Grant Us Peace

In the eyes of most Americans, I’m destined to go straight hell when I die, maybe even sooner. Fortunately, I don’t believe in things like an afterlife. Regardless, I’m stuck living in a society that largely frowns upon my beliefs, politics, the way I live, my friends, job, artistic work, and even the person I love most dearly. Needless to say, last night’s announcement to escalate the war in Iraq is totally depressing me. So, to cheer myself up, I’m going to concentrate on something that very few in Congress concern themselves with: arts funding. Sure, I wish the $380 billion price-tag-and-rising for the War on Terror had been put towards something like universal healthcare, but screw it. I’m going to be just as selfish as every other American out there and rant about stuff that affects me, me, me. Arts funding—ahem, I mean doling out money to composers, and maybe a few sound artists—is bogged down by rigid guidelines. Grants, commissions, and residencies usually fall short of supporting everything a composer needs. Here’s a few things I think need to be changed:

1. Travel grants need to be more flexible. Europeans (and even Canadians) have it easy on this front. With a simple letter from a presenter, a composer’s local consulate will usually throw some cash at them. Things are a little trickier here in the good ol’ US of A. I remember applying for a travel grant through the now-defunct organization Arts International. I wasn’t looking for a free vacation to Germany. I really felt it was important that I be there for the rehearsals because my piece had a very loose score that could be interpreted any number of ways. After submitting all the necessary materials, I learned that they wouldn’t fund me because the performance was part of a festival— “We don’t do festivals.” I tried to counter with the fact that this performance was also part of their regular concert series, but to no avail. Sure, there are programs out there that fund a composer’s travel expenses, but you must apply at the very least eight months prior to hopping on that plane. Add to this a two-month review process, and who knows if you’ll ever get to leave the ground in the end? Travel grants need to be less restrictive, have fewer guidelines, easier applications, and shorter turnaround when it comes to decision-making.

2. Too many grant programs require education components and community outreach. Hey, that’s great, if that’s something you like to do. Those of us who don’t have any experience doing something like that make something up on the application and jump through the hoops when the money comes through. I think it would serve communities better if you just send out those composers who want to interface with the community, which is not to say that you should only fund those who are so obliged. If you want to fund music, then fund music, not some half-baked outreach idea proposed by a composer with no clue and even less desire to carry it out.

3. Residency programs are a great escape from the pressures of the “real” world, but while you’re away the earth doesn’t stop rotating. The mortgage is still due, as is the electric bill. Yes, free room and board is great, but some extra cash to take care of the financial obligations at home would be a godsend. Granted, some residencies do include stipends, but they are the exception, not the rule. And while I understand the huge amount of generosity in running a residency program, the few places that actually require the artists to pay for their visit seem to me a bit too prohibitive to younger, emerging artists and those without wealthy spouses.

4. Reading sessions are another great opportunity. However, I’m not about to write a piece of music that I don’t have the resources to get performed. Naturally, I’ve never written an orchestral piece. I’m certainly not going to write one in order to submit an application for it to be read. The larger, most established reading programs should adopt an auxiliary program where composers can pre-apply to the regular reading session based on the applicant’s recent music—which may or may not include an orchestra piece—and then give them a year or two to compose a new piece for the orchestra to read. Luckily, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has initiated a mentorship program for composers that have little or no experience writing for orchestra. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

And don’t even get me started on those projects where funders more or less dictate the artistic impetus behind the proposed work. I know, I know. I’m sounding like a self-entitled brat expecting free handouts. But let me reiterate, that big huge sum of money—$1,547.30 of my own tax dollars so far, according to the National Priorities Project—is just fueling more bloodshed, while fattening the pockets of Halliburton executives. Imagine if we put a line item in the budget of, say, 1% to fund the arts. This sort of escalation might actually strengthen our culture and enlighten citizens to the larger world around us. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, my music hasn’t killed anybody yet.

12 thoughts on “Grant Us Peace

  1. sgordon

    Jesus f’n Kee-rist. Give ‘em an inch and they want a mile…

    Dude, I usually like your stuff, but that nearly convinced me to vote Republican. I don’t want to sound like an old fuddy-duddy or anything, but at the end of every paragraph all I could think was, “well, get a freakin’ job, then…”

    I mean, nowhere to you approach the topic of why. Like, why should someone, anyone – let alone the government – pay for you to go to rehearsals? Maybe the government should pay my subway fare to work every day. And if I decide to spend a month writing a symphony, they should pay my rent. And they should send someone to my house to feed my cat when I’m out of town. And cook me dinner because I’m too busy CREATING to feed myself. Hell, maybe I can get a grant to cover my bills while I dedicate myself to writing snarky comments to websites.

