Stimulating the Arts, the Province of All
By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
A Santa Ana breeze sweeps across my hill, stirring up dust and a sense of changing seasons. Palm fronds rub songs like crickets' legs and the dog lies at my feet, her licking noises distracting me from the pursuit of Percy Shelley's essays. I need no excuse, but it is a satisfying one, for in her rhythmic canine actions there is a certain natural poetry that requires no defense from Shelley, eager though he was to offer one up for the unappreciated poets of his day.
Neither does the dog need defense for the artful pleasure of licking herself clean. For the twitch-inducing imagery of her dog dreams, for the pure joy of exposing her soul and rolling in the pungent flesh of carrion, for the haunting melodies of her late-night canine choir, she requires no argument that her art has a place in the world, no rationale to win her public funding. Of course, unlike those seeking stimulus funds for the arts, she is not asking for any.
But again of course, it is not really public funding that draws the horror of those who would decry money for the arts in the package, who would starve artists and the National Endowment for the Arts with poverty. Rather it is the virulent freedom, the profane questioning, the crushing honesty, the consummately naked beauty of art that frightens them so. And it is that fear, I suppose, against which Shelley presciently constructed so exquisite a brief for the benefit of art. If only they would read it.
But in lieu of poetic defense, it is perhaps more apropos in our era to seek out evidence that art is as natural, as intrinsic, as compellingly a part of our culture and our economy as is the dog's inclination to pee in the dry grasses of my yard and dance with the barbecue's smoke.
One could search for art among the cognoscenti of a community, in the garrets of those who dress with the studied air of the aesthete, who wax esoteric in offbeat salons of foreign lands, who contemplate how a certain hour's light falls upon rotting fruit. But that would just be droll — and too damn easy.
Instead, let's look to the folk who wouldn't be caught dead wearing a beret.
In my own little town of Fallbrook, the proprietor of the convenience store crafts the tales of a novelist, fine enough to make you question your own perceptions. The gasoline peddler, with the subtle style of a clever essayist, serves up both fuel and succinct commentary as an erotic hint of butt-crack emerges from his pants. The child interprets her landscape with seven years of salvaged bottle caps, intuiting the perfect placement of each to create her impressionistic vision. The postal worker arranges the mail with such a studied touch as to please an intransigent bureaucracy and a grateful customer, sculpting a stack defined by time and space. The mother hums a line of love like no other. And the lover presents a performance piece of rare and potent audience participation.
In each of us, in everything around us, there is art — divine, inspired, intuitive, studied and raring to emerge in a roar of pigments, words, notes, forms. And by that art we are slowly, persistently moved toward a world of poetic beauty, of pleasure and pain and wisdom — in ways no politician could ever move us.
Shelley claimed poets — artists — as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And artists are we all. Although the hoary anti-NEA mob would burn us at the stake of economic censorship and selective morality, really they should join us — and fund us. For, as the cave paintings of Lascaux attest, it is not our laws but our art that survives us.
Note: Click here to sign a petition in support of designating 1 percent of the stimulus package for the arts.
©2009 Kit-Bacon Gressitt
(WPA Sing for Your Supper poster courtesy of the Library of Congress.)