Why the Arts Matter

David Carpenter, the composer of the opera The Age of Innocence, talks about the importance of supporting the arts in the United States. Carpenter shared his work at The Mount on October 26, 2013.

My talk at The Mount was part of a series of free lectures about the opera as a way to connect with audiences who love Wharton (there are legions of them out there, I’ve discovered) and invite them to a free performance on November 17. At the end of my lecture, I took a very interesting question from a young woman who asked, “The performance of the opera is free, and you’re doing these lectures for free—how are you paying for this production?” Surprised by the question, I answered as best as I could, talking about my online fundraising campaign through a non-profit organization called Hatchfund and using social media to connect to potential donors. But this all got me thinking about funding for the arts, and what independent artists like myself, and non-profit arts organizations like The Mount, have to do to remain afloat, while making our best efforts to offer our programs and performances at little or no cost to audiences. What rationale do we have to expect audiences to make to support us in our fundraising efforts? More to the point: Why do we believe the arts matter in our society?

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David Carpenter, composer and contributor

We’ve all gotten the letters in the mail, and the messages in our inboxes: yet another request for a donation to a worthy cause, many of them arts-related. It’s manifestly impossible to contribute to all of them, especially when we’re all watching our budgets. Yet we can’t seem to escape the fact that the arts are part of our lives. Whether we’re listening to music on our iPods, reading a favorite novel, or watching a performance on TV or YouTube, we have a need for something that appeals to our creative side; we feel our lives would be incomplete without it. And no matter how busy we are, we always seem to be able to spare time attend this need to feed our imaginations. I realize, of course, that this “need” might be categorized under the heading “entertainment,” and God knows there’s a huge industry out there trying to keep us entertained. But for now I’m going to set aside arguments about “high” or “serious” versus “low” or “populist” art—what they have in common is that they have no practical value in terms of what we need to physically survive. I’ll argue, instead, that these things that appeal to our creative side are a great part of what makes life worth living. For I can’t think of another reason of why we would take the time out of our demanding lives to go see a movie, or attend an orchestra concert, or see a Broadway show, or an opera. What we’re delighting in, I think, is witnessing creativity in all its forms: we’re amazed that another member of the human race was able to come up with something so clever and original. And, whether we realize it or not, our lives have been enriched by this experience.

I believe that all of us who are involved in the arts (and this would include those who support creative artists) are acutely aware of how indispensable the arts are in our lives. It’s been a real pleasure to me, after I’ve given one of these lectures on my opera, to talk to people afterwards who love Edith Wharton. We share a common language. And I’ve found it immensely gratifying to see how people have been moved by my musical treatment of the novel—it has, I think, made their experience of these characters and their emotions more vivid. While they didn’t fulfill any practical need, we still can’t imagine our lives without them.

This is what I—and many other people involved in the arts, I think—would urge audiences to consider when they’re asked to support an artistic project. It is a drawback, in some ways, that our government provides far less support to the arts compared to European states, and yet this also points up the democratic spirit of culture in the United States. The American people realize the importance of the arts in their lives, and are willing to help fund cultural foundations and events. And perhaps this also motivates American artists to give back to the public with works that enlighten, delight, and allow audience members to connect with both the artist, and with each other. This was certainly one of my goals in composing The Age of Innocence, and I hope the performance of the opera succeeds in achieving this objective. I owe a great deal to The Mount for supporting my work, and I think the people there believe, as I do, that the arts remain one of the United States’ most valuable assets—let’s all help ensure their livelihood long into the future by supporting them.

Scenes from The Age of Innocence will be performed Sunday, November 17th, at 3pm, at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th Street in New York City (free admission). To learn more about this opera, and to show your support for it, please visit http://davidowencarpenter.com/the-age-of-innocence.