We can’t afford to not fund the arts

“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” 

I quoted Professor John Keating, played by Robin Williams, from the movie “Dead Poet’s Society” in my first ever editor’s note because there is no better way to describe the human need for passion, music, poetry, beauty … the things that stir emotions and remind us all that we are alive. 

Here is my less poetic (more long-winded) version of why the arts are important, and why Literary LEO is possibly the most important issue we put out each year:

Art, and in particular art education, is the Cinderella story of American prosperity, undervalued and under appreciated, the stepchild of our society. The arts have an immeasurable impact on our entire economy, and are at the very foundation of our education and personal development — our humanity.

America isn’t the world’s economic superpower because it has great business schools. It is because parents and teachers encouraged us to dream; our founders told us we are entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness; presidents told us we can go to the moon. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Harvard, America’s oldest university, opened their their school of business 36 years after opening its graduate school for arts and sciences, 34 years after their fine arts department.

The new Star Wars movie is going to pass $2 billion at the box office. This comes after countless millions and billions in movie sales from previous movie releases, toys, apparel, spin-off shows, books, and so on. George Lucas, the mastermind of this American institution, would undoubtedly tell you that it all started with art, from creating new worlds, languages, races and species, to visuals, musical scores and, at its core, creative storytelling.

Lucas is constructing the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, due to open in 2018 in Chicago. The Atlantic wrote of Lucas’ project, “According to the bits and pieces in his proposal and his museum website, he will sponsor an ‘experience’ emphasizing that art has told stories ever since the earliest hieroglyphs and cave paintings. The exhibitions will follow ‘narrative art’ through the technological advancements of the 20th century and into the ‘digital mediums of the future,’ all of which makes narrative sound like it’s on its way to becoming the dominant art form in this country, if it hasn’t achieved that status already.”

This week’s guest editor, Ron Whitehead, poignantly introduces Literary LEO 2016 with a message regarding political threats to the arts and arts education in Kentucky and around the country. Government support for the arts and arts education is a vital economic interest. The return on that investment may not be immediately measurable, if ever, but its economic impacts are, without a doubt, immeasurable. Matt Bevin, Mitch McConnell and Republican Presidential candidates may tell us we can’t afford funding the arts, but it takes a fool to not recognize we can’t afford to not fund the arts. 

It is equally important that arts education be an absolute requirement in all schools. From the very first day a child walks into a classroom until the very last day they walk out a young adult, from English and science to painting and piano, every student should be exposed to art every single day. There is art in storytelling, reading, writing and poetry in English; there is art in expanding the imagination of worlds you cannot see, or problems you have never faced in science; there is art in stirring passion and enthusiasm for music, painting and creating. And there is no numeric value, that can quantify the lifelong economic and personal impact of inspiring creativity. 

Literary LEO is not simply about creative writing or photography. It is about the spirit of creativity, critical thinking and inspiration. It is about storytelling, through words and images. We are hearing all too much about what we can’t afford. What we cannot afford is to lose our ability to create. We cannot afford to lose our ability to tell stories about things that haven’t happened or don’t exist; to dream of unknown, unseen and unreachable worlds; to communicate in unknown languages with non-existent creatures. 

As stated in the Atlantic article, “Art has told stories ever since the earliest hieroglyphs and cave paintings.” The great civilizations have always told great stories; from those cavemen and the Egyptians, to Homer and the Greeks, and the great English poet, William Shakespeare. America’s ability to dream has led to the most fantastic stories in history, taking us from Oz to Alderaan, and from “Back to the Future” “to infinity and beyond.” The ability to dream of such things is the American Dream.