UNSCRIPTED ‌ Culture Crisis 

Cuts to arts funding in Italy make for compelling drama

Think Americans can get their undies in a bunch when government officials start talking about cutting arts funding? We come off like sleeping babes compared to Europeans on the receiving end of arts-targeting budget butchers. Case in point: Italy at this very moment, where megalomaniacal television magnate turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has proposed a draft budget for next year that lops off roughly 35 percent of all funding for the performing arts in that country. Theatre, dance, opera, and film would receive the equivalent of $360 million next year, compared with $557 million in 2005.

This is the nation that gave us Dante, Virgil, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Paganini, Vivaldi, Maria Callas, Umberto Eco, Franco Zeffirelli, and, for better or worse, Madonna. For thousands of years Italian artists of every kind have put the "civil" in civilization, and here some fulminating Philistine is suggesting they carve that legacy into an orzo-sized alternative?

Immediately following the announcement of the cuts, Italians of every class and category freaked out. Italian culture minister Rocco Buttiglione threatened to resign. Cinemas, theatres, concert halls, and opera houses across the country staged a one-day strike to protest the cuts. Thousands of people brought traffic in the center of Rome to a standstill as they marched on Berlusconi's office. The country's film distributors joined in, postponing the premiere of a new film by actor-director Roberto Benigni, and executives at the Venice Film Festival suggested they may have to cancel the long-running event.

A 35-percent chop, said national number-crunchers, would put 60,000 jobs and 5,000 companies at risk. Industry associations have estimated that two-thirds of Italian theatre and music companies wouldn't be able to make it through the year if the cuts are passed.

On one hand, the blackest of the doom-and-gloom predictions are probably exaggerated: these are people who make a living being dramatic, after all. Overexcitable Italians are almost a cliché, like overweight Wal-Mart workers. But there's little doubt that some of the concerns are justified.

It'll be interesting to see how the battle susses out. Berlusconi's is a center-right administration, although moderate right-wing ideology in Italy still lies to the left of Janeane Garofalo. But in Italy -- like Charleston -- culture is not an extra frill but central to its image, not to mention a major source of tourist revenue. "Culture is Italy's oil," said Giovanna Melandri, a former culture minister.

None of this, of course, is made any less interesting by the fact that an Italian court last Friday began closed-door hearings to decide whether to indict the Prime Minister and 13 others on charges of massive tax fraud, nor by the fact that Berlusconi faces a tough reelection bid next April. Sort of gives suffering for your art a whole new meaning, doesn't it?


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