid Row, the royal couple visited Inner-City Arts, a nonprofit organization that for two decades has provided free arts instruction to poor, starving, chronically abused children. The visit highlighted two of Prince William's main interests: promoting the arts and doing absolutely nothing useful.

Cynthia Harnisch, president of Inner-City Arts, spoke to the royal couple about Skid Row and the challenges of poverty and homelessness faced by many students at the school, to which Prince William responded, "Yes, but how are finger painting lessons going to help them escape all that?"

Just kidding. The prince would never say that.

Now that I've got out my wet blanket, go ahead and ask what's wrong with some British aristocrats (or anyone else, for that matter) promoting arts training for poor kids?

Actually, just about everything.

I live down the street from several of these inner-city arts centers set up to teach poor kids dance, art and music education, all of them run by guilt-stricken trust fund babies who want to "give back." Their idea of giving back is to teach traditional capoeira Angola to inner city kids.

Of course, what inner city kids really need is for a trade unionist to "give back" and take them on as apprentices and teach them practical skills, especially since the city's public schools won't. (Public schools likewise like to teach the "visual and performing arts." It's so much more fun than, say, fractions.) What these poor kids do not need to learn is how to make esoteric conceptual art. How is that going to help them end the cycle of poverty? Even if they became artists or musicians they will still be dirt poor.

More artists, we don't need. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of artists in America increases about 50 percent per decade. The NEA apparently thinks this is a good thing. Meanwhile we have to look to India and China for our engineers and doctors.

EVER WONDER HOW many artists thrived during the High Renaissance? Probably about 70 first-rate ones, of which a dozen are still remembered by art historians. Today, there are nearly two million hacks who call themselves professional artists. And by no one's reckoning are we living through a High Renaissance.

The arts-as-cure-all remains an enduring and popular brand of snake oil. Recently, my wife gave me an article that describes how to nurture your child’s "spark":

As a parent, you can help your child discover her spark [that thing that makes them light up from inside], and watch this unique characteristic develop over time. One of the side benefits of helping your child discover and develop their spark is that you can reconnect with your own spark by going on the spark journey together!

It's a good bet that any paragraph that includes the word "journey" and isn't about a bad Seventies rock band is going to be meaningless. But this is exactly the kind of thing the trust-funders down at the Community, Arts & Movement Project tell each other every day while they are teaching fatherless minority kids how to “"convey a concept to the perceiver, rejecting the creation or appreciation of a traditional art object." Parents and teachers who encourage this sort of behavior should be held responsible, morally and financially, for ruining these kids' ability to find well-paying, meaningful work.

Middle-class kids can afford to waste their time learning to pirouette or to play electric violin. They are going to go to college and eventually, hopefully, go into business or medicine (or more likely marketing or law). But for a lot of the kids in my neighborhood, arts education is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's a luxury they can't afford. And the last thing Skid Row needs is another out-of-work musician singing the blues.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.