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Content Provided

January 28, 2011

I spent forty years as a writer and now I’m a ‘content provider.’” – P.J. O’Rourke

Although I’ve never needed a second opinion to support my point of view, when I get one – especially one that wasn’t asked for, and especially from someone whose insight and intellect I respect (this is an extremely short list) – I know I’m definitely on the right track. So Susan B, this one’s for you.

I wasn’t home when the State of the Union speech started; I was out covering a City Council meeting.(Note: city denotes the municipal form of local government and not the population of said mole on the flea on the ass of the castrated dog.) Nothing of consequence happens at city council meetings in January; most of the decisions could be made just as efficiently by a Magic 8 Ball, and with as much insight. Imagine the expedience of it:

The Mayor: “Should we pay the bills?” [Shakes Magic 8 Ball.]

Alderman #1: “What’s it say?”

The Mayor: “It says “Try Again.”

Alderman #2: “Lets’ try Medulla Ricotta!”

Alderman #3: “Who’s that?”

Alderman #4: “Medulla Ricotta! The carnival fortune telling machine in the Police Chief’s office that answers 911 calls!”

The Mayor: “Why not?”

Alderman #5:“Fine. Who has a quarter?”

Silence.

Of course, there was the “Executive Session” which is a legal loophole municipal governments use when they want to talk about how to spend the public’s money without having the public in on the discussion. But I stayed until it was over. I stood in the barely heated outer hall in the hopes that they would come back from “Executive Session” – which sounds more like a polite term for the CEO’s private pisser or the back booth at a low rent strip joint – waiting to see if there was anything print worthy. (Note: not the same as news worthy. A lot happens that’s news. But it can’t be printed without offending either an advertiser or some local busybody who would rather save it for the gossip trough at the Church of God.) There was an “action item”, but the collective body of the mayor and aldermen/women said as little as possible – I’m sure with the full intention of giving me nothing for my weekly deadline – before officially adjourning the meeting.

Lucky for me, we have a DVR player. So after I stopped at the corner Mobil station for a couple of well deserved cold deucers, I went home, popped one of them open, sat in my green chair, and began my SOTU’11 Experience.

To begin: Barack Obama still knows how to give one hell of a speech. Put him in front of a crowd and he plays them well. And all the little kiddies in Congress were, as they had publicly decided,playing nice and sitting, not on their usual separated sides, but mixed together in a series of saved seats that reminded me of riding the school bus when I was a kid. Goodie Goodie. When I first heard about this particular political stunt, I was worried that all the theatrical genius of the SOTU would be lost; but I was not disappointed. Each side clapped, held their hands in front of them, stood, sat, and cheered at all the appropriately partisan times. Thank the gods! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s fake civility. All this talk about removing the vitriol from public debate had me worried… but alas, it’s still there. Safe and sound as John Boenher’s retirement fund in that numbered Swiss bank account.

And I was not initially disappointed with the speech, either. Rather than blow smoke up the collective ass of the American People, The President pointed out some harsh truths about where we stand versus the rest of the world in education, in innovation, as well as in science and technology. He referenced his Race to the Top Program, which was fine and dandy for those states who actually got a piece of the money… but here in Illinois, a state already crippled with a $13 Billion deficit and no way to pay it off except an increased income tax and a bonding issue (think: payday loans for governments) that passed educational reforms in the hopes of qualifying and didn’t – reforms that still need to be paid for, by the way – there was little solace in the reference.

By the time Mr. Obama got to our “Sputnik moment” one thing was very clear. The winnable future – that wonderful rhetorical trope that tied our George Jetson dreams to our unreasonable and lethal nostalgia for a revised version for the past – had no place for me. I realize that long division will probably save the world; but I submit that a long poem has as much complexity, as much nuance, and is the soul of the entire equation.

