Thursday, September 15, 2011
OF AUTOHARPS, JOBS BILLS, AND A VISION FOR OUR FUTURE (OR THE LACK OF IT)
President Obama related a quick story during a speech on Tuesday. He said, “Yesterday, [Education Secretary] Arnie Duncan introduced me to a young man who teaches music in Philly. His budget is something like a hundred dollars a year and he goes to a bunch of schools. They use buckets as drums because there's no money for actual musical instruments.”
Well, Mr. President, at least they have someone there who is a dedicated music teacher, and they have a school district with SOME kind of commitment to music education. Sad as that teacher's circumstances are, they're better than other places.
We remember when we saw one L.A. musician giving another an old, beat-up auto harp. The story? His friend had finished a Friday of substitute teaching and was in the school parking lot, going to her car. Along the way, she saw two custodians pitching autoharps into a dumpster. She made a beeline for the massacre.
The maintenance workers had been tasked by the principal to throw-out autoharps, along with horns, maracas, castanets, and miscellaneous instruments. Music education had been canceled and music teachers laid-off in a previous year. It was evident it wasn't coming back. As the two custodians understood it, the district office sent instructions to dump anything that remained.
The pair told her that, all week, the principal had offered the instruments – whatever was in storage – to the school's classroom teachers, then to school staff. Friday came, and he sent orders to toss the rest. So they were doing that, quite literally. It was too much for our heroine. She pulled off her shoes and leaped in, dumpster diving. The custodians talked her out with the promise one of them would replace her as rescue diver amid the flotsam and jetsam.
She retrieved all that was reasonably salvageable, including eight autoharps. We came in as she was finding a new home for one of those instruments. She did the same for everything she wasn't keeping. Several music teachers and gigging musicians were beneficiaries, thanks to the coincidence of timing and the fortuitous assignment of one particular musician as a substitute teacher at that school on that day. Was the scene repeated at other schools? Sadly, almost certainly. But without the rescue, or, likely, a similar offer to teachers to intercede.
Is this bittersweet happy ending as good as it gets? It seems a metaphor for our times. We can't help but recall the bumper sticker that reads, “Won't it be nice when the schools have all they need and the Air Force must hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?”
That aphorism is relevant, all around. We're spending nearly a billion dollars a week on our military presence in Afghanistan. Fifty two billion dollars a year would fully fund music / arts education in our nation's public schools AND fund a humans-to-Mars REAL space program. It reaches beyond the obvious. By law, technology freely spins-off from the space program, while new developments are always classified when they're military innovations. So investments in a space program = economic multipliers, but things that go bang in the night do not.
Instead of debating spinoffs and job-creating economic multipliers, we're watching yet another rancorous political fight – the latest chapter of the same political fight. We see one side trying to get rather modest funding for only modest support for renewal of things we must do anyway – like fixing dilapidated schools and collapsing bridges. The other side says, ohh, but we can't tax oil barons or rich corporations to pay for any of it.
Truth be told, the president's “bold” new jobs bill is rather ho-hum. Nothing bold at all. It merely addresses a small and critically necessary part of what we must do to perpetuate our ability to function as a society. Or, you can go with the opposition and advocate that government do nothing, and expect that if the rich escape tax burdens (that the middle class must pay) it will all somehow produce an economic miracle of full employment. Maybe the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus will fly in on their private jets to support that fairy tale.
Is there any vision for the future on the part of any of our leaders? None of them acknowledges that arts education fires the imaginations and creativity in ways that enable kids to dream big, to see themselves as creative – and therefore as capable – as they start their lives, as they choose careers that can support them while bringing society a better future.
Really, do any of our leaders see it? That feeding creativity enables kids to be inquisitive, with a desire to discover? That it instills what motivates people to engage in scientific discoveries and engineering innovations?
Such things are essential to the vitality of any society. They are a product of the thrill of, the hunger for, creativity that either is, or isn't, developed early in life. If it happens, it's a symbiotic connection with academic experiences that kids then find exciting and worthwhile – and more fundamentally, as desirable and possible and attainable by working for the pursuit of dreams.
Want kids to design a better future for you when you get old? Give them art education and teach them some fundamental design principles. Then let them pick up the ball and run. Want kids to have good language and communication skills that can convey concepts as well as subtleties and nuances? Teach them songwriting (they'll even get some math along the way, simply to make the lyrics scan well, and rhythm and meter will give them even more.) Want kids to study hardcore math and science? Give them a space program that's headed for Mars, with the realistic and possible dream they can live on another planet, or explore asteroids, or drill through the ice of one of Jupiter's moons to explore the ocean beneath it. None of that is science fiction, but it might as well be, given the absence of a visionary space program.
