Government and the arts

In the last couple of weeks, there’s been a flurry of blogging interest in public support of the arts, whodathunkit.  As I’m teaching a course about it this semester, I would be delighted to have some curriculum material to assign, but unfortunately the discussion has petered out as it usually does with an inadequate fact base and a good deal of opining.  Still, hats off to everyone for getting into this.

I know academics believe whatever they study is much more important than anyone else understands, and I should admit that I take a very different view of this issue from many of my friends and colleagues, who act as though they think the arts are a sort of optional decoration of a good society, or that they are just fine left to themselves.  They certainly don’t do much real research about them. I do not understand this view; we all agree that health is super-important, but if life isn’t worth living, why would you want to make it longer? Perhaps the arts are important but government policy doesn’t make much difference for them? That’s very hard to support on the facts, but you have to know some facts to see that.

If you don’t think the arts and the government policies within which they live, and the management of the institutions that deliver them, are important enough to deserve really hard-headed, soft-hearted, fact- and research-based analysis, you can skip this post.  Everyone still with me, make the jump…
…still here?  OK, what is this discussion about? The simple version is, “should the government support the arts?” and when Jon Chait framed it within  the completely trivial  and inconsequential dribble (it’s about 10c per year per capita) of National Endowment grant-giving, Matt Yglesias explained that the main pipeline of public arts support was the tax deduction for charitable contributions to museums, orchestras, and the like.  Then there’s some more extensive back-and-forth with Isaac Butler and Kevin Drum.

Whether the government should support the arts is peculiarly abstract and unrealistic: government supports the arts in dozens of ways, all consequential, and will continue to do so.  What really matters is how it does this, to a lesser degree how much, and exactly what social values those mechanisms advance – “support the arts” can mean anything from “enrich artists” to “protect BMI shareholders dividends” to “give schoolchildren the education they need to be part of a demanding, competent, audience”.

Are the arts important at all, and for what?  The best discussion of this, and antidote to the regrettable attempts to justify them because they help kids learn math, or raise property values downtown, is here (Guy Yedwab attacks the issue here; Butler has another go in his series coming). If you think the RAND piece is some leftist propaganda, note the fourth author. I’m going to take it as given that the arts are important, and for their own sake (that is, for their intrinsic and distinctive creation of value for everyone), and I’m also going to take as given that the criterion of policy, if we have any, is that it induce more, better engagement of more people with better art. Here I accept a sort of arts exceptionalism: the arts are distinctive by being privileged and privileging even in the estimation of people who don’t consume much of them. Lots of good things are not like that: there’s no benefit to more health care if it doesn’t make more health, or more voting after everyone has voted, but more art (consumed) is better almost without limit. Furthermore, it has network externalities; the arts are (in part) socially constructed and shared, so it’s better for me if others consume more.

Why should the government do anything about them, though? There’s lots of important stuff, like chocolate, that doesn’t demand a government program. Indeed, Kevin thinks there are no important market failures in the arts, and wants evidence that shifts in consumption patterns are anything other than changes in public taste, to which end he offers a completely correct but irrelevant series of examples of forms and media that have gone extinct (no-one has written a madrigal for almost three centuries!) and technological advances that have birthed new ones (movies), and some “I like chocolate and you like vanilla…so?” examples.

Coming from someone who makes his living selling digital content, the first assertion is incomprehensible to me: anything in text and any sound or video recording is a non-rival good, a market failure with the pianissimo whispered subtlety of a steam calliope. I don’t know where to start adducing evidence of the welfare losses resulting from the collapse of the business model in which content was sold in a physical package, with high fixed and variable costs of copying, sometimes coupled with advertising. But I can’t believe Kevin doesn’t remember when his hometown newspaper was full of news, including especially news about his hometown: the LA Times was a great paper, now it’s only a little above the fishwrap level. Nor that he can’t see a connection between having this conduit slowed to a trickle and the political problems of the state and the region.

