California Crack-up

Erudite observers of the California lifestyle have often proclaimed, “As goes California, so goes the nation.” Undeniably there have been many trends - cultural, economic, and political - that have come out of my home state to spread across the nation. While I could boast about some of the trends that have originated or taken root here, the current vogue amongst politicians in California to make the poor shoulder the burden created by the wealthy political class – is not a craze I am in favor of.

Commando – Movie poster for Director Mark Lester’s 1985 action film, Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Life mimics art? "Somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to pay."

Commando – Movie poster for Director Mark Lester’s 1985 action film, Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Life mimics art? "Somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to pay."

The California state assembly reached a bipartisan agreement to “resolve” the state’s $26 billion budget shortfall by implementing $15 billion in cuts to social services. These cuts represent nothing less than a human catastrophe for the working poor living in California. On July 28, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law, but used his line-item veto to make $656 million in additional cuts. As he signed the budget, Schwarzenegger warned that the state’s financial problems were far from over, and that further cuts may be forthcoming.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the “new reductions will affect child welfare and children’s healthcare, the elderly, state parks and AIDS treatment and prevention, going beyond the dramatic cuts that were part of the deal Schwarzenegger negotiated with legislative leaders.” In referring to the budget fiasco, the New York Times described California as “broke, embattled,” and “politically crippled.”

The new budget has slashed $8.1 billion from public education programs. President-elect of the California Association of School Business Officials, Renee Hendrick, remarked on the budget cuts; “I think you’re going to see larger class size, reduction in arts and music programs - I don’t think we’ve seen the full magnitude of the cuts yet.”

My line of reasoning has always found art to be inextricably linked to real world events and situations. Art and artists in California are undeniably impacted by the collapsing economy and budget cuts, but arts professionals cannot frame the crisis just in economic terms. While financial concerns are important, there is a much larger matter at stake that transcends whether or not art will be purchased in hard times or if galleries can stay open without altruistic patrons. The issue at hand has to do with art’s role in preserving and developing our collective humanity, especially in bleak days. Which is why stripping away or eliminating art and music programs for children in public schools is such a reprehensible and unpardonable crime - it is a symptom of spiritual rot.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, Gov. Schwarzenegger brandishes an enormous knife while talking about cutting government spending.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, Gov. Schwarzenegger brandishes an enormous knife while talking about cutting government spending.

So far, press coverage of the current budget crisis has mostly neglected to mention the devastating effects the California state government cuts will have on the arts, a subject that has even been given short shrift by those web logs usually devoted to art news. The only solid report I could find on the subject came from a local television news story from the California State Capital of Sacramento, where a children’s theater class has written and performed a musical that protests the elimination of art and music programs in education.

If it were ranked as a country, California would have the sixth largest economy in the world. One might think such an economy would be “too big to fail”, which is how President Obama described Wall Street companies Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and American International Group before bailing them out with hundreds of billions in taxpayer’s money. The Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) recently told a congressional committee that the Obama administration’s bailout of the banks may reach $23.7 trillion. Those of us in California can expect no such equivalent bailout from Mr. Obama.

In a June 16, 2009 article, White House says no to California budget help, Reuters quoted Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs at a White House press briefing. Answering a question regarding whether the Obama administration would provide an emergency financial bailout for the state, Gibbs said: “It’s obviously not an easy time for the state of California. We’ll continue to monitor the challenges that they have, but this budgetary problem unfortunately is one that they’re going to have to solve.” That same Reuters article made note of another historic rebuff when a U.S. president denied federal money to a financially beset city or state. “In 1975 the New York Daily News ran the headline ‘Ford to city: drop dead,’ when then President Gerald Ford denied assistance to New York City that would have allowed the U.S. financial capital to sidestep filing for bankruptcy.”

The current California budget crisis is just the tip of the iceberg; the status of arts funding across the U.S. can only be categorized as deplorable. For instance, the state of Florida has slashed arts funding from $34 million in 2007 to just $3 million for this year. Mr. Obama’s much talked about $50 million in emergency funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, money that is currently beginning to trickle down to arts organizations across the country, can be equated to a few raindrops falling on a parched and arid region. A drizzle in federal and state arts funding will not revive the arts – what is required is a torrential downpour.

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