The Victimization of Big Bird and What It Means for Artists

FILE - This Aug. 30, 2009 file photo shows Big Bird, of the children's television show Sesame Street, in Los Angeles. Big Bir
FILE - This Aug. 30, 2009 file photo shows Big Bird, of the children's television show Sesame Street, in Los Angeles. Big Bird is endangered. Jim Lehrer lost control. And Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama. Those were the judgments rendered across Twitter and Facebook Wednesday during the first debate of the 2012 presidential contest. While millions turned on their televisions to watch the 90-minute showdown, a smaller but highly engaged subset took to social networks to discuss and score the debate as it unspooled in real time. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

The elephant in the room has morphed into a big, yellow bird.

How did Big Bird get dragged into the 2012 election kerfuffle? (I might add that he was dragged unwillingly -- at least according to Sesame Street's reps who wish for the brand to remain nonpartisan... Big Bird himself is not available for comment at this time.)

I'm going to sum it up as best I can: vulnerability.

Mitt Romney's superficially innocuous talking points in an August Fortune interview regarding the areas he plans to cut government spending, verbatim:

various subsidy programs -- the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.

Again in the first presidential debate on October 3, he quipped to former PBS news anchor and debate moderator Jim Leher: "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for," thus reiterating his values on federal funding for the arts and cultural organizations.

I don't believe the arts can, or should, stand on their own. Even more worrisome than the statements themselves is the ideology from which they spring up.

The punditry seems to agree that these programs comprise a mere 0.01 percent of the federal budget. I tried to do the math on my own, but as a dancer I can only count up to eight (5, 6, 7, 8... hardy, har, har).

It's likely most viewers of the first presidential debate didn't ruminate on the subject, but I felt I had to dig deeper. In regards to Big Bird, it is not in my bloggy-scope to articulate the importance of access to public educational television for all children, especially children of lower socio-economically statuses. I will let you Google that yourselves.

The gist of the Republican presidential candidate's argument is that cutting PBS, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities is a fiscally logical option that would help to reduce the national deficit.

The idea that these cuts would contribute any sizable reduction to the to the deficit is categorically absurd and downright laughable. My main objective here is to unpack the motivation for demonizing these programs within the Republican platform. I am going to go ahead and say it: they have no broader publicly lauded budgetary plans, so these programs illicit a complacent nod of the head and function as a sacrificial lamb in the name of federal financial solvency. It makes for a better sound byte to say you're going to slash funding to whole organizations because it sounds like taking drastic action. But sorry, Mittens, those subsidies are drops in the bucket. You know that, I know that. You just prey on us because we are notoriously susceptible to budget cuts.

The arts are vulnerable because in America, the arts are largely undervalued. Need cuts in the local school district budget? We don't cut away Math or English or, most of the time, gym class. That would be unthinkable; yet, we cut away at arts programs as if they are superfluous and not really academic subjects. European countries value the arts as integral to personal growth and dare I say it, integral to national identity. In the United States, artists are systematically under-funded and new arts organizations such as dance companies and arts education programs are tossed aside as unaffordable fluff.

I'll refrain from naming specifically (although it wouldn't be hard for you to guess) the first and largest public high school for the arts in Chicago that I've recently started working for under the admissions director. It has in no uncertain terms profoundly affected my perspective on the value of the arts and the importance of access to the arts. The school receives over a thousand academically qualified candidates a year based on the first step of admissions, all of whom possess a demonstrable passion in dance, theater, music or visual art. After auditions for both novice and advanced level students, the school is only able to accept approximately 10 percent of the candidates. As a "contract school" the academic curriculum is funded by Chicago Public Schools (CPS), yet it relies on generous private donors who underwrite the arts programming and curriculum. The whole "arts" part of the high school isn't even directly publicly funded. What does that say about our value system? The arts are still at the bottom of the funding food chain, even at a high school dedicated to the arts.

