Back in the Spring of 1780, John Adams found himself in Paris. The war for American independence was ongoing, and Adams was on yet another diplomatic mission on behalf of his nascent republic. Toward the middle of May, Adams wrote another of his many, many letters to his beloved Abigail, who tended the home fires back in Massachusetts.
As is often the case, Adams found Paris to be a magical place when it came to the arts. He wrote to Abigail, “To take a Walk in the Gardens of the Palace of the Tuilleries, and describe the Statues there, all in marble, in which the ancient Divinities and Heroes are represented with exquisite Art, would be a very pleasant Amusement, and instructive Entertainment, improving in History, Mythology, Poetry, as well as in Statuary. Another Walk in the Gardens of Versailles, would be usefull and agreable.” As you can see, spelling was a tad less specific in that era.
Adams went on to say that he longed to devote the hours needed for a fuller study of the entire spectrum of the arts in Europe, but ultimately concluded that he must not. The arts, he decided, must await the study of a later generation. Adams wrote, “The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. — I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
Please take a moment and ponder the wisdom of that long-dead patriot. Adams argued that at the founding of our nation, one needed to study those subjects most directly related to the survival of the new nation — a survival that was not at all assured in 1780. Only after the fundamentals of the science of government were learned could a nation turn to other disciplines. Adams thought that his son’s generation would still need to commit to math and history, for example, as the republic would not yet be firmly on the path to success. Only in the third generation, Adams reasoned, would the times allow for the in-depth study of what today we call the arts. Adams regretted the study of the arts must await future generations. Yet in our day, the arts are again at risk, and Adams’ warning merits repeating.
A recent Colorado Politics cover story powerfully examines the plight of the arts in Colorado and in the nation at large. And yet, I suspect that quite a few of our regular readers may have skipped or at best skimmed that story on their way to more “important” news about businesses and politics. And that is a pity…
The article points out that the arts have been hurt exceptionally badly by the pandemic. From Red Rocks to Shakespeare festivals to community theater, the arts have hemorrhaged money and jobs. In many ways, the arts are a canary in a nation’s cultural coal mine. I admit it pains me to argue economics in defense of the arts, as their intrinsic value to awaken, to inspire, to thrill and to touch are beyond economic calculation. But as economics are more easily quantified, I will point out that in the article it is noted that here in Colorado the arts generate $15.6 billion per year, just under 5% of Colorado’s economy. Nearly 60% of the 103,401 arts jobs here have been lost and many performing arts centers and art galleries have been forced to shut down and to furlough their staffs. Beyond the direct arts employment, thousands more jobs have been lost in the local businesses that supported the arts, such as nearby restaurants and bars, as well as the suppliers to such businesses and the hotels and other businesses dependent on the arts. I have actor friends who have found themselves not only out of work in theater jobs, but also in the “regular” jobs (such as food service) they often took between gigs. In my own case, after 25 years of performing a one-man show as Alexander Hamilton across the nation, I have found 100% of my gigs cancelled.
Even if you never visit an art museum or see a play (and you should, once this COVID issue is behind us), you live in a society enriched by the presence of the arts. The sculptor Yaacov Agam once said, “There are two distinct languages. There is the verbal, which separates people… and there is the visual that is understood by everybody.” And painter Thomas Kinkade noted, “art transcends cultural boundaries.” The arts add to our society in an important way, which is why I hope that Congress will soon pass the “Save our Stages Act,” which would support the arts nationally.
The economic impact of the arts is significant, but the cultural impact may well be even greater. So please support the arts, perhaps with a donation to a favorite Colorado arts entity, and recall the words of Marc Chagall, who said, “great art picks up where nature ends.” Supporting the arts in Colorado is not only in our economic self-interest but is good for our souls.