Kevin likes classical music: once there were classical music radio stations that played complete compositions. The music was programmed by experts who knew about stuff I didn’t know existed and certainly don’t know how to ask for from Napster, and that Pandora won’t find for me. Now, my town has one classical station and it plays disconnected movements to allow for commercials. No musical artists make a living from cd or track sales; these are just posters for live concerts. Not only is the music being sold way above marginal cost, but the artists are being stiffed for this labor as well. [Update: 19/II/11 This industry is not doing just fine! Has music listening fallen by half in eight years?]

There’s plenty more wrong with the copyright system, amply examined here and here, and here. Lessig especially highlights the crippling of artists’ access to each others work, work that used to be the building blocks of new art and is now fenced off by lawyers. Fixing this, and it has to be fixed with a government program that protects privacy, free speech, and creators’ rights to profit, is in my view the single most important challenge in government arts policy, and because it overlaps with fixing the market for news, analysis, and other discourse, equally important in government policy generally. Its importance is not measurable by the size of the Copyright Office’s appropriation. Not all government arts policy is about government money.

As to other mechanisms of support: I can only hit a very few highlights here; for more on this, see here, here, here, and here.  Tax preferences are important in the American system, far and away more important than direct subsidies. The federal income tax deduction is available for educational institutions (a couple of the bloggers in the conversation above seem confused about that and wonder why a museum is a charity; it isn’t!) and allows the half or so of taxpayers, generally those with highest incomes,  who itemize deductions to direct federal tax money to institutions of their choice. The higher your tax bracket, the more the government matches your gift (though this turns out not to be public support of rich people’s pleasures; the subsidy flows somewhat downhill, from the very wealthy to the middle class).  I would much prefer a tax credit for this channel. But arts institutions are also commonly exempt from other taxes, especially property taxes on their buildings and often sales tax, and these amounts are not trivial.

Probably the most costly program of government support for the arts, and in my view the most important and the one whose ongoing collapse is the most pernicious, is arts education in the schools. Parental introduction to the arts is the largest correlate of lifetime consumption, but government obviously isn’t in that business.  Engagement in school is next. Hands-on and historical education in the arts – both are important – is critical to lifetime access to the cultural patrimony of a country or the whole world, and it’s another  real market failure, information asymmetry. People who can enjoy different, challenging experiences that make them smarter instead of dumber and alert instead of bored, have better lives than people who don’t. But the arts require some investment (though they tend to be beneficially addictive if you just step on the escalator) and pay off richly for accumulated experience.  “I’m glad I don’t like opera, because if I did, I’d listen to it, and I hate the stuff!” is the suboptimal stable state a society can help its citizens get out of, and school is the place where it can happen.

It’s certainly not about the NEA, an agency I would happily sacrifice to appease a ravenous Republican god hungry for a program cut.  But it’s also not just about tax deductions.

Comments

  1. x.trapnel says

    I had an interesting conversation with a French sound engineer about this just last night. There’s really quite a bit of cross-national variation in the arts ecosystem; I think it’s a shame that we rarely look at other examples of how things are done.

  2. says

    There seems to be an odd disdain for the arts as elitist, and thus so is government support of them. Yet to the degree to which government support of the arts actually increases access to them by the public, they become much more populist.

  3. In the Sac says

    Thank you, Michael O’Hare … makes me wish I were taking the class you are teaching. Your post brings to mind something that is totally obvious but did not occur to ME until sometime this week. Namely, the insistence on keeping the Internet “free” falls into line with the Republicans’ insistence on smaller government/lower taxes. In other words, we want the best quality of everything and we want it now, but we don’t want to pay for it. The Republicans are fond of saying, as Wally Herger did on the radio this week, that the elephant in the living room is that the government has to stop living beyond its means, just as every household wisely knows — something that seems so patently obvious, the Democrats haven’t found a way to counter it. But surely that is a misrepresentation of the problem. I simply refuse to believe that America cannot “afford” art, transportation, and food safety. Isn’t it time to turn the Republican bromide upside down again, which is to say: we don’t have a SPENDING problem, we have a REVENUE problem (but not for lack of resources).

