The Case for Arts and Culture

by Bob Goldfarb

It’s hardly news that philanthropists are reconsidering their priorities in the face of the economy’s woes. The move to provide for basic needs, for example, is a natural and laudable response to the jump in unemployment. It’s important, though, not to lose sight of the long-term welfare of the Jewish community, and that includes arts and culture.

Jewish communal life stands on four pillars: education, religion, community, and culture. All of these provide context and meaning for a Jewish life. Taken together they make a powerful statement that, for a Jew, living is not only a matter of surviving and subsisting: it is also encompasses learning, morality, other people, and human expression.

When a ship is sinking, all efforts go to saving the passengers, and everything else is set aside for the moment. There’s no room for long-term planning in a life-and-death situation. And once the passengers are rescued, the immediate need is to keep them warm, clothed, and fed. It’s not a time for reflecting on what makes life meaningful, since what is at risk is life itself.

Very soon after the emergency, though, the values by which one lives become important again. Rejoining one’s community, dealing with the mysterious unpredictability of life, telling one’s story – these quickly take on an urgency born of human need.

Are we in the midst of a shipwreck where immediate loss of life is a real danger? Then by all means, put aside every other concern to save lives. But if today’s economic challenges are not comparable to such a catastrophe, it would be a mistake act as if they are.

No one has called for a wholesale shift of resources towards human services and away from schools, synagogues, and other community institutions. But there is growing skepticism about the value of funding arts and culture projects at a time like this. And the nature of that skepticism can be very revealing.

  • Some donors suggest that the arts ought to be able to be self-sufficient if they are truly serving a need. Of course the same might be said of any nonprofit activity, and the idea is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding. If nonprofits could support themselves, they wouldn’t need to be nonprofits.
  • It is said that arts and culture are a luxury that can’t be afforded in times like these. This suggests that the arts are not a vital expression of who we are and what’s important to us, but rather are an expensive accessory, a marker of status or wealth. The reality is that, in times of trouble, music and poetry and visual art and drama and film can offer insight, comfort, hope, and relief from suffering.
  • There is a perception that culture and the arts are a type of entertainment, when they actually are an expression of the human spirit that addresses the most fundamental and enduring concerns of life.

Just as we need to maintain the financial stability of communal organizations, schools, and synagogues, it is vitally important to nurture the creative community right now. They help us through this difficult time, expressing thoughts and feelings that remain inarticulate in most of us. And long after we’re gone, the work of our artists will speak for us to future generations. Let’s not set them aside when we need them most.

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, and publisher of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.