There’s a black and white photograph in my high school yearbook. It’s of people in winter gear hanging around a railing at the skating rink where our hockey team played. A banner of the team’s name, Trojans, hangs on the railing.

The picture is captioned “Athletic Supporters.”

Sure, it’s sophomoric. It’s a high school yearbook.

Because I was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook, I was called down to the principal’s office to justify the caption while it was still in the galley proof phase. Both the principal and I had become accustomed to this ritual. The principal was retiring that year. I’m sure he didn’t care about the pointless exercise of juvenile free speech but had to make a good show of it for our parents.

I think he secretly was amused by our harmless testing of societal boundaries.

I had gotten good at arguing our cases. This time, I opened by asking him what everyone in the school called our athletes.

He replied: “Jocks.”

“Right, ‘jocks.’ And where does that word derive from?”

I was out of his office in less than 3 minutes.

So, ‘Athletic Supporters’ it was. We are socialized at a young age to support our local sports teams. Also our local fire department. And key charities.

And “The Arts.”

“Support the Arts!” is an odd phrase because both the verb and the object in the sentence are surprisingly vague.

For example, are comic books part of “The Arts”? Watchmen is such sophisticated storytelling that the comic book industry invented the term “graphic novel” to elevate this tale above the usual superhero material. The graphic novel, Maus, in which animals are used to dramatize the events of the Holocaust, won the Pulitzer Prize. The graphic novel, Fun Home, helped its writer, Alison Bechdel, win a MacArthur “Genius” Award. I happen to own all three of these works. Does this mean I’m supporting the Arts? Because that’s certainly not the reason I purchased them.

Picasso Norton SimonI have memberships to both the Norton Simon Museum and LACMA. I do not have these memberships to “support the Arts.” I find looking at paintings an enriching experience. The memberships are just a cost-efficient way of doing so. Were I truly to “support the Arts,” I suppose I would pay full admission every time I entered the museums. And, in fact, my membership fees do little to assist artists currently painting in their studios. So I’m not really supporting this group despite the outlay of cash.

Perhaps I should heed the words of Renoir: “The only reward one should offer an artist is to buy his work.” But I don’t. I’ve never purchased a painting or photograph. I only walk into a gallery about twice a year. Still, you can find me in a museum about 24 times a year, often with a guest who can accompany me, for free, as a result of my membership.

Does this make me an art supporter or not?

If you associate with theater actors on social media, no doubt you’ve seen this phrase: “Come and support my show.”

There’s the fiscal support, of course. I wonder how the artists would feel, however, if one were to buy two full price tickets without ever intending on going to the theater and using them. The flip side of this scenario is to actually sit in the theater by using free tickets – often obtained from the artists appearing onstage.

Is it money or time that’s a more important measure of support?

Live performance is a very tricky topic in terms of supporting the arts. Is it considered art support when one sees a 70-something-year-old Sir Paul McCartney in Dodger Stadium? Or when one spends as much on a single Broadway ticket for Hamilton as the cost of flying from Los Angeles to New York City? Is it more important to support a single Broadway hit or several less-expensive, worthy but struggling, Off-Broadway shows?

Is attending an “event exhibit” a support of the Arts or just a reaction to immediate cultural marketing?

The Broad, with its rotating exhibits, has free admission but requires reservations made weeks in advance to ensure entrance. The Norton Simon’s permanent art collection is one of the finest in the world but the rooms where the paintings hang often contain more guards than visitors.

One doesn’t immediately associate “Support the Arts” with the film industry, despite film being one of the most important, and influential, modern art forms. And no one says “I’m going to see that band so-and-so at The Wiltern to support the Arts.” The phrase seems reserved to art forms such as opera, ballet, chamber music, theater, painting, and the like. Sometimes “Support the Arts” sounds to me a little like “Eat your vegetables.” Is there something not tasty about the product that requires arm-twisting slogans to ensure consumption?

An actor once told me: “You really need to see my new show. Come and support the Arts!” In practically the same breath, they also told me they hadn’t read my latest essay because they “hadn’t any time.” I found this amusing. “Hadn’t any time?” The essay had been on-line for over a week and would have taken 10 minutes, tops, to read. That’s about 1/4 the driving time, one way, to the actor’s theater to see their show! I didn’t take the comment personally, however. The actor also told me they had no time to see paintings or go to the ballet – they were too busy with their theater projects.

Nevertheless, this actor attended friends’ theater shows and the friends returned the favor in kind. But does that quid pro quo arrangement make an artist a supporter of the arts? Does art creation without real art consumption qualify as support?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised by the artist’s attitude, however. Words like “support” can be tricky. After all, my high school principal felt I needed to justify the caption “Athletic Supporters” – at a place where the sports teams were named the Trojans.


Originally published August 3, 2017 in Footlights.