Yet, let's take a look at the numbers. In its fourth year since inception, the school is looking at a projected 96 percent graduation rate for the class of 2013, compared to the CPS average of approximately 61 percent. Next year's class of 2014 is looking at a 98 percent graduation rate. The school is comprised of students coming from all 50 of Chicago's wards. As a representative of the school, I answer questions and pass out flyer after flyer, boasting about the program including information on an NEA-sponsored study directly analyzing the impact of the arts on at-risk youth to middle school students and their parents. Many of the students are at-risk and of low socio-economic status. The discipline instilled in the environment of the school prepares these kids not only to have a chance at "making it" in the arts, but more importantly in the grand scheme of things, providing academic and artistic rigor and prepping them to get them into college, giving them a fair shot at post-secondary success despite statistical predictions.

At the crux of the discussion: if the arts really are valuable, why are we as artists so under-funded? Maybe it isn't how much we advocate, but the specifics of how we advocate. Why aren't we touting these statistics? Why aren't we shouting them from the mountaintops? As artists, perhaps we shy away from the data. Our penchant for the abstract benefits and the joys of the arts isn't selling. We have to speak the language of business. I can tell you, or a donor, all about my romanticized internal feelings regarding the emotional tumult or edge-of-my-seat experiences I had at a live concert dance production last weekend. But let's get real. It is about the numbers. How many tickets were sold? At what price? What were production costs? I think as a whole, artists don't like to subject themselves to numbers. Our movement vocabulary is rich but our political capital is negligible.

I've been ruminating over the keynote speech from this year's Dance/USA conference in San Francisco. Simon Sinek made a beautifully articulated case for refusing to settle for financing from donors in a way that compromises artistic vision. After all, it's clear to all of us that the bigger names, and therefore likely more conservative, dance institutions are safer financially than the more avant-guard stuff going on in dance communities across the country. Questions such as "but, really, how do I preserve my artistic integrity while having to bust my butt for funding?" are being asked, and rightfully so. The response can't simply be answered with, "just don't accept the money, be true to your vision."

I think one of the answers to that question is: "Show them the numbers." Show donors and potential donors the facts on how the arts contribute to communities. Such as the number of tourists that patron not only big cities, but also more local and regional shows; or the graduation rates from public arts high schools. Show them statistics on employment in the arts that goes beyond performers and includes crew members and support staff. Show them a profound return on investment on the national level through organizations such as the NEA.

We don't speak the language of business, and sponsors don't speak our language of time, space, energy and body politics we use to converse in dance. We need an interpreter to translate artistic gold into hard dollars dedicated to the arts (but of course, we can't afford such an interpreter/advocate). I'll say it again: cutting our funds won't in any way, shape or form help fix the federal deficit. And while I would love to tell you that these cuts would be a detriment to our souls as humans, to be quite cynical, that isn't a good enough argument to sway the powers that be. If I tell you it will be a detriment to our local economies, maybe, just maybe, you'll listen (I'm talking to you, elected officials).

So perhaps the key to arts funding is to learn how to translate the visceral, organic, wordless truths into facts and figures on a broader scale. To stop talking about the arts in national discourse as nice, but not worthy enough to fund, and start framing them as great American traditions that enriches lives, create jobs, attract tourists and even improve academic performance. It might feel foreign and unnatural, but to continue to do what we do, we have to be pragmatic. Author Lucas Kavner spells out these facts and figures in his response to the initial Romney comments. I have hope that we can learn to not compromise artistic integrity for the sake of funding. We also can't let up on a firm insistence to our right to not be shoved out in the cold to survive on our own, but rather to be included in the national agenda.

Dance cannot be nonpartisan. The arts are not nonpartisan. Our very existence depends on a culture of patronage of the arts that is dwindling. And to be blunt, we are facing a two-party political system with two alternatives to our plight: the choice between a bare minimum of federal support, or no federal support at all. In economic times both good and bad, I think as artists we know that we merit both federal and local financial support and perhaps even more importantly, we merit respect for the influence we have in and on our communities. We are not superfluous. We are integral.

At the heart of it, why dance? Why is dance, in particular, a valuable art? I'll leave it to a favorite quote of mine by the late choreographer Merce Cunningham:

You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.

I'd like to believe that the audience feels these moments of mortal fragility along with us, and these moments are what make dance worth funding. With Big Bird as our mascot, it is time to take back the reins and steer the conversation about public money for the arts towards the hard numbers and away from rhetoric that immorally turns arts organizations into scapegoats.