The Global Impact of Debt and the Arts

After Chen Guangcheng’s epic escape from house arrest in China, I wrote about how debt can keep us from doing good in the world. At the same time, I’m often writing about how important the arts are for human rights, and vice versa. So it should come as no surprise that all three are connected: debt, creativity, and human rights.

In this case, I’d like to talk about debt and creativity. Even in times of plenty, nothing says “we’re great artists” like a desperate lack of funds. How much more so when an overseeing organization or government struggles with debt.

Many times this conversation becomes political, centered around federal funding of the NEA, PBS, and museums like the National Gallery. I don’t want to enter that debate, but I will say that my love for fiscal caution conflicts all the time with my belief that countries should preserve their greatest works and encourage artistic efforts.

Instead, I’d like to focus on a problem in Greece right now. According to The New York Times, austerity measures in Greece are causing the country to lose precious antiquities. The federal government can no longer afford security for their museums, which leaves artifacts vulnerable to looting and robbery. Other galleries have closed completely due to lack of funding. And as shorelines erode to reveal ancient pottery, impoverished archeologists can’t get there in time to save the pieces.

It’s a sad state of affairs for the arts in Greece, and for the country’s historical memory as they tangibly lose pieces of their past.

Similarly, as artists we have to be cautious of our spending habits. Debt means owing favors – often to people more powerful than we are. Instead of allowing money to be lorded over us, we need to fight any possibility of censorship or selling out due to an unbalanced checkbook.

There’s certainly a high in creating work out of financial desperation, but everything has its limits: eventually, you won’t be able to afford paint supplies and you’ll have to take up performance art, which will make your parents even more upset, causing them to cut off even more funds, and landing you in even greater debt. Think about it.

And while conservatives and liberals will always probably argue about how to allocate money, it’s hard to imagine the conversation would be quite so toxic as it is these days if the United States had plenty of surplus with which to fund arts groups, instead of near $16 trillion in debt.

When art is such a powerful tool for holding governments accountable; for crying out on behalf of marginalized people; for doing what even courts and journalists won’t do despite their supposed job descriptions; we need to focus on protecting it.

And the best way to do that? Individuals and their governments must begin to treat debt with proper fear and trembling. That’s the only way we’ll have the freedom we need to create something that makes a difference in the world, worth preserving for centuries.

(Photo by Aschwin Prein)

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