    Really, it’s as if artists think the only choice they have is to be a prostitute or a beggar. I guess given the choice I’ll go with the former. I mean, I doubt beggars get laid much.

    Anyway, while your music hasn’t killed anyone (no music has that kind of power, of course, except Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne) – neither has it cured any sickness, put out any fires, housed any homeless, taught any children to read…

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  2. randy

    Alright, point taken. Go ahead and vote Republican (like it matters). The sad thing is that art is now almost totally market driven, and if artists can’t make money then they should be allowed to create—get an office job already. But from this vantage point, art is slotted pretty low on the quality-of-life totem pole. Sure, you don’t need art in order to breathe or eat, but it sure helps in understanding our fellow man—idealistically even change hearts and minds, stop war, foster peace, etc. I’d rather waste our taxes on supporting wannabe-deadbeat composers like myself rather blow shit up in the Middle East.

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  3. JKG

    Cool!
    On the encouragement end, you’ll be happy to know that if you DO go to hell, you’ll get an actual body according to the scriptures. In a little known reading of the original Hebrew Old Testament, it turns out, while the righteous wind up with a body noy unlike what we have now (except perfect and sexless), the WICKED are given the bodies of WORMS. That’s right! Now that’s smart – imagine – hell might not be any bigger than fifty yards square! Hope this cheers you up!

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  4. sgordon

    Cripes, when did this forum turn into Bible Study Time? Sorry if I encouraged that.

    Nobody likes me
    everybody hates me
    think I’ll go and eat worms…
    Big fat juicy ones
    small thin skinny ones
    see how they wiggle and squirm…
    Well, you bite off the head and you
    suck out the juice and you
    throw the skin away…
    Nobody knows how
    I can live on
    three worms every day.

    Okay…

    I think post-cave painting art has always been primarily market driven, with the exception of folk art and religious art – and in the latter case some of it was based on what the church wanted more than the artist. But non-commercial art, art-for-art’s-sake, has always existed in the background and always will. Does it make people’s lives better? I dunno. It makes them more interesting, more entertaining – “better” is hard to quantify. But everything said non-commercial art can do, “commercial” art can too. One could suggest that “commercial” art does it far better, in fact, as more people are willing to spend their money on it.

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  5. Chris Becker

    “One could suggest that “commercial” art does it far better, in fact, as more people are willing to spend their money on it.”

    One could suggest that if the accumulation of money is how you measure yourself artistically (and otherwise). I don’t and most of the musicians I work with (I am a gigging, recording, grant applying, blogging composer) don’t either. Seth, be careful – your value system is just that – a set of values that work for you. But I would also point out (again) that the sacrifice we must make as artists in this country is not valued as it should be. And yet people eat up music. There is a disconnect between people who are listening and an understanding of what it takes to be a musician and/or composer. Why contribute to people’s ignorance with comments like “get a freakin’ job”?

    Randy – I think your suggestions are right on – but many of your columns (like your previous essay) seem to advocate that composers adopt “market driven” tactics to somehow make themselves more famous and make more money. And I would ask “why” and instead direct the discussion to this post where you offer some concrete ideas for making grants even more helpful in our contemporary world.

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  6. marknowakowski

    “In the eyes of most Americans, I’m destined to go straight hell when I die, maybe even sooner.”

    I could extrapulate numerous hidden insults from such a passage. I could also bitch about the short-change Christian artists and academics get in our country, but I’ll avoid all such political forays… except for one:

    I would have to agree with the above poster who said that we need to examine the “reasons why” funding is so scarce.

    Are we really surprised arts funding is going down the drain?
    Since we opened the topic of religion, let me give an example:
    The Southern Center for the Contemporary Arts gets an NEA grant… which it uses to display fine “artwork” like the infamous “Piss Christ.”

    This is not to debate freedom of speech — this is simply to point out that such appropriation of funds is equivalent to the shooting of Arts funding straight in the foot… not surprisingly, there was a strong political backlash at the time, which included incredulity at the use of NEA funds for such “art.” When you offend half the lawmakers which might otherwise support the NEA or related efforts, funding gets cut.

    On another note, at no time do I expect the US of A to support my composing. I will work, teach, and find other methods to support myself. There
    was never a “golden age” where composers “had it made.”

