My Classical Castle:
A Public Letter in Response to Bill Maher's Attack on Classical Music
As I sat on a rainy Friday night in May, I found myself in a state of surprise and disappointment. As Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, the national organization focused on diversity in the arts, I was prepared to relax and let the tide of my work week ebb from my bones through my regular appointment with political humor mixed with what always brings a bit of new perspective for me on the issues of the day with my friend Bill Maher. I refer to you as my friend, Bill, not because we have ever met, but rather due to the false and mirrored familiarity that any of us feels with a television persona with whom we feel a bond through the regularity of presence and shared ideals. My surprise and disappointment, a rare emotion for me while enjoying your show, arose when you broadened your commentary on the public subsidization of religion (in this instance, Mormonism) to the nonprofit sector, and specifically, classical music and the orchestral world. Due to not only my role with Sphinx but also as a board member of the League of American Orchestras, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, MacArthur Fellow and President Obama’s first appointee to the National Council on the Arts, I felt compelled to draft this response to your commentary.
As part of your diatribe, you shared how over 60 billion dollars per year (more than would be saved by enforcing the Buffet tax rule) are taken out of our federal budget by charitable deductions. You went on to share that “real charities don’t have castles” and then showed a picture of the Gehry-designed Disney Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You further stated that "lots of people give money to symphonies... and they get tax deductions for that...but they shouldn't... Unlike food and water, access to Mozart is not a basic human necessity." My concern is over your inaccurate and potentially harmful conclusion that “people should not receive a tax deduction for giving money to support classical music.” I understand your resistance to be directed toward classical music in general and not just orchestras, based on your broad reference to Mozart. My concerns were only heightened by the overwhelming response of your audience (with which I consider myself generally politically-aligned, although I am fiercely independent on a number of issues) when they chose to applaud your condemnation of this art form as an aspect of our society worthy to be supported by the populace in general.
My perspective is drawn from 41 years of a life personally transformed by and professionally experienced in classical music - as a practitioner, administrator and arts social entrepreneur. I am also informed by my cultural background as a Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Irish Catholic adoptee who is married to a half-Jewish, half-Muslim (Azeri) violinist wife with two children, both of whom play the violin. In my memoir, I reflect on how the greatest constant in my life has been my violin (made possible by my adoptive mother) and the pivotal role it has played throughout my entire existence.
Initially, with your talents and the incredible resources of your staff, I was surprised that you chose the Los Angeles Philharmonic as your example of why classical music is not worthy of tax deductions. The orchestra is led by Gustavo Dudamel, a Venezuelan-born conductor who personifies the power of classical music to transform one’s life. He grew up from humble beginnings in the small town of Barquisimeto, Venezuela. In addition, Gustavo received his musical opportunities through a public-funded program in Venezuela (El Sistema) which is a social program designed to bring people out of poverty and transform the lives of young people, which it has done to such success that it is now being emulated, replicated and modeled in dozens of countries, including the United States. I, myself, started playing the violin when I was five, and the power of classical music transformed and defined my life.
I could, of course, provide countless examples of the impact that music education and training has had on, literally, millions of young people in our country. I refer you to the NEA, Americans for the Arts, NAME (and the numerous other organizations that are dedicated to enriching the lives of young people and the fabric of our society through the arts) for additional statistics to reinforce the anecdotes I share here. But, I want to stay “colloquial,” as I don’t think you will be convinced by a series of stats demonstrating the impact of the arts, which is easily done through a quick Google search. I am merely trying to understand why, out of all charities, you chose to “pick on” classical music organizations and the arts in general. In doing so, I find myself suspecting that you must have gotten hung up on the “building.” Now, I am not necessarily a “fan” of all of the building of magnificent facilities that orchestras have done over the past couple of decades. (My organization has no building, nor do we have a desire to construct one, as our focus is on programming and partnering with other organizations that have invested in these incredible structures). However, a few things come to mind here.
First, in an aural art form, the acoustics of the environment in which you hear the artistic “product” is part of the creative process and greatly impacts the art itself. It is not just an edifice to satisfy egos. In addition, the visual surroundings as you experience a performance significantly enrich or detract from the resulting impact of the artist’s intended communication with the listener. Is this also not the case with any other artistic performance? Is your show not enriched by the new set you had designed? Is an interview different if conducted outside of the space in which you conduct a panel discussion? You could certainly save money and do both in the same place. Now, of course, you are not a nonprofit (on the contrary, you have the profitability to be able to be an incredibly generous philanthropist yourself), but my point is to address your sensibility that because a “cause” might have a great outside structure, that should make it ineligible for public funding. I’m a bit confused here since you give to PETA, the RFK Memorial, Humane Society, Barbara Davis Center and others that have facilities, many of which cost far more than many orchestras’ annual budgets. Now these are all phenomenal charities that elevate the public good. But wouldn’t someone be grandstanding to use their facilities or, in the end, just a beautiful building as a reason to belie their entire reason for existence or justification to receive tax-deductible contributions? I can only assume that you not only support but take advantage of the tax deductions that you receive by making substantial contributions to these institutions and their castle headquarters, which are having an significant impact on society. Have you seen the United Nations or World Bank’s headquarters? Does that mean donor countries shouldn’t give to them or that the work that they do in developing nations around the globe is invalid?
