Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bill Maher on Classical Music and the NEA

I have a limited package with a local television company, so a recent week in Pittsburgh allowed me to watch Bill Maher on HBO in my hotel. The Supreme Court had just ruled on the Affordable Care Act, and Maher's guests were, appropriately, a liberal bunch who had a great time pillorying the right wing.

But Maher is not the sort of fellow who always takes a liberal stance. He is among those who would like to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. On his show in early May, he said:

. . . . lots of people give money to symphonies ... and they get tax deductions for that ... but they shouldn’t.... Unlike food and water, access to Mozart is not a basic human necessity.

This reminded me of Justice Scalia's remarks on the ACA ruling, drawing an analogy between forcing people to buy broccoli with the mandate for buying health care. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made note of this in her opinion:

The inevitable yet unpredictable need for medical care and the guarantee that emergency care will be provided when required are conditions nonexistent in the other markets. That is so of the market for cars, and of the market for broccoli.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization (which seeks to provide music education for children of color, several of whom were guest soloists with the Hartford Symphony during my tenure as music director), is often asked, 'if people are hungry and thirsty, why should I give to the arts?' His response:

First, please do feed the hungry and provide clean water to all. But then, is nothing else of value in our society? Do we seek only a well-fed people with access to water?

The arguments between Ginsburg and Scalia/Dworkin and Maher speak less to differences in thinking than it does to what we value in our society. Dworkin is among the very few who understand that our nation's drug epidemic is not removed by simply taking away the drug. You have to remove the need.

Jose Antonio Abreu, in his desire to change the Venezuelan culture, stated

"Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings."

Over 35 years later, due to Abreu's genius and Herculean determination, Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar watches over Venezuela's 125 youth orchestras, has 31 symphony orchestras, and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. 70 to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Abreu's most outstanding protégé is Gustavo Dudamel, now Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has recently inaugurated its own Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, providing intensive music training and academic support to students from underserved neighborhoods.

Dworkin and Abreu are modern day heroes. Most of us examine a problem and try to come up with an answer. These men saw a problem, looked beyond it, and changed the world. What Bill Maher may not know is that both of these men needed a lot of help to achieve that.

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