Here’s to the Fools Who Dream

Esperanza Spalding /

This is a good time to ponder the fates of younger Americans in every American city and town who hope to find a lifeline to the arts.

In a poignant moment in Damien Chazelle’s hit film La La Land (2016) a young actress tries to fathom why she goes on after endless rounds of demeaning auditions.  Ready to give up, she reluctantly agrees to go to a hopeful callback, where the casting director asks her to tell a story rather than read a set script.  And so Mia recounts the experiences of her Aunt in Paris, chasing her dream to be an artist and make some questionable choices “all over again.”  Mia is talking about herself as much as her relative when she offers a quiet toast to those who can go on, singing “Here’s to the fools who dream.”  She’s in the same uncertain state of suspension as her jazz pianist lover, and thousands of other young Americans seeking a foothold in the arts.

We get it because most of us can remember what it was like to seek perfect opportunities against very long odds.  It’s even more touching in the arts, since the dreamers who succeed still face uncertainties and crazy hours that would defeat most of us.  Those who have chosen these kinds of lives have exchanged security for the uncertain rewards of following their passions.

Emma Stone – Audition (The Fools Who Dream) LYRICS ON SCREEN

Emma Stone performing one of the musical songs from movie La La Land with Ryan Gosling.

The stage struck performer running out of hope and money is an old story that Hollywood and Broadway love to retell. Think of the three versions of A Star is Born, (1934, 1954, 1976) or Singing in the Rain (1952), or the darker All About Eve (1950). Perhaps these are so durable because the experience is so universal, not to mention the awe we have for the kinds of pleasures that artists of all types can create. We are refreshed and renewed by what people among us can do on canvass,  on stage, on the screen and the transformation of musical notation into sonic magic.  Who could but want them to succeed?  And so we take the ride with them again and again.  Their dreams and talent seed our optimism about the future.

This is a good time to ponder the fates of younger Americans in every American town who hope to find a pathway to a lifetime in the arts.  It has never been harder to make a living as an artist, musician or actor. Dance companies and orchestras around the country struggle to close budget deficits. Problems of long-term financing have even hit stalwarts like the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Even so, the dreamers need our support.  I’ve heard parents express pride over the decision of one of their maturing children to follow a path into music, art, art history, philosophy or theater. And I’ve heard the disheartening responses of others who profess sympathy to those parents because of the supposed challenges that await.  Such bogus displays of compassion actually demonstrate how we can too easily give up on the ideals and optimism of the young.  When those kids successfully find their ways–and many do–the rewards are all the sweeter.

To be sure, audiences are more distracted and less inclined to pause long enough to sit in a theater seat or pay the price of a Broadway show.  But the larger problem looms in the deepening cesspool of American politics, with discussion in Congress of gutting modest levels of federal arts funding. The small but important budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are all at risk. They represent less than one half of one percent of the federal budget, but they are always targets for cuts from fiscal conservatives.

The perfect responses to many states of mind often come into focus through narratives we witness in performance.

Of course the real fool’s errand is to cut the nation’s youth off from the arts.  The perfect responses to many states of mind often come into focus through narratives we witness in performance.  Most American Presidents have known this, showcasing American talent in many ways, including wonderful nights of East Room performances from that have ranged from Esperanza Spalding’s jazz to bluegrass music. Almost all have been broadcast on PBS.

It’s perhaps understandable that well-paid and self-satisfied policy-makers will decide what they can live without.  But it’s inexcusable to thoughtlessly take away the birthright of students who yearn to contribute to arts that are so eagerly consumed and cherished by the rest of us.