Have a yen for the arts? Think Saranac Lake. Consider this summer's recently completed fifth annual Plein Air Festival - which drew artists locally, regionally, as well as from other states and Canada. How about the Thursday Art Walks - with works on display in the studios of Tim Fortune, Mark Kurtz, the Artists' Guild, BluSeed Studios, North Wind, to name just a few? Or the winter musicals of Saranac Lake High School and summer stagings at Pendragon Theater?
How fortunate we are. And how our local economy benefits from the sale of theater tickets, paintings and photographs, ceramics and weavings, as well as the food, beverage and lodging sales of those who visit this town for its arts offerings.
Yet frequently, when it comes to budgets, one of the first items on the federal chopping block is funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ditto at the state level.
Nevertheless, much of the priceless cultural heritage of the West has been made possible by government support of the arts. In their attempt to conquer time itself, Egyptian pharaohs commissioned stunning murals and erected massive pyramids, their people (not slaves, it is now thought) laboring physically and financially on their behalf.
During the Middle Ages, while - as Faulkner phrased it - European nobility "snarled over the gnawed bones" of the Roman Empire's remnants, the shadow government of the Catholic Church kept art and culture alive as monks in dank monasteries copied and illuminated manuscripts, and the tithes and labor of the faithful helped to build Chartres and Westminster Abbey and Mont Saint Michel.
"L'etat, c'est moi," thundered Louis XIV, who founded the Royal Academies of music and dance in France, assisting in the birth of modern ballet while building, with his citizens' taxes, the magnificent palace of Versailles. And where would our artistic heritage be without the kings, princes and nobles who commissioned works by Leonardo, Mozart, Bach and Haydn?
For some, however, the arts must seem "impractical," for hasn't museum funding often been one of the first items reduced in city budgets? School budgets too high? Cut band and studio art. Yet even physicist Albert Einstein sought renewal and relief from his computations through the music of his violin. And John Keats used an ancient Greek vase to reassure us, "all we need to know on earth" is that:
"When old age shall this generation waste,
"Thou (the Grecian urn) shalt remain, in midst of other woe
"Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'"
So let's get really practical: In addition to nourishing the soul, arts provide an essential foundation. They stimulate and sensitize our brain's right hemisphere, primary seat of rhythm and pattern and color awareness. Where would the advertising industry be without color psychology? Furthermore, art and music now perform vital functions in psychotherapy, touching, as Wordsworth might have said, "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."
When it comes to our high-tech society, consider the benefits of poetry and art in stimulating early development of pattern awareness. Would Mendeleev have predicted new chemical elements had he not noticed gaps in the pattern of his Periodic Table? How about those Cold War BMEWS radar stations based on the structural patterns of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes? Not to mention the numerical progression sequences in electron shells of atoms - and in the Fibonacci sequencing of pine cone seeds and flower centers? What more might we discover about nature itself by exploring the mathematical relationship between similar subatomic and floral patterns? Might not elementary school sculptural dabblings have an impact on spatial relations testing results of both boys and girls who, in this information age, may later seek careers at CAD/CAM computer keyboards of Boeing, Ford or a major architectural firm?
Paradoxical though it may seem, at the very foundations of our souls, our sciences and even our businesses and industries lie the arts. So from our federal budget, cut the fat and pork-barrel spending - not the symbolic but vital seed money generating the beauty and creativity that nourish both us and, indirectly, our economy. And then engage that same mindset in approaching state and local budgeting processes.
For all our sakes.
A resident of Saranac Lake, Lee Gaillard spent more than 35 years in secondary schools as a teacher and administrator. His articles on education have appeared in Teacher Magazine, Education Week, Independent School, The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers around the country.