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I am down in Leesburg, Florida visiting my parents-in-law. My father-in-law, Terry Beebe, is on the board of Leesburg Center for the Arts, and invited me to speak to supporters of the arts. It was my delight to do so.

Here’s what I spoke on:

Why Art?

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” -Aristotle

As an artist, I often find myself trying to answer “Why Art?” Why is art necessary in our lives and in our education? How can I justify spending so much of my time and expenses invested in being an artist, and helping others by advocating for their artistic expressions? Why do we need the arts here in Leesburg? We have now much research pointing to the economic benefit of bringing art into communities. We have efforts to scientifically prove that the arts help us directly in education, in improving children’s school grades, and helping them to engage better with their worlds. I can give you evidence of how the arts help slow down dementia and reduce stress. (see Gifts of the Muse, by Rand Corporation)

But usually, in these gatherings, I end up listening to people, by finding out what deeply matters to them. And I often find that in the areas that they are most engaged in, and most passionate about, art is already present in that conversation. The person I may be speaking with may not know anything about art in New York, but he/she may talk about their children’s dream to become a dancer or an actor. They may talk about a movie they just saw that affected them deeply. They may speak of their business enterprises and find out that now businesses are starting to realize that the “bottom line” is not really sufficient; but there is a “second bottom line,” or a third. Business schools are now inviting designers to discuss creativity and design, to apply these principles into business practices because worker are no longer content to work in “bottom line” driven companies, but they want their whole person affirmed, and they want community. What I hear these workers stating, is that they want their humanity back. And in that conversation, art always presents itself as an expression of that humanity.

I was recently speaking at a church in NYC, and asked the people what they enjoy doing on Sundays apart from going to church. And everything they listed had something to do with the arts and entertainment. Art is everywhere, from the food we order in restaurants, to clothes we purchase, to paintings hanging on museums. Aristotle defined the arts as “our capacity to make.” So we could broaden our discussion into medicine and sciences. Even if we do not include these sister disciplines in our discussions, one thing is for sure: Our cultural productions and our art will defines us, whether we like it or not. Art expresses who we are.

One of the most frustrating moments in recent memory, for myself as an arts advocate, was to see the Super Bowl half time show knowing, that for the first time, that Janet Jackson fiasco was being broadcast in China. What do the Chinese think of us now? We have come to define ourselves by how we degrade ourselves, and we have exported that vision to the world.

When I traveled with The First Lady to represent the USA at the UNESCO general assembly several years ago, one of the the UNESCO officials told us of her fears in America’s reengagement with UNESCO: “We are struggling to believe that the US can bring more than McDonalds, Coca Cola or Hollywood movies (I might add pornography to that list, but she was too polite).” We tried to convince her and other UNESCO leaders that we have a very unique patronage system that encourages our democratic patronage of the arts like the NEA and NEH. But it was when she connected with our projects with Shakespeare and Jazz Masters programs and touring of Martha Graham dance troops that convinced her that we were committed to a higher vision. These distinctively American forms of art, I would argue, are the greatest fruits of our democracy. And we have every reason to celebrate and broadcast with pride what freedom has brought us.

Tolstoy stated “Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man’s reasonable perception into feeling”.

Art is a building block of civilization. A civilization that does not value its artistic expressions is a civilization that does not value itself. These tangible artistic expressions help us to understand ourselves. The arts teach us to respect both the diversity of our communities and the strength of our traditions. I encourage people not to segment art into an “extra” sphere of life and decorations. Why? Because art is everywhere, and has already taken root in our lives.

Therefore, the questions is not so much “why art?” but “which art?” We are presented with a choice. And this choice is a responsibility of cultural stewardship. Just as we have responsibility for natural resources, so do we have to take stewardship care of our culture.

What, then, does the current cultural ecosystem look like? NEA Research such as Reading at Risk, is pointing to a cultural epidemic of disengagement. The studies point to how we are reading less and less, but even more pronounced, in my mind, is how we are less engaged with civic activities, with nature (and even sports!).

