2016-02-15

Open to All: Communities and the Arts

Free societies will be more richly served the day they see the value of performing arts organisations as akin to the value of great libraries and museums. All these things are resources in advancing culture, and in opening the achievements of culture to all.

Open societies get off on the wrong foot when they think of the performing arts by thinking of them not as resources for sharing culture, but as niche forms of commercial entertainment, best left to make their way according to the rules of the marketplace as commercial products must.

The flaw in this habit of thought appears at once when we turn the subject from the arts of music and dance to the arts of literature and painting. Everyone understands the need for libraries and museums. Most people understand that the experience of commercial best sellers and cute posters cannot substitute for the experience of Woolf's books or Wyeth's paintings. They understand instinctively that it would be a profoundly unhealthy thing for society overall if all the works of Woolf and Wyeth were to be sequestered away in private collections, accessible only to those wealthy enough to buy everything or to those influential enough to get invitations to the owner's mansion for a glimpse.

Yet on the subject of the performing arts, that is what many people advocate. 'Let those who want symphonies pay for them themselves,' they say. What this means, in effect: 'Put the experience of live symphonies away in a place where I and my neighbours will never find it.' Worthy achievements of Beethoven and Copland are pushed aside as worthy achievements of Woolf and Hemingway are not, for no apparent reason other than the artistic medium.

And the reality is that most people who want symphonies can not pay for access to them entirely on their own. This should not surprise us, as most people who want access to the complete works of Hemingway cannot afford to stock everything in their own personal libraries, either. Access to all: that's why communities build concert halls and theatres, libraries and galleries.

Inequality may linger in the world of material things, but great music, great literature, great art and the wonders of science are, and should be, open to all.

– Franklin D Roosevelt
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