Hiding behind the statistics is a persistent tendency of prejudice, which goes back to the Puritan settlement and sees cultural work, especially stage work, as a kind of child’s play or worse. In “An Essay on the Stage,” Timothy Dwight IV, a Yale president in the early 19th century, wrote that those who indulge in gambling risk “the loss of the most precious treasure, the immortal soul.”
Or as a German character puts it in “Sonntag im Park mit George”: “Work is what you do for others, darling. Art is what you do for yourself. “
Both attitudes are almost backward, but that doesn’t mean they’re still not widely used today. Indeed, they are anchored in the American government’s stingy support for the arts, which is still a trifle. Per capita cultural spending in France is about ten times that of the United States.
This is one of the reasons why there are six national theaters in France, not just the three that were occupied last week. More than 50 other cultural spaces across the country, including the Lyon Opera House, which the students entered on Monday, are now also occupied, the protesters say. Occupying a building (while rehearsing can continue in it) can be an offense, but it is also a sign of love and responsibility.
Such an occupation in the USA is hard to imagine. For one thing, there is no national theater. And who would play the role of the actress at the César Awards of the French film industry this weekend, who protested the lack of support from their government by taking off a strange costume – was it a bloody donkey? – to reveal the words “no culture, no future” scrawled across her bare torso?
But our country is a country that values its cultural heritage without wanting to support the work it sustains.
Perhaps that will change, albeit less dramatically than in France. Although the pandemic has left many theater performers out of work – and often without the health insurance that comes with it – President Biden’s relief bill signed last week will make it cheaper for them to get coverage elsewhere. The bill also includes $ 470 million in emergency aid to arts and cultural institutions.