The Columbine High School incident and 9/11 taught us that we can either use our imagination for destroy lives or to save lives. We have on the one hand a girl reading Macbeth (she wanted to be an actor) in the library, and on the other a teen pointing a gun at her head and asking her “do you still believe in God?” And she said “yes” and was shot. Her words affirmed the source of her life and salvation, and inspired countless others to express that belief: His actions prompted others to copy the destructive acts of horrors. On 9/11 we had, on the one hand, militant hijackers who took their imaginative vengeance into determined evil acts. On the other hand were firefighters who climbed the falling towers. We have to realize that before any of these acts were committed, they were imagined. We swim in the ecosystem of imagined actions. We do have a responsibility to that power. We do have a choice between saving lives, or destroying lives.

If we do not teach our children, and ourselves, that what we imagine, and how we design the world, can make a difference, the culture of cynicism will do that for us. If we do not take the initiative to love our neighbors by imagining better neighborhoods and cities, despair will take the imaginations of their children and turn them into destructive forces.

A few hopeful examples in the ecosystem of culture today:

1) Rafe Esquith, a National Medal of Arts recipient two years ago for his efforts among the Hobart Elementary School children of inner city Los Angeles, challenges immigrant children, many of whom do not speak English, to memorize and perform Shakespeare. In the recent ceremony announcing “American Masterpieces,” a new N.E.A. initiative to bring masterpieces of visual art, dance and music to American cities, regional museums and schools, the First Lady and other guests sat in awe as two of Mr. Esquith’s students performed Henry the Fifth. Beyond knowing their demanding lines, they gave life to the words and elevated us all in the audience. Their childlike but confident orations had a beauty and a deeper resonance, something that this nation desperately needs to hear and understand today when these sounds are too often drowned out by crass commercial noise. Our children’s voices can be elevated, drawing the world’s attention to excellence, and the nobility of civilization.

2) About 20 years ago, Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, South Carolina woke up one day and realized that being a mayor means that you are the chief architect and designer of your city. He came to the NEA and asked for help because he knew nothing about design. What a humble man. He states: “We mayors exhaust ourselves with lots of decisions – political, personnel, budget. But 100 years from now, there will be no real evidence of how we made those decisions. In contrast, a decision about the physical design of a city will influence the city and its people for generations.” Now the Mayors Institute has helped over 625 mayors become the chief urban designers of their cities. 8 mayors are locked up in a room with 8 designers without the media or their aids. They share solutions, and dreams. Then they go home to their towns to see how the real life solutions can also benefit the environment and the general quality of life. This effort was so successful that it has grown to affect leadership at the state level. I just attended a press conference with NEA chairman Dana Gioa and Former Governors Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Parris N. Glendening of Maryland to begin a Governor’s Institute on Community Design that brings this transformation into the state level.

The Governor’s Institute is co-sponsored by the NEA and the EPA. Strange bedfellows? No, it’s smart to connect the two — again, it’s the issue of stewardship. The best design is most efficient, and friendly to the environment. The best design considers what the community needs first, and even her voiceless inhabitants. The best design brings beauty into our lives.

A journey of an artist in the ecosystem of culture:

I get to spend my days, thinking and imagining, painting and writing. I think about a journey that started as a child, simply wanting to draw and express, having encouraging parents, and being blessed with a wife who suffers alongside with me. The life of an artist is never easy, but I take it seriously because I know that imagination has consequences.

But I do, on occasion, go back to that question Why Art? Because it was a question I addressed to myself in a diary for a creative writing class in college, many years ago. My professor, wrote back in his comments: “your questions are valuable, and I encourage you to push that question further, as many of the writers and artists have done in the past: Why Live?”

Perhaps that’s why we need the arts in Leesburg. By continuing to create and imagine a better world, we live.