Now if we get away from the buildings, in the end, I fear that your argument for erasing the tax incentives specifically for nonprofit organizations focused on the arts derives from a prejudice you hold about the arts and the buildings that we erect in our field. It is also possible that this aversion that you feel is due to the perception of many of the arts as elitist or the folly of the rich and, therefore, not appropriate for the general public to subsidize. I part ways with you here for two reasons: One, because the arts (while I admit we have a perception problem… one that Sphinx Organization and others are working to address), are directly relevant to a broad cross-section of our population and two, because like Freedom of Speech (with which I know you hold a strong kinship), the tax deductibility of nonprofits cannot be subject to the whim of personal preference.
While the classical arts face a perceptual problem, it is just that… perceptual and not actual. The arts transform the lives of tens of thousands everyday – both young and old. The arts are the way in which we express ourselves, and the lives we live, to those both close and afar. And, in a day and age when the divisions between us only seem to be growing more distinct, and many make it their business to enhance and embolden those differences, the arts stand as a powerful unifying force that bind us together and stands as an expression of our shared humanity. Far be it for me to comment for them, but one of the rare commonalities that I see amongst the varied opinions on our Supreme Court is a shared appreciation for the arts and its ability to transcend intellectual differences and our disparate backgrounds and cultures.
The transformative results that we see from the arts are not just possible by picking up an instrument one day and saying, “I’d like to play,” or stepping onto a stage and saying, “I will dance” or “I will now act,” but rather they are achieved through a true craft (not dissimilar to your talents as a political satirist). A craft that is fostered and developed, often at a young age and nurtured through adolescence, realized in early adulthood, and often matured much later in life. This process is supported at every stage by individuals committed to this enrichment of our society as a whole, individuals who often are employed or have started nonprofits dedicated to this cause. Those nonprofit arts organizations focus on early exposure, beginning training and summer programs to professional development, presentation, performance and ultimately archiving and preservation.
Matinee Scholars is a nonprofit focused on providing the opportunity for middle school students to stay off the streets by writing comedy. Should we make them ineligible for tax-deductible contributions? And, if not, then what’s the difference between the social benefit of that program versus an educational program of almost every major orchestra in the country that reaches out in a similar way to young people employing music? After all, Bill, they are all the arts (they have a funny way of winding their way into just about everything we do, don’t they?). You have called for the end of the National Endowment for the Arts. So, should we end the tax deductions for all contributions to nonprofit organizations that develop young writers? How about those that focus on underserved youths who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to an elite writing program? How many of your writers have benefitted at some point during their development from a nonprofit writing (i.e., arts) program that received not only private tax deductible contributions but also funding from the NEA? The ease with which you dismiss the NEA gives weight to a sense that you may be woefully under-informed of the full scope of the work of this important governmental agency. Were you aware of the program that the NEA has implemented at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence through which our wounded warriors returning home are treated by utilizing a series of arts programs, or Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience or the National Healing Arts Summit at Walter Reed? Would you seriously want to cut off these programs, which have positively impacted thousands of our troops? And what would happen if we eliminated the entire NEA, as you suggest, and wiped out the incentives for those with means to give to these programs? Is that really the kind of America in which you want to live? Do you really want to be the one who not only ends the miniscule .005% percent of our federal budget that goes to the arts but also says that, as a society, when we look at the things we value (because budgets are moral documents), the arts should not be on that list? And, do you want to espouse that the NEA is so abhorrent to you that even though you employ the arts everyday through your profession, and even though it represents less than .005% of your government’s budget, you felt it was so important to deny the arts this little support and public platform that you should speak to its ouster? It does seem a bit out of scale, doesn’t it?
In the end, I think your argument comes down to the age-old issue that I need to raise anytime I speak to a funder about the work of the Sphinx Organization, which addressing the question of “if people are hungry or thirsty, why should I give to the arts?” My response is: first, please do feed the hungry and provide clean water to all. But then, is nothing else of value in our society? Do we seek only a well-fed people with access to water? I am sure you don’t stop there, Bill, given the variety of charities that you support, but just because you or I might believe that the welfare of animals, the long-term well-being of our environment, or social justice are also valid issues that augment the public good… who are we to then say that community gardens, nutritional education programs, and the arts are invalid? And, in an equal society, we must give the same weight of “censure” to others who might find our issues lacking merit.
In the end, even though you might find Mahler’s Second Symphony elusive and unable to stir your soul in a manner that enriches your life and connects you to others in the audience, or you feel that the lives of millions of young people who have been transformed through the power of music and played a critical role in their youth development falls short of importance to our collective society, I suggest that you evolve your objection to the tax deductibility of the arts because you know that many of your fellow citizens do find it as important to them as you find the environment or animals. And, for fear of the backlash that results in putting your cherished “charities” on the chopping block as well, perhaps it’s time you took in a concert… a classical concert… I am more than happy to chaperone you to our next Sphinx performance. Yes, as you stated during your show, food and water are basic necessities required to sustain life but Bill, the arts and what they depict are what we live for.
With that said, you still have a fan, especially after I saw you live in Ann Arbor. After all, I have to keep watching your show… the theme music is great. By the way, who composed it? They might actually share a similar bi-racial cultural background to me? I wonder if they also grew up in New York? I wonder if any nonprofit arts organizations helped their rise before early fame in hip-hop? You might want to add it to your list of charities.
Yours in the spirit of the arts…
Aaron P. Dworkin
Founder & President
The Sphinx Organization
2005 MacArthur Fellow
Member, National Council on the Arts