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Editorial: The power of the arts

You’d think the N.C. Senate’s modest proposal to require that high school students take one arts-education class in order to graduate wouldn’t raise many objections. We’re talking about one class out of a four-year curriculum. That’s not exactly an invitation to throw over biology in favor of anarchy and bohemian excess.
Yet, as soon as Sen. Katie Dorsett of Guilford County introduced the bill last week, the hemming and hawing began. Students should be focused on reading, writing and math, the argument goes. This is no time to impose another graduation requirement when schools are already contemplating staff cutbacks and are struggling to meet the requirements already in place. Or, who really needs art, anyhow?
We all do, and the arguments against this requirement prove the point that many of us simply don’t appreciate the arts enough or support their presence strongly enough in our schools or in our communities.
It’s tempting to make the pragmatic case here and point out the economic benefits of the arts. In the state as a whole, according to the North Carolina Arts Council, the arts industry provides almost 160,000 creative sector jobs ó making up more than 4 percent of the state’s total employment. The creative arts and related businesses pay more than $3.9 billion in wages each year. Locally, look at the importance of a thriving arts community. While historic preservation may be the hallmark of our identity, it has always been closely allied with the arts. Think of how much poorer this community would be ó poorer in spirit and vitality, as well as economic diversity ó if not for the Salisbury Symphony, the Piedmont Players, Waterworks Visual Arts Center, Carolina Artists, RailWalk Studios and Gallery, Looking Glass Art Collective, East Square Artworks and other private galleries.
But the economic argument skirts the primary reason to support the arts. The arts symbolize what separates us from the other creatures on earth. Art can touch the soul and make the heart sing ó or weep. The arts teach us about innovation, imagination, critical thinking and collaboration.
Not convinced? Then try this experiment. Don’t listen to any music for a week ó no rock, no country, no hiphop, no jazz, no symphonies, no hymns. Don’t watch any movies, TV dramas or sitcoms. Don’t attend any plays ó including the Easter Passion Play. Whenever you see a painting, a graceful piece of pottery or stained glass, avert your eyes. Take your grandmother’s painstakingly stitched quilt down off the display rack. Avoid any colorful advertising, too, since the graphic arts inform all of those funny, clever commercials and magazine ads. In other words, try living in a world without art.
To their credit, local officials have recently made tangible public statements of support for the arts through efforts such as the History and Art Trail and the public sculptures currently on display around Salisbury. They appreciate how the arts enrich our lives, as well as our economy. Let’s hope our state legislators show that same appreciation and pass this modest requirement so that more students experience the richness and redemptive power of the arts.

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