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gatheringtreeA few years ago, I went to see “The Avengers” with a girl I was seeing at the time. “I guess I liked it.” she said later on the phone, “I just couldn’t stop thinking about what a waste of money it all was. Like that’s MILLIONS of dollars that could have been spent to help a lot of people. It just seemed a little silly.”.
Last year, I was commissioned to design my first big public fountain sculpture “The Gathering Tree” for Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. All told, the budget ran to about $650,000. Again, as soon as that number came out, people began making blog posts and commenting online about what a waste of money that was, and how many other, more deserving projects could have used that money.
It’s a popular idea these days, that art and entertainment are frivolous somehow, and not worth the money.

These kinds of criticisms are common, but they’re also silly, and a little childish. The thing is, that $650,000 isn’t just getting thrown into a fire. For that matter, The Avengers much more substantial $200 million isn’t being dumped into the Pacific ocean. People who think this way are thinking of money in a very small, personal way– that once you spend it, the money is “gone”.
The money isn’t gone.
The money is being paid as wages to plumbers and electricians, architects and construction guys, actors and directors and artists. In the fountain’s case, it’s being paid to a local mom and pop granite business, a local bronze foundry run by three guys, a one man crane company, and yes, a sculptor, me. All of those people are a part of the local economies they live within, and all of them who enjoy being able to make rent and groceries and keep running their businesses and feeding their kids.
The money is still there, just, other people have it now.
Of the $650,000 budget for the entire project. My studio, meaning me and my assistants, are taking home way less than ten percent of that, for more than a year of work. It is providing us with a middle-class income at best, which sorry to say, is pretty normal for working artists, even successful ones. I might be able to negotiate a bigger slice of that pie next time around, but even then, there’s never one person just sitting on a big chest of money.
Even if we look at institutions like WMU, or a movie studio, or museum, who *do* basically have big chest of money (though even there, it’s not that simple), I don’t think anyone’s hoping they’ll keep that money locked in that chest. We hope they’ll spend it, and put it back into the economy, which, really, they’re doing a pretty good job of here.
Money that used to be in the account of one institution is now in the accounts of hundreds of people, who are in turn, going to spend it. This is a good thing.
People will try to take the argument back a step and say “Well sure, but how did they *get* all that money?”. It’s a fair question sometimes, but mostly, the answer is, because you gave it to them. If you don’t like movie studios making money, you can easily prevent that by not going to see movies. The studios are only making movies precisely because they aren’t a waste of money; if done well, they make millions of dollars in profit. A public fountain doesn’t have the same kind of profit potential obviously, but it does make the university look more impressive, and that’s part of a bigger picture that sways students decisions to attend that university and pay tuition there. The statue might not make an obvious profit, but new students take thousands of selfies in front of it every year, and feel proud of that, which is worth a lot.
It’s fair to disagree with the decisions of people in power. It’s important to question them. This kind of thing disagreement though isn’t really a disagreement. It’s just devaluing all art. It’s just saying it’s frivolous, silly, not a serious way to spend money, and with a modicum of respect, that’s bullshit.

People need science and engineering and medicine, but honestly, they’re living for the concert they get to go to and the end of the week, or the new superhero movie next weekend, or to go to a dance recital, or a museum, or, yes, to go take a selfie in front of some two thousand pound hunk of bronze and granite that someone put in the middle of the road to show off to their friends that they’re at an impressive college. These things add value to our lives. They’re extremely important to us.
I can’t escape the sense that art is just an easy target.
Institutions, companies, governments, spend huge amounts of money all the time on various projects. Buildings. Advertising. Fighter jets that don’t work. Those things are all considered useful though, so even when they don’t work, or don’t accomplish anything, we still hesitate to question those projects being funded. We hesitate because the decisions were made by important business people, or senators, or executives, to solve important problems. A sculpture- that honestly a lot of people are really enjoying- is just made by some weird artist, so it’s cool to give it a kick, because they won’t fight back.
If you look at the world this way, you’re giving up a lot of your own power.
Because the guys in suits haven’t earned that level of obedience, and the people who make your entertainment haven’t earned that level of dismissal.
It’s an easy kind of rebellion to say we shouldn’t spend money on art- that we shouldn’t spend money to pay concrete guys to build a base for a statue instead of paying the exact same concrete guys the exact same money to build a parking ramp or a law firm or a second bridge a block down from the first bridge.
It’s an easy pot shot to take.
One that you are unlikely to be criticized for.
We look down on fun, frivolous things, and in many ways it’s a practical choice.
Practical choices don’t give our lives meaning though. They don’t give us enjoyment, or release, or purpose. Those things all require a risk. Most people might not ever take the risk to build a big piece of art, or write a book, or make a movie, hoping that other people will enjoy it, knowing that others will inevitably not. Sometimes that risk pays off. Sure, sometimes it bombs.
It’s fine to criticize art you don’t like, but taking that farther to suggest that having a good time at a movie with someone you have a crush on, or reading a novel that makes you understand your family, maybe for the first time, or taking a picture with your dad in front of a statue on a college campus that you’re the first person in your family to ever attend?
That’s not frivolous.
That’s the stuff that matters.

j

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