The following are excerpts from actor-director-producer Robert Redford’s speech at the 16th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy on Sept. 10 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts .
I’m here today because of my belief that art is a great translator of that which is both familiar and unfamiliar. It’s really through art that we can come to know ourselves and others. To me, the vitality and insight that art brings to civil society is more important now than ever.
I grew up in a time during the Second World War when democracy was taken for granted. It was drummed into our heads and minds as a fundamental definition of America and why it was great. … It was a time when we were united, in unity for the war and its purpose, not like the conflicts today.
Because times were tough, my family had very, very slim financial resources. I grew up in a pretty rough part of Los Angeles. I didn’t have fancy toys or luxuries like TV. I had to be creative, inventing a world of my own, as did all the kids around me. So my imagination was my most valuable commodity, and thankfully became a life force for me at a pretty young age.
I saw the world around me, not only as it was, but as it could be. Art and imagination became my closest companions. Before anybody was really much interested in what I had to say, they seemed to be interested in what I had created.
As a kid, I remember, I sketched everything in sight. My parents and their friends would play cards and I had to be drug along because we couldn’t afford a babysitter. … I drew everything. It was keeping me busy. I began to draw individual faces. I guess I got bored with that. I moved under the table and began sketching their feet. … At which point I think everybody started worrying. … Even though they thought it was a bit weird, I got attention for my art at a young age.
I was not a good student. … I spent too much time looking out the window because Los Angeles had a very, very poor school system in those days. The district I lived in was not very high-end — the war was on. So teaching was not too inspirational then … but I excelled in sports and art.
My second- or third-grade teacher recognized art as a legitimate means of expression. As I struggled with the more traditional approaches … I remember she had me come up to the front of the room and tell stories through my art. She would put up a newsprint pad on an easel and I would draw.
My teacher’s encouragement of my artistic tendencies continued, making me realize art was something legitimate to pursue, and that it was integral to how I was perhaps going to find my way in this world and make sense of things. … [Without art] I may have taken a path that wasn’t as fulfilling or productive. My school behavior record was just a little bit of a disaster.
Being in this hall … prompted me to remember some of the writings of John F. Kennedy. I became acquainted with a speech he gave in 1963 at Amherst College where he was paying tribute to the American poet Robert Frost, where he reflected on the value of arts to a society. It was less than a month before his assassination.
[President Kennedy said,] “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in arts, as we reward achievements in business or statehood. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishments, and will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all its citizens.”
To me, art in all of its forms is the purest reflection of the most diverse aspects of us as individuals, as communities, as nations, as cultures. It is art that really feeds and nurtures the soul of society, that provokes thought, inspires creative thinking, and fosters understanding of things foreign to our own immediate world.
Joseph Campbell felt that a society without mythology is doomed. Well, I feel the same way about the role that art can play in a society’s sustainable future. On the surface, it may not have the weight of the [Securities and Exchange Commission] or the Department of the Defense or Social Security or other programs that can be easier to quantify, but it’s still a part of the whole. More importantly, it is one of our great or greatest critical luxuries … freedom of expression.
There’s more than one way to strangle the arts. Today funding cuts that are being discussed all across this country in all levels of government could really paint a truly devastating picture when all is said and done. When the economy is in as bad a shape as it is now, art becomes a throwaway. Art and art education become a funding cut they don’t feel will have a tangible effect.
In other words, it’s a cut to which they think nobody’s going to suffer and nobody’s going to notice its absence. It may take awhile to get it, but society at large will suffer, and I believe society at large will ultimately notice. Government support for the arts is not a frivolous giveaway that some believe. It’s a good investment and sound economic development.
Art public policy is good business. Let’s look at the financial stake the government has in the arts. The nonprofit arts world is roughly a $134 billion a year industry and employs millions and millions. It generates nearly $81 billion in spending by those who participate in its cultural offering. It’s responsible for $24 million in taxes, going back to state and local governments.
Creativity must continue to be nurtured if we’re ever going to reap the benefits of the many great minds we don’t yet know. … How do you put a price on that? Yes, there are very pressing needs all around us, but completely ceasing to fund the arts is sadly shortsighted in any economy.
Out there right now is some kid with a great song in their head we’re yet to hear or a novel in their heart that is yet to be written. There is someone out there that hasn’t picked up a paintbrush yet, but has a masterpiece on the horizon. There’s a kid out there who hasn’t picked up a camera, who could end up making the memorable film of their time. … Art plays a critical role in finding our way as a people and a culture.