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The Power to Destroy

America’s great first Chief Justice John Marshall famously wrote, “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” Today, the power to refuse to levy taxes is proving a more potent tool of destruction.

The arts in America cost roughly 29 cents per capita to fund. The arts did not cause our financial meltdown. Yet along with reproductive health, education, and care for the disabled, the arts are the first programs to be cut by the Draconian hands of our right wing congress and state legislatures.

In Kansas, one of the newly-elected governor’s first acts was to eliminate the state’s entire arts budget, thus saving approximately $522,000. I was in Kansas on March 3rd to receive the Kansas Arts Commission Distinguished Artist Award. This was a bittersweet evening, since it is the last time the state’s Arts Commission will exist, unless the legislature overrides the governor and restores funding. Many people in the state spoke eloquently on what the arts do for their small communities. I left the event awed by the hard work and dedication that people brought to making art possible in places remote from professional theaters, symphonies, or major art museums. A number of people have asked for a copy of my own remarks, and I am attaching them here:

I am proud to stand here tonight as a Kansan, with our long and strong tradition of freedom.  Our pioneer forebears brought this state free into the union 150 years ago this winter. We were fortunate in our first governor: one of Charles Robinson’s early acts after statehood was to establish the University of Kansas.  Coming into statehood after a long and bloody battle over slavery, Sara and Charles Robinson and their friends knew that the difference between slave and free was the difference between literate and ignorant.  They knew that an educated citizenry was our best guarantor of continued liberty.

The governor’s arts award, given in the spirit of those founders, has high value in my eyes. At the same time, I am sad that this may be the last occasion where Kansas celebrates the arts, because of the governor’s decision to end arts funding.  It is in this state, in our schools and in our soil, that my own craft was nurtured.  It is in this state and in this soil that William Inge and Langston Hughes were reared, the artist Louis Copt, the writer Nancy Pickard.  If we end support for the arts, we cut off a lifeline for our citizens.

I recently saw a museum exhibit on the history of writing.  I felt a sense of awe as I saw myself, one small person, one small voice, connected to a chain of storytellers that stretches almost 6000 years into the past.  The buffalo were roaming widely in eastern Kansas when the ancient Sumerians brought the written word to life.  Every poem we read, every equation we solve, sadly, every hate-filled message we post to a blog, we owe to that Sumerian miracle.

Writing probably developed so accountants could keep track of land and livestock ownership, but it quickly became the purview of poets.  And it is to poets, to musicians, to artists that we turn when we celebrate our joys or need help in enduring our sorrows.

We are enduring bleak times, indeed, in these United States, and we need the arts today as we never did in our prosperity.

In the aftermath of 9.11, musicians from America’s great symphonies went to Ground Zero, where they played through the night to support the hard work of the  first responders.  No one sifting through rubble for fragments of human bodies wanted to hear someone read an accounts payable list, much less an ideological diatribe.  They needed music, they needed poetry.

One of the first acts of totalitarian regimes is to control the arts and the written word.  In John Calvin’s Geneva, writers who disagreed with Calvin’s Protestant vision were burned at the stake. Nazi Germany moved quickly to outlaw, imprison and kill controversial writers and painters.  Last year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Liu Xiaobo, spent the awards ceremony in a Chinese prison for writing verse that didn’t uphold state-sanctioned values.

Here at home, we don’t murder or imprison our artists.  We starve them. About 275,000 books were published in the United States last year.  Despite this vast number, the Wall Street Journal estimates that fewer than a thousand writers earn enough from writing that they don’t need a day—or maybe a night—job to support themselves.  That’s about 2 out of every thousand writers.  Most writers earn around $28000 a year.

What do our artists have to say that merits public support?  Only a word that sustains life, that sustains hope.

My own most moving moment as a writer came one evening at a reading I’d given in a Chicago library.  A group of women stayed after everyone else had left.  They told me they were married to steelworkers who’d been out of work for over a decade.  These women worked two and three jobs to support their families.  They came to hear me read, they said, because my words gave them courage to face the hard hand life had dealt them.

That my work spoke to them in such a way does me more honor than I can rightly express.  This art’s award is a shorthand for every writer, every storyteller, poet, painter, singer, whose art has helped another person endure the dark night of the soul.

Around 600 BCE, the Greek poet Sappho wrote, “Although they are only breath/Words, which I command/Are immortal.”

We don’t today know the names of Lesbos’s accountants, nor what they had to say about poets and poetry.  (We do know the name of Pericles from nearby Athens, not from his spreadsheets, but because he funded some of the greatest art the world has ever known.)

Sappho lived through times as turbulent as our own.  Indeed, Governor Robinson founded the publicly-funded University of Kansas in times as turbulent as these, in the wake of the Civil War, the country in ruins, the future uncertain.

What we remember from our recent past, as well as ancient Greece, are not the account books. We don’t know the names of the brothers who controlled Greece’s fuel and precious metal industries.  Nor do we know how many billion drachmas they gave to this or that politician or judge.  We remember sculptors.  We remember Sappho.  For in the end it is poetry, that word which is only breath, that endures.

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