  4. Vance Maverick says

    I’m definitely with you on the value of arts education. The question of “which art” still arises, of course. However, even elitists like me, who hate (say) musicals, should be happy to see kids taught to perform them, for the reasons above. And there’s no question of supporting art that’s “controversial” (Wojnarowicz) or “esoteric” (mandatory Braxton!) — the value remains even if the actual art in hand is heavily filtered.

  5. says

    The National Endowment for the Arts is just a pale shade of the vibrant force of the arts that it once was. A ghost that doesn’t realize yet that it’s dead. I spent years fighting for it, back in the days of Mapplethorpe, Serrano and Jesse Helms, because I believed in its core purpose, which was to function partially as research funding — just as we find it responsible to fund scientific research, without knowing for sure what the results will be, so we felt it was important to fund research in the arts, with the idea that we might develop the next Alice Walker, Martha Graham, Dave Brubeck, Georgia O’Keeffe, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Just like we don’t depend on the commercial self-interest of pharmaceutical companies to fund all of the important research in science, we don’t depend on the commercial self-interest of industries that bring us Bruce Willis and Lady Gaga to discover new American art forms.

    Unfortunately, the NEA has been forced into the role of perennial symbolic football for the culture wars, and its meager support for the arts (criminally miniscule compared to other 1st world countries) has turned into loudmouthed petty politician thugs fighting over the pennies in the leave-one, take-one tray, as if they would solve the budget. Back when the NEA had some real money to spend, we still spent more on marching bands for the military than we did on the national arts agency for the entire country.

    Unfortunately, the NEA should, probably, be put out of its misery and funding for the arts turned over to the states where they might have a chance of avoiding some of the rancorous politics.

    Fortunately, one of the other important missions of the NEA has been largely accomplished, and that was to make it possible for citizens across the country to see professional-level artistic work. Back in the 60′s, you had to go to New York or another major city. But with the programs for distributing the professional arts across the country (the Regional Theatre program, support for regionally-based symphony orchestras and art museums), that problem has largely changed, thanks to the NEA. It could still perform a valuable service in this area, but for the most part the heavy lifting has been accomplished, and what is needed is state resources and private resources to keep the regional movement vital.

    The NEA did serve to leverage private dollars, and I hate to see that loss (getting an NEA grant helped an arts organization raise funds from corporate and private foundations), but in the long run, if we can do more as a nation to encourage foundation and private giving, our results in arts support will be far greater than we can ever expect from the artistic sensibilities of the knuckle-dragging neanderthals in Congress.

    “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.” – President John F. Kennedy, Oct. 26, 1963

  6. Michael O'Hare says

    Pete, as we argued in our book, it’s not useful to compare direct arts funding in the US with direct arts funding in all the other countries where there’s no significant amount of tax preference funding. In fact, at that time, we found that total government arts support in all western countries was about the same as a fraction of GDP.

    Leveraging private dollars is not necessarily a feature of the NEA’s “Good Housekeeping Seal”. When it was set up, we were promised that it would not be a Ministry of Culture, an Academy, nor a censor. But the panels that decide on grants are a lot like an academy, and their choices are aggressively censored since the Mapplethorpe wars by two levels of review to be sure no-one important in Congress would take offense at anything. If NEA funding really does direct significant amounts of private support, all three promises are broken. Francesca Borgonovi and I looked into this six years ago, and fortunately it turns out it’s not that influential, despite NEA’s claims that it is. More on this both ways here: http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/feds/2008/200810/200810pap.pdf

  7. says

    “There seems to be an odd disdain for the arts as elitist”

    Gee I wonder why that could be so? It can’t have anything to do with the LONG LONG history of the upper classes using their knowledge of the arts as a cudgel with which to belittle those differently educated from them, could it?
    (And I know whereof I speak — I went to a high school where I was taught Latin and Ancient Greek.)

