NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — The labor situation at the Metropolitan Opera is grim and getting grimmer. The labor dispute that has been brewing all year and now threatens to postpone or cancel 2014-15 season's productions has gotten so bad that the sides are considering bringing in a federal mediator .

Any interruption in the work at Lincoln Center, a hub for American cultural prestige, is a national embarrassment. It has happened once already recently with the cessation of the New York City Opera . And it is likely to happen again, now, with the Met itself.

Update, 8:30 a.m. Friday: Musicians agreed to work with Allison Beck of the of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and negotiations will continue Friday past the original deadline. Given ongoing negotiations, the Met's management said it would postpone for 72 hours a decision on a lockout. Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, issued a statement saying the extension was an important signal but added, "Settling this dispute in three days is highly unrealistic given [General Manager Peter] Gelb's proposed draconian cuts."

And it is entirely our fault. We, as citizens, have allowed ourselves to believe a lie -- that culture can happily exist according to and entirely within free market rules. And that lie has led to the debasement of culture and a threat to the livelihoods of working musicians of all styles across the country.

Read More: U.S. Culture Suffers From Malign Neglect

No matter what the outcome at this opera house, the deeper problem remains that we have undervalued the arts as a society and left our treasured institutions to twist slowly in the wind every time there's an economic downturn.

To back up: the Metropolitan Opera is having financial difficulties, like classical music organizations pretty much everywhere. The downturn in the economy in 2009 led pretty quickly to the shuttering of opera companies and symphony orchestras nationwide. Subscriptions in particular fell off a cliff, leaving ensembles with no guarantee of audience revenue from one performance to the next.

As a result of those financial straits, the Met's management can't agree to terms for new contracts with its employees. According to the Wall Street Journal, General Manager Peter Gelb has advised union employees that they would be locked out as of August 1.

"The Met cannot continue on its current economic path; we must find cost reductions," he wrote.

The union fired back in a press release, accusing Gelb of a "cynical strategy to cover up for his failed management and lack of artistic vision."

The union accuses Gelb of "lavish overspending" on projects that have failed to win the support of audiences and critics. Criticism is rife of Gelb's unwillingness to rein in directors or ballooning costs that create lofty budgets only to outspend even those.