books fall open

I’ve been looking all over the internet for a poster that used to hang in my junior high library. It was a picture of Sting, from The Police, holding a book and looking as utterly delicious as he was before he got all tantricly retarded. Back when he could sing higher than I could, when the shifting shadows on his face in the “Every Breath You Take” video were enough to send my 11-year-old heart into a tailspin. Sting was dreamy, a musician and an intellectual, and I remember looking up his lyrics in the dictionary and still having no idea what they meant (“they subjugate the meek, but it’s the rhetoric of failure”).

Michelle here, by the way.

Anyway, I can’t find the poster. But I’ve been thinking about it all day. Even back when I was a ridiculous pre-teen wanna-be socialite, more concerned with my fluorescent socks matching my top than I was about any world affairs, I still spent plenty of time in the library. I hold a deep affection for libraries still, and sometimes I wish I were an academic just so I had good reason to sit on a high-backed chair for hours, surrounded by my “research”, glasses perched on my head, fellow academics on all sides, accompanied by hushed voices and the smell of old books. Alas, instead, I’m a carny.

I’ve been thinking about that poster, and about my love of books, and how tied my love of books is to my love of music and all the arts. I find the same solace in practice rooms and on stage as I do in the library. I love reading a good book almost as much as I love kicking ass singing a Cole Porter song. I’m a good reader, and a good singer, and I don’t know how much of that is in my DNA and how much was cultivated, but I’m awfully glad I had the chance to explore both books and music when I was growing up.

I now make my living solely through the arts. I’m the director of an arts non-profit, and I’m singing and writing with some degree of regularity for extra cash on the side. And like so many things in my life, I’m astounded every day by how little I know about art, and I’m doubly astounded by how pathetic support for the arts is in this country. I’m going to use my little home as an example. My community has three theatre companies- only three. One is an Equity company, another is dedicated to Shakespeare, and the third is a community theatre. All three of them are folding this year. Not due to lack of talent, lack of drive, or lack of resources in this valley, but quite simply because none of them can afford to rent space to perform. The local venues have all jacked up their prices in order to attempt to get in the black, and there is no community center, no subsidized performing space for the companies to use.

Why should you care? Because this is happening all over the country. And the thing is, these companies also have educational outreach programs to bring arts education into the schools, where arts got the axe many years ago. Without these companies, there are fewer arts instructors, which means kids don’t get exposure to the arts. I’m not going to get preachy, I’m just going to lay out some proven stats: when children are exposed to arts education, they learn teamwork, they develop a sense of individuality, they gain confidence, and- guess what- they do much better in their core disciplines. So when a kid puts a paintbrush to paper, or sings a song, somehow, that translates into better arithmetic scores, better understanding of Language Arts, better SAT scores and a fuller and more prosperous life!

Okay, so maybe I don’t know about that last part. But here in northern California, one of the wealthiest spots in the known world, school closings are on the news literally every other week. Schools are closing because they don’t have enough money to stay open. When they try to save themselves, first they cut art, then the cut the library- the LIBRARY- and then they move on to cutting bus services, and on from there.

Umm, what good is a school with no library? Why is California in such a terrible way? And what the hell would I have done with my life if, as a kid, I had no books and no music? Every artist I know remembers the first time they were on stage, or the first time they put pen or brush to paper and were satisfied with the result. It’s when we were kids. And we do this because we are simply unable to do anything else. I have to wonder how many kids, who are meant to be artists, are going to grow up and live their whole lives with the sinking feeling that they never found their calling because no one ever put a paint brush in their hand, or gave them a song to sing or play.

11 thoughts on “books fall open

  1. alyson

    this is the problem. arts education is seen as a democratic party thing. people think, oh those fruity democrats want to fund the nea and the arts to see mapplethorpe piss in a bottle. it’s not necessarily about that. it’s about what the whole democratic party agenda is about. it’s about creating citizens who can contribute. they can contribute to their commmunities with their art, but the ones who don’t want to make livings as artists can do other things. they figure out, through their art and their sports, and their other activities, that they can get good jobs. they figure out who they are and what they want to do. then they get jobs and spend money. and then they contribute to the economy. suppporting arts education is not just about supporting arts, but also about supporting the economy. these democratic party plans that seem like they are spending so much money are investments. i don’t know why they don’t promote them from an economic standpoint. i didn’t mean to go on a rant, but i think michelle’s lucid, important post warranted it. i only fear that conservatives don’t read this. i fear we’re preaching to the choir.