    Finally, if we can mourn anything, it is the state of private funding. Back in the day, the “rick folks” out there showed off by supporting composers and commissioning artwork. Now, with more “rich folks” that at any other time in history, most of them would rather buy Barbara Streisand tickets.

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  7. EvanJohnson

    The Southern Center for the Contemporary Arts gets an NEA grant… which it uses to display fine “artwork” like the infamous “Piss Christ.”

    … which is an absolutely gorgeous, technically impeccable, masterful photograph. And Andres Serrano is a great, great photographer.

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  8. Chris Becker

    Mark, I don’t think Randy was trying to imply that Christians and Catholics all think he’s going to go to hell. There are plenty of progressive churches here in NYC and in other parts of the country where I’ve lived – plenty of progressive people in Christian and Catholic churches. But there’s a LOT of ignorance out there as well, and Randy’s comment sets up the exasperation many feel in this day and age where it seems religion is used as a front for hate. That said, I agree that you will find blanket statements in the press (not necessarily here at NMBx) about “the midwest” or “the South” and yes, “Christians” and “Catholics.” And it’s good to call people out if they make broad generalizations.

    In other countries, a composer can apply for funding to support the creation and presentation of their work. Why is it the good ol’ USA is different? Where does this “get a job” attitude come from?

    Here’s a passage that I recently came across in LeRoi Jones’ book Blues People (1963):

    “In Europe an artist or Bohemian is tolerated, even looked up to as a person of mysterious but often valuable capabilities, but in America no such admiration exists…The complete domination of American society by what Brooks Adams called the economic sensibility, discouraging completely any significant participation of the imaginative sensibility in the social, political, and economic affairs of the society is what has promoted this hatred of the artist by the “average American.”

    Now what do we think Jesus would have to say about the domination of the economic sensibility? What road does this sensibility lead you down? What is the end result when we devalue our imagination and creativity?

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  9. JKG

    What difference would it make?
    …if indeed, Christ had any say so in the way modern, contemporary musical art is handled. Truthfully, most anyone these days with any serious leanings towatds real discipleship tends NOT to go to church – in this country and elsewhere. The religion business still thrives, the same one that killed Christ in the first place. And if American pragmatism is to blame for a lack of respect and funding towards serious art, then also to blame are the artists themselves – we bicker and compete, and in the end it is an admiring public which chooses the “winner” based upon its collective tastes. In this country, it simply does not matter what we think, and we have generally brought that on ourselves for being so hoity-toity know-it-all that most folks laugh behind our backs with derision about how utterly and hopelessly stupid we are about real life and real issues. Yes, Europe and other places cotton to artists much more directly (even American artists), yet they traditionally lack the down-to-earth and hands-on sensibility we have inherited from our forefathers. Those who are too serious and detached get ignored, while those who work to make art available for everyone get not only performed but even get a livelihood to go along with it. Gripe and moan all you want, but there are good reasons why things are the way they are. Jesus would likely smile and politely ask, “so what?”

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  10. marknowakowski

    Chris: I don’t think this should be a discussion about religion, considering the title of this website. Somebody rejecting ancient dogma, however, in the face of modern leanings, is not necessarily “progressive”, because they are not necessarily moving forward. Somebody accepting ancient dogma over modern “thinking” (quotes used liberally) is not necessarily “ignorant.” These are unfortunate generalizations in themselves.

    Evan: I made no value judgement on Serrano’s artwork. I simply tried to illustrate that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, let alone repeatedly as artists have done.

    In the end, I believe that the “blaze your own trail, if you dare” attitude to American composing is ultimately good for us. The field is already saturated, in spite of the bleak economic forecasts for such a career. How many more would be at the doorstep, if the government was handing out freebies?

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  11. marknowakowski

    In the end, the fault lies in part with the art world, for not educating what should have been today’s patrons. There’s PLENTY of money to go around there… it is interest that is lacking. Not that would-be patrons should always be blamed.

    The educational components required in so many grants are an opportunity to begin this process, rather than an annoyance to be shunned. Our situation can’t be fixed. The next generation of composers, however, might have a slightly better job environment, if we work to re-enter the public eye through the use of education. As usual, there are no quick-fixes, no matter what political hopefuls might want you to think.

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  12. Chris Becker

    Good point Mark re: education. I just received a grant that requires some kind of outreach to the public where I will explain how I compose music – (for dance and otherwise). I’m actually looking forward to it. And it’s been good for me to take an objective look at how I put music together – fun even.

    Sorry if I felt the spirit and got a little carried away. I’m definitely an optimist when it comes down to it – although my Blue People quote may not show that. Take care.

    Reply

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