11 hours ago
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Money Lab: Food or a flower, what is the value of art?
In honor of Money Lab, I will be posting a series of blog posts about economics and the arts. Here is my first, examining the question of the basic value of art.
I was taking a cab the other day, and my cab driver asked me if I had any good ideas to help the world. He was collecting.
I work in theater, I said, so all my ideas are about theater. But I do think art can help the world.
He scoffed. If you were starving, he asked, what would you like? Food? Or a flower?
This reminded me of another incident. Some years ago, Soutine’s bakery on the Upper West Side had promised the theater company a free cake for a fundraiser. The day I came to pick it up, the owner reneged. I didn’t understand it was for a theater, she told me. I thought it was a non-profit.
It is a non-profit, I said.
No, she said. Something that does good. Like cancer research. I can’t just give a free cake to anyone who asks.
That conversation dwelled with me for a while. The nature of non-profit theater is that it depends on donations. Personal donations, foundation grants, and government grants, which are a sort of donation from everyone’s tax dollar. Why do we deserve it?
I can say that without it, the world would be lacking. Only the commercial work could survive. Difficult work that examines ideas or advances the art form wouldn’t exist. The world would be a much duller and less joyful place.
To me. But then again I’m not starving.
This is how I responded to the cab driver: I just directed a play called The Last Cyclist, written in a concentration camp. The people, all the actors there were starving. The play criticized the Nazis, and some of them risked their lives by even rehearsing it. Most of them were murdered. But then, in that moment, they felt alive. Art is a need, a basic need, dating back to the cave drawings. It helped them feel human when they might have been reduced to pure animal needs.
He was not convinced. Yes, sure, it was a distraction. But they would have been better off with some bread.
He went driving off in search of someone with better ideas.