February 25, 2009

Word Count

Brownian-motion-like arts-funding update:
  • The House Appropriations Committee has proposed raising the NEA's annual budget by $10 million for the next fiscal year. (The nitty-gritty can be found on page 183 of the relevant statement for Division E of H.R. 1105.)
  • In the meantime, state arts funding, already in trouble in Michigan, is also on the bubble in South Dakota and Minnesota.
  • And perhaps Louisiana, after Governor Bobby Jindal—who gave the Republican response to President Obama's economic address last night—prefaced his speech by disparaging arts funding:
    Jindal, tapped to give his party's response to Obama's address to Congress on Tuesday night, said he appreciated Obama's remarks but still had problems with the bill, including funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, "that it's not apparent to me what they have to do with actually stimulating the economy.''
    Somebody has not been reading this blog. (Though, if early reviews are any indication, Gov. Jindal might reconsider the value of theatrical training.)
  • And then there's this report from the Los Angeles Times detailing the first family's arts consumption, with mild speculation as to how that might translate into policy.
The LAT article has an interesting quote at the end, from the director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company:
It sends a good message that the arts count.
That use of the word count has made me raise my eyebrow for a long time. This is because I am a native of not unpleasant and intermittently scenic Niles, Illinois. Tangent: Niles's Wikipedia page currently imparts this wisdom (click to enlarge):

Amazingly! Anyway, at some point, the village had a contest to determine a village slogan, and the winner was this kid who had his visage slapped across a billboard near my house, along with his slogan: "Where People Count." Which promptly became an object of mockery for moppet and adult alike. (My mom used to drive by the sign and say, "In Morton Grove they read.")

According to the OED (yes, I know, argument by etymology, always a suspect maneuver, but then again, it is the Unparalleled Playland That Is The Oxford English Dictionary we're talking about), this use of count dates only from 1885:
1885 PROCTOR Whist App. 186 Many doubt whether good play really counts much at Whist.
It is the absolute form of definition number 14: "To enter into the account or reckoning".

Now, this is a minor thing, and, after all, it's just an offhand comment that I quoted above, but there's a causality implied here that I think is suspect. Would the arts be less likely to enter into the reckoning if the First Family weren't reasonably avid patrons? It's the sort of thing I file in the same drawer as books with titles like Why the Arts Matter. My experience is that, if you're not answering that in a sentence or two, you're usually either a) asserting that the audience is bigger than we think, or b) apologizing for the fact that it's not. In other words, I think asking whether the arts count is the same thing as asking how big a network effect the arts create, and that's something that I think is irrelevant to artistic value.

On the other hand, I'd hardly call raising the public profile of the arts a bad thing, so even I would categorize this as nit-picking. But I find myself more and more attuned to—and fascinated by—the 20-year linguistic hangover from the last round of major cultural warfare. The arts haven't been left with a whole lot of room to maneuver right now, and it's a fine line between realism and diffidence. Like Orwell says, "[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

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