  2. Sean

    Great blog.
    I end up working with kids a lot and, there is a fatal misunderstanding about the way the arts are shaping up in American schools. People believe that kids will engage in arts regardless, and it isn’t true. Kids need to be given the tools to express themselves, and when they have those tools they have a chance to enrich the rest of us.
    Freedom of expression isn’t limited simply to allowing people to speak, it is ensuring that people have skills and a forum to share their ideas. Sometimes these venues are driven by the invisible hand (like blogs on the internet) but art should not be disregarded if it becomes non-commercial.

  3. Killian

    Ditto: great blog!
    I am a choreographer by choice (difficult to make it a profession, but I’ve managed somewhat) and have been creating work for almost 25 years (hmmm…maybe I should celebrate my anniversary?) And that inspiring moment WAS when I was a kid—I have a box full of fading notebook pages covered with 9-year old scrawl of pidgeon-french for the steps I was making up (one of my favs: potty shaw=pas de chat). And I still spend HOURS in libraries pouring over the GV1700’s. In fact, when my diss was giving me more grief than I could bear (and Effexor was NOT doing its job), that’s where I went, to sit with the books and images that first inspired me. . .
    Anyway, my best artist friend Derrick and I have been plotting for about 3 years to write a book on how to raise a baby artist. There’s so much stuff about how to make your kid better at math and science and Mozart-in-the-womb seems to have been co-opted by the logicians, rather than “Future Composers of America.”
    What if you wanted your peanut to grow up to be Mark Morris or Twyla Tharp or Keith Haring or Cy Twombley or Cindy Sherman or Steve Reich or Pauline Oliveros or Meredith Monk. . .
    I’ve sat on a number of academic committees that are interested in supporting the arts as a way of enhancing the creativity of the hard sciences (oh, stop me from being bad . . .) What if we were using those “hard” sciences in order to make better art?
    Ok,, we’d probably be living in Coastopia.

  4. Annie

    Hm–can I just say, was Sting fine as wine, or WHAT?!? Many a junior high hour of mine was spent in fixed contemplation on that ineffably gorgeous countenance, now so impossible to find in the blunt, shiny, balding dad-face that Sting’s has become.

  5. jordana

    lisa, that must be the poster michelle was looking for. sting looking like a dude from lord of the rings?! michelle, he is SO your boyfriend!

  6. Michelle

    Lisa- OMG- yes, that was it. Boy, check out the lipstick. Thank you for finding it! It must be from that movie “The Bride” with Jennifer Beals, right? Huh boy.
    Alyson- thanks for your thoughts, too. I didn’t go on the economic side of this rant (the fact that every dollar spent on the arts in this country generates $11 more dollars spent in the given community) because the blog could have gone on forever. When I ask, in my job, for folks to donate, I don’t ask them to “give money”, I ask them to invest in the community, and in their own futures, and the ones who get it do it.
    Killian- write that book!
    Sean’s former personal trainer would be in the forking *mob* if she hadn’t found dance as a kid. And Jordana, Sting in that poster is in the running, but he’ll have to beat out Eomer first.

  7. kaz

    michelle, just wanted to tell you to rock on!! read a bit of your blog yesterday after becoming more curious about your family (okay, could you all be any cooler?! should have guessed that from ian’s writing, but still…) and i’d love to remind you that, so often, the best we can do is lead by example. it seems, from what little i know of your pursuits, that you’re doing that. so, even when schools and theaters close, we continue to inspire and rally and provoke change in others by staying dedicated to the daily struggle…thanks for sharing your example.

  8. Piglet

    Michelle, you are one kick-ass writer. I’m just today discovering that you exist and have a blog, and maybe some other people here, who already know you, are a tad envious as they know what a ball I’m about to have discovering your writing.
    On the usenet group I used to post on with Ian, they used to talk about a certain kind of sex appeal, such that people who normally don’t go for that particular gender would think twice about throwing someone out of bed. As in, I’m a hetero male, but that Orlando Bloom–he’s dreamy!
    That quality was eventually named the “Sting factor”.
    Glad to meet you.

  9. michelle

    Hi there Piglet,
    I’ve been enjoying your posts on Ian’s comments for a long time now. Good to meet you too.
    I’m more of a Viggo woman than an Orlando woman, but I wouldn’t throw either of them out of bed.
    I may be opening a can of worms here, but I was actually just asked to write about the dating scene where I live…

  10. Killian

    Michelle-GREAT article; no can of worms, just sharp wit and wonderful insights—it is a pleasure to meet you. And thanks for the encouragement re: my “book.”

  11. Dan

    I know where you can find said poster…
    my old AP European History teacher had the exact same psoter up n her classroom
    if you can pry it from her dead cold hands, it can be foudn at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, NC


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