is a writer in Wayne
Last week, I took a break from reviewing grant applications to read George Will's column about abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts. "We subsidize soybean production," he declares, "but at least we can say what soybeans are."
Though we share an Illinois birthplace, a love of baseball, and a preachy American prose form inherited from Emerson, our conflicting opinions on this issue are immediately obvious in the questions we pose.
He asks: "Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art's public purposes that justify public funding? Or do they insist that public funds should be expended for no defined public purpose?"
I ask, "How is the artist making meaning, preserving culture, provoking thought, perceiving beauty, or inventing something?"
As a judge for another state's arts council, I can say with certainty what I'm looking for: artists engaged in original work that sets out to illuminate human experience. I'd argue that a grant in support of such work - a "gift" categorically separate from work-for-hire or payment-for-goods - is indivisible from the gift the artist gives in return. My own career is evidence.
Twenty-three years ago, I received a $5,000 fiction fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. That initial gift of faith allowed me to write my first novel, but it also inspired an obligation to promote literacy, a debt I'm still paying back - gladly, gratefully - through public service.
Like most non-famous artists I know, I do other work to earn my living, and build my life around nonprofit endeavors - offering my time and talent for no (or low) pay to schools, libraries, community centers, arts organizations, and publications, some of which are publicly supported by local, state, or national funding. I donated money earned from sales of my novella, The Playgroup, to literacy councils in several cities. For seven years, I volunteered at Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park archaeology lab, helping to tell the story of our country's colonial past.
Whether or not artists should donate their work is another question, one particularly pertinent to women, who are disproportionately exploited in professions regarded as callings. For me - as a writer, teacher, mother, citizen - not doing the math to calculate my hourly wage is how I keep investing in this gift economy, in which we are all indebted to one another.
True, doing so isn't without its costs and risks. Gift-giving (or receiving) creates relationships; any bond with others threatens independence. But freedom, for the working artist, is a philosophical and pragmatic matter; the market economy can pose a bigger threat than "free money," even if a grant stirs a sense of civic responsibility. Apply one's talent to truth telling . . . or to advertising? Rush the work in order to cash in on current trends and tastes . . . or dig deeper for understanding that transcends the topical? By definition and necessity, artists are shrewd judges of the difference between work that merely panders to the market and work undertaken and offered with the hope that it will be meaningful.
As Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World: "A market exchange has an equilibrium or stasis: You pay to balance the scale. But when you give a gift there is momentum, and the weight shifts from body to body." What Hyde describes so cogently, Charles Dickens dramatized in works such as A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol, in which the potential of the gift economy is unknown and incomprehensible until one is overwhelmed by grief or generosity.
As a past recipient of a grant from the PACA (funded by state appropriation and the NEA), I am one of what Will calls "myriad entities with financial interests in preserving the NEA." Though he's against the agency, he's not anti-art; rather, his belief is based in conservative principles of limiting governmental power and protecting citizens' liberty by discouraging their demands. But regardless of whether or not you think our government should support the arts, the NEA is a force that sustains a very real and vibrant gift economy that is rarely apparent until it clashes with the market economy.
As it did a month ago, when President Trump visited St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla. When teachers and students thanked Trump "for serving America," they were expressing their school's principle of "serving God by serving others." Trump responded in the language of the marketplace, advising a student who wants to be an entrepreneur: "You're going to make a lot of money, right? But don't run for politics after you do." Trump accepted a handmade certificate from the class and offered a photo with himself to "make you famous."
From where I sit, the future looks hopeful, filled with skillful people making meaning and things. I could only spare 10 minutes - about $2 of my judging fee - for Will's well-reasoned, familiar argument against the NEA, before I had to return to reading grant applications, discerning art from the proverbial soybean.
I have applied (unsuccessfully) for an NEA grant every year I've been eligible, which sometimes seems like a futile chore. But evaluating the plans of these artists reminds me that it's always useful to try, though the chances of being awarded are increasingly slim. The regular opportunity to critically examine what I have done, to articulate clearly what I will do, is a very good way to hold myself accountable and to justify my life.