Now is the time to discuss it. In November, NASA will launch its final Mars probe, a robot rover the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. It's the final Mars probe, final any kind of probe headed anywhere. Nothing else has been funded, and no scientists or engineers are being hired for anything new, because there isn't anything new. Unless we get serious, we won't have rocket scientists or robotic space probe designers or explorers who go where no one has gone before. We won't have any incentive to offer kids to study hardcore math and science, since the chief question they will ask with a math degree would be, “Do you want fries with that?”
Meanwhile, Liz Claiborne, Inc., released a nationwide study of college students on Wednesday morning, September 14. It rather shockingly reveals that 22% of all college women report being victims of dating violence, including rape, or threats of violence. And 58% of college students have no idea what to do if they encounter what appears to be date violence on campus. We'll leave it to the sociologists to make all the connections, but some seem obvious: over-emphasis on standardized test scores and absence of activities that teach group participation and cooperation seem likely reasons why some students develop ideas that they can behave as they want to get what they want, regardless of what impact that has on others.
Are politicians focused on anything that would truly improve our schools? Without yet another round of the most asinine of fights, politicians can't even fix our run-down school buildings and ugly portable classrooms that notoriously outgas formaldehyde. They can't replace our dangerously worn-out old bridges, like one that already fell into the Mississippi River. Our leaders have no vision. There is no JFK challenging us to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
People take their cues from what's around them. It applies from the profound to the banal. Dumb freeway chases were rampant as long as they were always televised. Once they weren't getting their fifteen minutes of fame, the chases went away. Pop music sells, no matter how bad it is, because it's the only thing on the radio. But inspirational acts still inspire people to higher goals and purposes. Even the Tea Party has a following because it inspires a certain group of people.
We, as a society, are no longer visionary. We aren't even practical. Last time we had unemployment at this level, we called it what it was – a Depression – and we created a WPA and a CCC and put our people to work on things we continue to enjoy and use – and benefit from – to this day.
Now, we're told that fat cats can't pay taxes or their wealth won't trickle-down to create jobs for the rest of us (as if it ever trickles down / as if they ever created any jobs, despite the twelve years they've benefited from “temporary-for-a-decade” massive tax cuts). Cut our way out of a recession and high unemployment? Insanity. Even the barbarian on the TV commercial understands it, when he proclaims, “Read my lips – no new axes!”
Maybe we should all move to China to get our old jobs back – or go there to teach music, or to work in China's rapidly developing space program, or to build and ride the world's fastest trains, or just to learn how to care about other people in our communities. Of course, we couldn't complain about anything there (anything!) or dare to try to change the established vision there, or we'd be with the guy who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, wherever they buried him. But at least they have SOME kind of vision for their future as a society, and we have none for ours. Oh, and we'd get health care there (uhh, simply as members of any other society, we'd get health care ANYWHERE except here.)
Point is, for all we brag about in America, most of our accomplishments are behind us. And nothing as impressive as what we've accomplished is in the pipeline to enrich and embolden our future here. It's not even on our drawing boards – unless it enriches the right people.
Maybe we need a song that asks, “Why should the road to riches be based on burning more coal, keeping us addicted to oil, saturating our food with government-subsidized high fructose corn syrup, genetically altering our fruits and vegetables so they're huge, pretty, tasteless and devoid of genetic diversity, and limiting schools to crank-out low-skill worker bees who can pass standardized tests but who threaten each other and lack vision and creativity?”
And why should the rich tolerate workers' unions that won rights like the five-day, 40-hour week, unions that now hinder profits by insisting on keeping hard-won benefits for workers? We've already seen politicians in two states abolish collective bargaining, and other states freeze-out unions altogether with so-called right-to-work laws. Where are Woody Guthrie's songs when we need them? Where is Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president who was “The Great Trust-Buster” - ?
We're not far from a return to the Gilded Age that Teddy fought, where every member of Congress is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a baron of industry or a corporation, and college is so expensive that only the offspring of the rich can go. After all, why should their kids be burdened by competing with college-educated poor kids to get qualified to control things?
Is it about what they will control? A world dominated by hypnotized drones fixated on one-inch, 9-g, holodeck screens to zap cyber birds and watch brain-dead zombie movies and seduce cyber babes? Is the “Voluptuary of the Future” – that hedonistic vision of an overly technological society first envisioned over a hundred years ago – at last upon us as our ultimate desire?
