Arts are being defunded


New Years Day, 2019. Strange. I remember when 1984 was totally futuristic, and “2001: A Space Odyssey” took us to an unfathomably far away time and place. I remember Elton John singing about “Rocket Man,” Jefferson Starship producing “Blows against the Empire,” and David Bowie seeming to have been sent here as ambassador from an advanced planet.

Here we are, 2019, for better and worse, and despite the tendency of people my age to want to live in the past, there is still a moment to live in, along with a future that is with a little faith and selflessness imaginable. I think it is important to bear that in mind with respect to theater and especially popular music.

Recently I was involved in a discussion about new vs. old music with my friend Dwane Hall, owner of the Sportsman Tavern in Buffalo. Dwane made the point that “tribute bands are doing so well because people our age want to look at where they have been instead of where they are going.” Cynical maybe, but largely true. And any musician who wants to keep working in the bars and clubs must deal with that. However, I like to think there is a compromise to be had — that despite an internet age that drives people into their own little space behind a screen, there are folks out there who are being creative.

Local musicians like Scott McElheney (Beer Krate), Keith Medley (Big Tone), and the writers for the popular Uncle Ben’s Remedy are managing to blend quality original music with popular covers in their shows. It is good to see that they are being well received by audiences (witness Saturday matinees at The Filmore), and it all makes for a healthier live music scene.

I should add that there is some real live theater going on around here as well. But it is not enough. As one who has managed to continue to create and perform over several decades, I want to share some concerns regarding the future of American popular art.

First, I hope there is a growing movement among young artists who foster a new rage-against-the-machine mentality. While I’m sure there are many folks who would like to delete me for saying this, I will assert that technology is killing art. The human characteristics of imperfection and ambition — our tragic flaws — are essential to the integrity of all art. In music, it is what separates one voice from another. It is what distinguishes trashy, trite, formulated rhyme schemes from creative, insightful, and passionate lyric. It is what allows for a special and unique sound or message to emerge, one that pushes the idea of an individual soul, and of a “star” that is the source of its own light.

Popular music as an art form. Art is NOT about auto tune and other devices that make the average talent appear better than it really is. It is not about displays of narcissism that are broadcast with the intent of inciting others to do the same. It is not about promoting the image someone who is in reality merely precocious, with little capacity to evolve musically. We all, artists and audiences alike, must be aware that we are constantly being targeted by the corporations that prioritize profit over art.

But the solution is not just about being on the defensive. It is also about being educated. We live in at a time in America when the arts have been defunded, and cuts in education start with the arts. Despite that majority of people who never excelled in high school band or chorus or theater, there is no good excuse for writing off music education as something superfluous. Young musicians and writers should strive to grow, to better themselves, to take on new challenges. They should want to go beyond clever and slick and sensational into the realm of higher-level craft that delivers real human emotion, originality, and social comment.

Audiences should want to know enough about the music they love so that they can articulate their reasons. Why do they like it? What is it about that music that speaks to them? If they succeed then they have automatically upped the standard. Moreover, they might discover that local artists, despite the absence of wildly spectacular props and stage antics, are at the core just as talented as so many big-name acts that charge fifty bucks admission.

I believe the key to the fostering of new artists and the preservation of the arts themselves lies in local support. Without the live experience of being up close and personally involved in a performance, we lose the essence of art. A host of talented people goes wasted. Art appreciation gives way to precalculated consumerism.

I have no doubt there are young artists out there who are hip to all this. I just hope there is an audience for them in the future.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident, writer, musician and teacher. FOCAL Point strives to make insightful social commentary through the integration of Facts, Observations, Compassion, Awareness, and Logic.