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Former UCSC writing professor Don Rothman on funding the arts in a downturn.

By Don Rothman

SHOULD NERO have fiddled while Rome burned? Should Yo-Yo Ma or Bruce Springsteen put aside their instruments, art museums shut their doors and theater companies go dark until the serious business of repairing our economy is completed? In 1642, Puritans closed England's theaters, which they saw as the devil's venue, places where people replaced piety with their own wayward imaginations. What's left of that moralistic distrust of art is a nagging suspicion that during times of suffering, art is frippery, luxury, certainly not a necessity. I beg to disagree.

Maxine Greene, professor emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University, has argued that for a democracy to thrive, people need to be able to walk in each other's shoes. Empathy leads us to appreciate others' suffering and sustains our commitment to equality. Once we appreciate that another human being has the same claims to dignity and well-being as we do, we structure laws and a social and political system accordingly.

Greene believes, as John Dewey and many others do, that to have empathy we need to nurture imagination. After all, it is an act of imagination to recognize the suffering of a stranger in a strange land and to act on our responsibility to alleviate it if we can. Art, Greene points out repeatedly in her articles and books, nurtures our imaginations. Our schools, therefore, must embrace art if the curriculum can ever hope to nurture citizens with democratic habits of mind.

We shouldn't be naive about all this. Some Nazis enjoyed classical music and some fascists designed imaginative ways to commit genocide. We know that art, like all forms of human creativity, can also silence, humiliate and degrade people.

However, I also know that in the presence of art we experience not only personal revelation but also social connections that enhance our communities. Take, for example, the conversations that occur between neighbors in Santa Cruz every summer as a result of the Cabrillo Music Festival or Shakespeare Santa Cruz; consider how strangers and friends talk to each other at the Museum of Art and History in the presence of plein-air paintings or avant-garde installations.

A few personal examples: In a conversation with a group of minority science students before and after the 2007 Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of The Tempest, they wondered why a play about knowledge and power wasn't required reading for science majors. Another group of premed students asked me why Dr. Faustus, which we'd just finished reading, wasn't a core text for researchers concerned with the health of their souls as they unraveled nature's mysteries. These students wanted more from their education than information; they wanted to deepen their capacity to interpret a confusing, complex world.

We are searching for new paradigms with which to understand the global economy. It occurs to me that it's through our exposure to art that we have developed a capacity to keep asking "what if?" and to discern the human consequences of catastrophes. Art can prompt us to hope for and design a better way.

So don't feel guilty about fiddling in these uncertain times. Someone may be listening, and someone may find the inspiration to put out a fire because of the beauty you--or an artist you supported--created.

Don Rothman taught writing at UCSC for 34 years, directed the Central California Writing Project and is now on the Shakespeare Santa Cruz Board.

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