In the neighborhood where I grew up we all knew what it meant when someone talked about Art. Art was the guy who lived across the street from my family's house. He had a small contracting company that specialized in concrete projects - sidewalks, driveways, floors and that sort of thing. My older brother worked for him during the summer months. And in the summer of my 17th year, I did too. It was the summer I learned about jack hammers, steal-toed shoes and concrete forms and even got to drive a dump truck once in a while.
I occasionally wonder about some of the projects I worked on back then. How have they weathered through the years? There is a lasting quality to concrete, so I suspect that many have endured. I don't suppose I can take much credit for them - all I really remember doing is busting up what was there before, maybe setting up some forms and shoveling wet concrete around to where it needed to be. As a 17-year-old kid, only on for the summer, I didn't do much of the final trowel work.
Art died years ago. Too many cigarettes looking over his work finally caught up to him. Yet I am sure that there are many places around my hometown where he lives on in unsuspecting ways. Such is the nature of construction. Such is the nature of concrete. Such is the nature of building things that last.
Theaters, books, quilts
Today, when someone mentions "art," I don't think of the guy across the street. I think of galleries, concert halls, books, theaters, symphonies, colors, quilts, pirouettes and hundreds of hundreds of other things that enrich my soul. Like concrete, they provide a base of strength that I walk upon to get through the challenges of a day.
So it should be no surprise that I find deep sadness in knowing that the New Hampshire House voted to eliminate the state Council on the Arts. Of course, lawmakers voted to eliminate or cut back lots of things this session. And given the choice between eliminating the arts council or some of those other things that have been put on the table, I could almost understand the argument. And I can certainly understand why the arts are an easy target.
Beauty can be a frail thing. It is not suited for political combat or taking precedence over other needs. At times it is that very frailty that makes something of beauty a thing to behold. They are things that exist in their vulnerability, like a soap bubble or blown glass or the pointed toes of a ballerina fleeing across a stage. With a pop, or a drop, or a slip, they fall, they break, they disappear.
When things of beauty no longer exist, the emptiness they leave can be difficult to measure. It is not like money in the bank, or the state budget. So to justify its importance will always be a mismatched struggle.
Perhaps then, there is no argument to be made. There is only sadness to express. But in that sadness there also needs to be a hope that our state budget negotiators will come to a broader understanding about the long-term impact of their decisions.
Without art, a piece of paper will always remain just a piece of paper. A stage will just be a floor with lights that shine on it. A theater, just an empty room with a bunch of empty seats. A piano will become a group of hammers and wires that eventually go out of tune. The arch in front of the State House will go back to being a slab of stone, and gold domes will become simple canvas tarps that keep out the rain.
Without art, sidewalks would just be mounds of rough hardened concrete. Because in its broadest sweep, art is that thing that calls us to do our best, to use our talents and make the world a more beautiful place in whatever way we can.
I believe my old neighbor Art did that every time he took trowel in hand. He didn't see himself laying the floor at the Sistine Chapel, and I am sure he never thought of himself as an artist.
But he did take pride in what he was leaving for the future, and understood the artistry of his profession.
Should the arts council take precedence or importance ahead of health care for children, services for people with disabilities, plowing snow from our highways or any of the other things being scaled back by legislators?
I would suggest that that is not the question to ask. It distracts from the true reality, like a lubricant to an easy decision.
The arts council is in many ways a metaphor for all that is up for elimination. It is a delicate example of the many and subtle ways things impact our lives. In this example it is the arts. But that pervasiveness is equally true for most agencies and departments of our government.
When the budget debate becomes focused on what we need to eliminate, it tends to ignore what truly will be lost. By the time we finally come to see that whole picture, and the cutting has been done and gone, it will be too late for anything but regret.
The question that needs consideration is how will the decisions made today impact on the future, and who will suffer along the way.
It is kind of like what my old boss Art did. He would take a look at the concrete in the truck before the pour. Was it too wet? Was it too dry? How was the mix of gravel. Sometimes it meant sending a load back to the concrete company because the mix wasn't good enough.
That is why today, more than 40 years later, you can still walk on his sidewalks.
(John Gfroerer of Concord runs a video production company.)