Don’t support the arts

People enjoying and interacting with Caitlind Brown & Wayne Garrett's Cloud at Nuit Blanche

People enjoying and interacting with Caitlind Brown & Wayne Garrett’s Cloud at Nuit Blanche

The words we use are important. As someone who has been on both sides of the editor/writer relationship, I know how passionate people can get about individual word choices, how substituting one verb can entirely change the meaning of a paragraph and alter the perception of an entire piece.

The same holds for any conversation. Every time you start a conversation (or a discussion, or a debate…), the way you initially frame the topic has an effect on everything that follows, whether you intend it or not. And even if that effect is tiny at first, it grows every time you return to that subject.

How often have we talked about getting more people to support the arts? By we, I mean people in the media, or people who work in the arts sector, or people who pay taxes and wonder whether that money is actually helping to make a better world. The answer is somewhere between “a whole lot” and “so, so many times.” Which is good. It’s a discussion worth having. But, I’m increasingly convinced we’ve been using the wrong verb. (And maybe the wrong noun, but I’ll save that one for another time. In short, “the arts” is a vague and overly intimidating phrase.)

There are so many good verbs we could be using with art. Making art. Discussing art. Attending. Enjoying. Experiencing. Thinking about. Engaging with. Watching. Listening. Even just recognizing the art that we walk by every day. The whole reason we talk about “supporting” the arts is that artistic experiences enrich people’s lives; they broaden perspectives, provide entertainment and social interaction. That’s what gets us excited about art. That’s why we put so much time into making sure that arts experiences happen—all those great verbs.

And then we turn around and ask people to support events. To support the community. We’re replacing all of those exciting, passion-generating words with an obligation. A chore. A duty. Support the arts. Eat your vegetables. It’s not going to be fun, but it’ll make you a better person.

That’s bad enough—no one responds well to having an obligation pushed on them—but it’s also a distancing word choice. If people are supporting the arts, they aren’t a part of the arts, and audiences are absolutely part of the arts. When you’re asking for their support, though, it implies that they’re helping you do something, rather than taking part in something themselves. It makes it an issue of charity, with someone else subsidizing an artist’s ability to do crazy artist things and not have to join the real world.

Basically, what I’m saying is that we don’t want people to support the arts. We want people to have their minds blown and their worldviews shaken; we want them to have the kinds of experiences that only art can provide. If they’re doing that, they won’t have to think about the fact that they’re giving their support—it’ll just happen.

And it’s not like that’s something that artists don’t already know—the whole reason the support discussion comes up is that people are doing everything they can to provide those experiences, and they’re frustrated. So, absolutely, there will be times when “support” is the right word. Just… a little less often is all.

9 Responses to “Don’t support the arts”
  1. Col says:

    Great read and I agree with it all, including the last sentence saying that sometimes the “support” verb is right.During an election I say I “support” this candidate or I “support” this party or I “support” this policy or what have you. I don’t imagine then we see that candidate, party, etc as something meek, something in desperate need of support, they are big, powerful things that raise us up by being one of their supporters. Also, I’ll always say that I “support” my partner in everything she does, a support that comes from love and understanding and have our lives entwined with one another. In that case a declaration of “support” is a very intimate and connected thing. I hope that when we do end up talking about building art supporters we mean it in those deep and personal ways, not as the obligatory-eat-your-greens kind of way you so accurately talk about.

  2. Carolyn Parks Mintz says:

    Well said. It’s all in the semantics. Being “involved” with the arts, whether as audience, actor, benefactor, volunteer — it all works. And makes us better for it. Without the arts, what are we as a society? Shudder to think.

  3. Jannie Edwards says:

    Yes indeed — verbs are the heavy lifters, the make-things-happen words. Support suggests endurance, a kind of stocism — I see Atlas here with the world on his long-suffering back. Supports are vital in architecture AND in the arts — we absolutely need the systems and infastructure in place to build, engage, make, do, celebrate, create. . . Thanks for posting this to the MWAC site, Theresa. Good to think about.

  4. To your point about the vagueness of “the arts,” you might find my blog post from earlier this week, “What Are ‘The Arts’ Anyway?,” quite apropos.

  5. erainbowd says:

    Fantastic. Yes. I think, too, that because of this language problem, people go see crappy stuff they don’t really like and pretend to care about it, because they’ve got some identity thing going about “being supporters of the arts.” I like your proposal of ENJOYING a lot. Let’s get the “Enjoyer of the Arts” identity started!
    I also think people get confused about what it means to support something because of this language problem. Many people confuse consumption with support. (Here’s where I went off on that aspect of it:

  6. Harold Raitt says:

    Phenomenal article, which I am using to provoke some exciting debates among various different groups of colleagues. Many thanks.

  7. As a wordsmith, I teach the position of words and their delivery to create impact. This article has set me to thinking about the use of words that become mundane and hold less truth than buzz. Well done. Much to think about.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] et travailleur culturel canadien Peter Hemminger suggère aux organismes artistiques d’employer des verbes qui soulèvent l’intérêt du public lorsqu’ils parlent des arts. Il leur recommande […]

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