September 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
In budget debate, don’t slash the arts

“Call me when you’re finished with your poetry thing,” a woman said to me once on a date.

“You’re a poet???” a policy wonk asked me at a party recently as if I might be an alien from outer space, “what’s your real work?”

“I love going to the theater and reading poetry,” a gay male friend e-mailed this summer, “but in this economy, poets and plays are becoming luxuries.”

I’ve nothing against the woman who wanted to date me only if I ditched poetry. I know all too well how temperamental and self-absorbed creative artists can be.

Nor do I mean to diss policy wonks. Clichéd as it sounds, I count among my friends people who do good work on issues ranging from health care to the environment.

Even a Martian would know that the times are bad. In the wake of the debt ceiling crisis, the weakening economy and the prominence of the Tea Party, federal, state and local budgets have been and will continue to be cut. Few can dispute that tough decisions will have to be made.  Only a fool would tell someone who’s scrambling to make ends meet, that a poem would put food on the table, a play would pay the mortgage or a painting would pay the heating bill.

It’s not surprising that funding for the arts has been sharply cut on the federal, state and local levels. Last month, the New York Times reported that, reacting to the recession, 31 states cut their arts budgets for the 2012 fiscal year. Washington, D.C. arts groups have been hurt by funding reductions. Funding for arts organizations will likely continue to decrease as the federal and state governments struggle to reduce budget deficits. If you’re struggling to fund schools, law enforcement or other essential services, you’re likely to believe that the arts are a worthy, but unaffordable luxury.

Yet, counterintuitive as it might seem, the arts are a necessity and creative artists from poets to playwrights to painters play a vital role in the culture at large and especially within the LGBT community.

Imagine life without ballet, opera, movies, concerts, theaters, paintings or books. Think no Madonna, Lady Gaga, Edward Albee, Elton John, Cher, Lily Tomlin, Bette Davis, Maria Callas, Tennessee Williams, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe, “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Kids Are All Right” or “Milk.” We’d be bereft of the beauty, laughter, passion and catharsis that art provides.

Historically, the LGBT community has had a reciprocal relationship with the arts. Though creative artists of all stripes have until recently often had to be closeted about their sexuality, a queer sensibility pervades many forms of art from film to the visual arts. It’s hard to picture the creation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” a Warhol soup can or Broadway musical out of a straight aesthetic. As Elizabeth Taylor said, Hollywood wouldn’t exist without us.

Just as we have enriched the arts, art has proved vital to the heart and soul of our community. As a minority often marginalized, we’ve endured through the camp, irony and beauty of our art. Whether in code (because they couldn’t be out in their time) or openly, queer artists, poets and playwrights (from Gertrude Stein to Williams to Larry Kramer) have depicted our life in their art. Lesbian poet Adrienne Rich and Kramer (most notably in his Tony Award-winning play “The Normal Heart”) are among the LGBT artists who have protested homophobia in their work.

“For women … poetry is not a luxury,” said the lesbian poet Audre Lorde, “…it forms the quality of light within which we predict our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.”

Not only poetry, but all forms of art are essential for hope and change for everyone — particularly the LGBT community. Let’s do what we can to keep the arts alive. Our survival depends on it.


  • To the contrary, there’s nothing in the Constitution that says the Federal government should support the arts financially. That which is not specifically allocated to the Federal government, belongs to the states. Kathi, you should bone up on the Constitution.

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