Monday, May 19, 2008

Value Beyond the Price of Admission - My view

Okay, I guess it's time for me to answer my own question, and say what I think the value beyond the price of admission is.

Lets start with the value of the price of admission. That value is the value of the entertainment; the value of seeing the show on the stage, complete with all of the ooohs and ahhhs and teary eyes and belly laughs. The value of the one time experience. I may want to share that with a friend, and so I will buy my friend a ticket and come see the show again. I feel that the entertainment is worth more than the price of the ticket and drop some cash in the donation box or send in a check. But all of these are things that are included in the price of admission.

But the one time experience doesn't justify tax payer funded subsidies or large grants from philanthropic organizations. As I reframed the question, what is it about some performing arts programs that allows them to compete with cancer research or public education for funding? What is the common thread? Here then, is what I think...

Things like medical research or education or environmental science or poverty programs are worthy philanthropic areas of focus because they seek to improve the quality of life. Some, like environmental science or education, seek to reach the broadest possible scope; while others like poverty reduction or medical research, seek to improve the quality of live for a select sub-group of the human population. Yet even with the most tightly focused field, we all gain because we push forward the field of human knowledge. An idea or discovery in one area often translates into advances in other areas as well.

Whether you believe that Man was created by deity or evolved from a primordial sludge, one thing we can agree on is the one of the more remarkable things about human beings, which sets them apart from all other forms of life on Earth, is the use of language. All animals can communicate with each other, but only Man uses language to communicate ideas. In fact, the ape named Ape from George of the Jungle aside, Man is probably the only creature that thinks in terms of ideas. We not only think and communicate ideas, but we have developed the ability to record ideas and save them for people that come after us. So ideas, and the ability to communicate those ideas, is what makes Man unique, and also gives Man both the ability to rise above a base existence, and the ability to befoul his existence.

Were it not for this ability in Man to create and then communicate ideas, then the medical research, the poverty program, the environmental science, and education would not be possible. Is it not then, extremely important to support the further development of both ideas themselves, and the means through which they are preserved and communicated? And since Man can both elevate and debase himself depending on which ideas he chooses to pursue, is it not in the best interest of Mankind to support the higher ideas?

Mortimer Adler, one of the chief editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica, calls it the "great conversation." He collected close to a hundred of the best works of classical literature, from Plato to Shakespeare to Freud, in to a large set of books he calls "The Great Books of the Western World." Each of the books was chosen because it makes a major advance in human thinking; each book is a classic in its field. But books are only part of the story... and not always the right way to preserve or transmit an idea.

Theatre, Dance, Opera, and Symphony (I didn't chose these categories... they came from a comment in the Salt Lake Tribune), and in fact each of the fine and visual arts, embodies both a means of communicating ideas and a means of preserving ideas. Performance actually came before the written media, and it is likely the oldest means of transmitting and preserving ideas. All of these prompt us to use our brains differently than we might otherwise. And by stimulating our brains differently, prompt us to look at our worlds differently; they encourage us to create new ideas.

So, to summarize, the performing arts are a means of preserving and communicating classic ideas that are part of the Great Conversation, and stimulating new ideas that will advance that conversation. They are worth the support of governments and the donations from wealthy foundations because they not only improve the human condition, but because they preserve and advance the mechanism that makes all other improvement to the human condition possible. They are not just a part of what humans do, they are what makes us human.

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