Sensing the absence, it didn’t take GOP’ers long to jump. Let’s cut the NEA and NEH, they said. After all, that would save a combined $335 million in the budget that could go towards teaching Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann how to read cue cards and look into the camera at the same time; maybe it could pay for an eyelash augmentation – those massive flappers must have obstructed her view of the camera.

The usual golden calf of the federal government – the Department of Defense – is, however looking for a $2.9 billion increase in funds, just to increase ground force troops… which doesn’t really include paying them or protecting them. That’s probably just the price of gas, really. Those troop transports burn a lot of Texas Tea. Now, if The President can follow through on his call to end oil company welfare, maybe it’ll balance out in the end. Maybe. But somehow, I doubt that the oil lobbies will let that happen. They own too many members of Congress, in both parties. And those Tea Party nut jobs are waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, so they don’t see a need for environmental reform. (Yes, I put all my crazies in one big basket. They fall together so nicely and with so few new wrinkles.)

The not so suspicious absence of the arts in Mr. Obama’s outline to “win the future” was disappointing. But: it was NOT SURPRISING. America is a country that has never really liked the idea of supporting the arts or artists. Americans tolerate Hello Kitty pop art and reprints of Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. They like to see stories on The CBS Sunday Morning Show about retired factory workers who paint pastoral scenes and accidentally sell one to a collector who got lost between New York and Rhode Island. They like hacks who scribble forgettable books with conveniently soothing plot twists and a moral structure that supports their world view. They like Hallmark card poetry, because it says something deeply personal in an impersonal and mass produced way.

And it never occurs to anyone in power – or at any rate, anyone in power who has enough political capital to do anything about it – the arts, more than helping create more artists, also encourages imaginative thinking and problem solving.

President Obama referred to teachers as Nation Builders; and for the good teachers, that’s true enough… not that teachers will ever be afforded the respect or pay (because we ARE capitalists here in America… still… in spite of the fact that in Capitalism, like every other economic system on the planet, the money and power flows to the few and the shit and debt flows to everyone else) that a Nation Builder deserves. But here’s another truth:

Artists – that’s painters, poets, writers of novels, novellas, and short stories, sculptors, and multi-media geniuses – are Nation Builders too. Pick your over-used metaphor. If America is the Body Politic, the arts are it’s soul. If America is a skyscraper, artists are the stairs and elevators. If America is one giant Bread Basket, artists are the yeast. (And not that kind that goes away with a liberal coat of Vagisil. Think Beer and Bread. If you have an itchy crotch… well, that’s another matter altogether.)

Art, in all it various forms, is more than a commodity. Yes, as an artist, at some point you need to sell something… not so you can claim the title Artist or Writer, but so you can continue to create more art. And selling something means establishing value and putting a price tag on it. It sucks, but it’s the truth. And America, as much as it has gained from the Arts – still doesn’t understand it’s relationship with Art enough to assign it a respectable value.

And yes, I blame the government. I blame big house book publishers and unimaginative market driven literary agents that take their cuts off the top. I blame art galleries that focus more on the business of art and leave nothing for the real artists, like the galleries in downtown Phoenix, AZ that wanted to limit number of people selling their own stuff at the First Friday Event because all those dirty independent artists were freaking out the wine and cheese crowd.

On some level, I blame other artists, too. We have collectively bought into this idea – fully supported by an establishment that neither cares for nor thinks about how important we really are – that we should create Art “for Art’s Sake.” Now, if you mean that the Artist should be true to his or her vision, then I agree. But that’s not how it plays out. What really happens is that we’ve given the culture an excuse to not pay us. After we’re dead and our work can be copied ad nauseum, they’ll pay out the nose. But while we’re ALIVE and need to keep the lights and heat on? Forget about it.

I also blame the various content mills that underpay and own the words, as well as all those little scams that want independent writers to PAY THEM to help market a book. They are the worst kinds of leeches, other than maybe politicians.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to figure out the rest of my day. Where in the hell did I put that Magic 8 Ball?

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