Or maybe, just maybe, artists are the ultimate bastion of creative thought, the repository of boundlessly challenging ideas, of undiminished innovations, of understanding that the rich are not automatically endowed with the best ideas or with the Right Of Kings to control everything.
Key question – in a society so pitifully lacking leaders with vision, a time devoid of things that would bring a better, more humane, truly-futuristic future of exploration and ever-growing understanding, a world lacking the fulfillment of the human spirit – will artists bother to vote?
Will artists see participating in a contrarian political process – one where no visionaries are running – as an exercise in futility? Or worse yet, will artists see participation as endorsement of a charade and a farce, like bailing water entering one side of the boat into the other side?
These are compelling issues for us as artists, but not just for our time. The planet's climate and weather patterns are changing as human activity pours carbon dioxide and sulfur into our atmosphere. Sea levels will rise if ice melts. And it is melting now, despite Alfred E. Neuman-like “What, me worry?” assertions of politicians owned by those who control coal and oil, and scaring other politicians into believing that curbing polluters will cripple the economy.
Two centuries of technology and industrialization have outpaced our ability to clean up after them, while enabling overpopulation. Now we urgently require effective solutions to things we have never faced before, because these things are out of control. That requires creativity and innovation, will and dedication, and holding everyone accountable (including ourselves).
There's really no choice. We must make it a priority for the sake of our civilization. Where's the connection to the arts? First, arts education, not just math and engineering classes, endows young children with creativity and innovation. That's key, because everything is connected to everything else, and the artist is often the first and the best equipped to see that.
Instead, we get a lot of fear-based emotional appeals and transitory BS from those who want to lead us. Pandering, fear talk, protecting the rich interests rather than biting the polluting hand that feeds them. And that's not all. Sometimes it's downright primal.
We hear one candidate for our nation's highest office receive hooting applause when he cites the number of executions of convicted criminals in his state (234) on his watch. Have we progressed past the 19th century's public hangings with their family picnics and singalongs?
We hear another candidate say that someone with a treatable disease – who would die without treatment – should turn to the churches if he doesn't have health insurance. Would the sick person need to profess some church's dogma, or die? That would make us a singular example in the world, and we're the ones who Constitutionally guarantee freedom of religion.
Are we still a multicultural society that sees itself as e pluribus unum - “from many, one” – or should we become a theocracy for sick people? Or are we merely an agglomeration of individuals who doesn't want to pay taxes, and whose highest aspiration is cutthroat greed, rather than meeting human need?
In the face of “I've got mine, f--- you,” must artists play a bigger role than ever? Must artists fill the gaps because politicians are bought by corporations and special interests, and even the best of our leaders seem so glaringly devoid of vision?
The answer is yes, because we are the ones who will dumpster-dive for battered instruments that schools throw away when they cancel music education, and put them into the hands of those who make music that can yet inspire young people and others.
Whether we are “alternative” musicians or ones devoted to “traditional” music, artists function as innovators, purveyors and curators of alternative possibilities, with dreams brighter and more expansive, with visions more consistent with traditions of community, with images of barn raisings, well diggings, cattle round-ups, quilting or sewing bees for troops in the field or those in need, helping each other with harvests, lending plows and oxen or saws and axes, gathering with fiddles and banjos and mandolins and guitars to help someone celebrate. Historians help us remember; artists guide us in finding meanings, old and new, relevant now and for our future.
Without artists' voices, will society hear anything but slick, expensive corporate advertising for the latest hedonistic hand-held vibrating device to satisfy our individual voluptuaries?
Artists create, because we must. We save old instruments from the dumpster, because we must. We do what we can to reach and inspire, because we must. Artists are dreamers and visionaries, because we cannot be anything less. But will voting be part of what artists see as creating? Is the politicians' cynicism contagious? Is their absence of vision too much to bear?
Perhaps there are persons with certain political views would rejoice if the artists stopped voting. If you are one who would tell us, “good riddance,” you do so at your peril. A culture that chooses not to give a voice to its artists, indeed one that fails to seek out its artists for their perspectives and contributions and criticisms, is no culture at all. That may be more defining than whether we become a corporatocracy or an intolerant theocracy or a place of ruthless end-game capitalism – or it may just go hand in hand.
This feature is part of the Acoustic Americana Music Guide's weekly news edition of September 15, 2011. The News is just one section of The Guide. You can find the other sections, and read the entire edition of the News, at