    I know this remark is not especially germane to Michael’s point, but I think it is immensely foolish to pretend that things like this do not happen in a context. If Castro hadn’t been treated as a literal bastard, perhaps things might have been different. If Lenin’s siblings had not been executed and exiled, perhaps things might have been different.
    And, likewise, I suspect that behind some fraction of the anti-NEA rhetoric you hear in Congress (which may yet culminate in an end to the tax exemptions) lie the memories of middle-brow kids in high school, college, or their first jobs, being shamed by some rich a**hole who mocked them for their lack of knowledge of the minor works of Spencer, or for saying that while they liked Picasso they just didn’t get the appeal of Jackson Pollock. (Heck, Washington being what it is, for some of them this is probably an ongoing occurrence.)

  8. Shannond8 says

    Well said, Pete! I work in the arts and you summarized the situation so well. One thing I would note is that 40% of NEA funds go directly to regional and state arts agencies. To me (full disclosure: I work at a regional), the use of these funds are profoundly more effective than NEA direct grants. However, if you eliminated the NEA, many states would then not receive these crucial funds that serve communities throughout their state. Also, NEA funding must be matched by state appropriations, which is the leverage needed in many states to encourage/mandate state gov’t to fund their agencies. (Although that is diminishing–Brownback eliminated the Kansas Arts Council by executive order recently and more states are also on the chopping block.) I think if the NEA were to be dismantled we’d see a domino effect across the country and many state arts agencies would be shuttered. This would be a huge loss for arts education and also for the many communities (often rural) who depend on small amounts of support from the state to bring the arts to their communities.

  9. Vance Maverick says

    Tangentially, Mike, a bone to pick. KDFC is lame, all right, but playing isolated movements is a trivial sin compared to the narrowness of their repertoire. In fact, as you surely know, playing single movements has a long history — and it would be hard to make the case that all works must always be played whole. And more seriously, there are a few works before 1900 in which playing a movement alone would weaken it seriously (the last movement of Beethoven’s 5th, for example), but they’re the exceptions. With most pieces, most of their virtue survives such excision.

  10. says

    Maynard, that’s a fair point. Calling art elitist isn’t actually odd at all, as you rightly point out.

    But I’m not sure I buy your framing. Well, I’m not sure I understand the framing in the end.

    Let’s take socioeconomics. I’ve been lower-middle class all my life, as measured by income. But both my parents were college educated, and I grew up in a very “rich” cultural environment (arts, philosophy, history, world religions, politics, etc. all discussed regularly). That puts me in an upper class percentile. My wife and I now both have graduate degrees, and our daughters are being raised in a similarly culturally rich environment. Yet we have generally lower-middle class incomes.

    So when my daughter goes to school, she’ll no doubt encounter other children whose parents were not college educated, and do not have highly intellectual discussions at home, yet are upper-middle class income-wise. Thus they are in a lower cultural percentile, yet higher income percentile. They’ll tell her that abstract art is stupid, “as any kid could do that”. They’ll tell her that her challenging of dominant social norms is “weird”. She’ll tell them their unquestioning embrace of popular art is predictable. She’ll accuse them of being provincial.

    Of course, they can all be quite civil about it. While the town can certainly be snobbish, the gown – at least in my experience – can be just as cruel, expressing an “elitism” of their own. Just go to any gay ghetto and ask how many people had fled the persecution of small-town norms. I’m always struck by the tone-deafness of those who would accuse liberals, or the educated, of snobbery, while failing to see how oppressive conservatives, or the uneducated can be.

    While you rightly point out that the arts have sometimes been used as a cudgel with which to clobber the townies, they have also been used as a sort of cultural escape-hatch, through which those who don’t fit in, or just see things a tad differently, might find transcendence. Furthermore, art appreciation has looked quite differently through the ages. I’m no art historian, but it seems to me that “the arts” today is wide-ranging and diverse. As I attempted to point out in my original post, there is an irony in those who would disdain the arts as elitist in many ways actually making the arts *more* elitist, by dismantling the very supports that have allowed the arts to thrive in ways that a purely privatized field would not have.

    I’m very uncomfortable with the increasingly tired conservative anti-elitist rhetoric. Especially when coming from millionaires. Just because George W. Bush, a trust fund baby, legacy education at Yale, talks with a twang, rides horses and likes Toby Keith, he’s somehow not an elitist, while the vegan kid behind the coffee counter who goes to a state college, listens to indie rock, and likely has socialist sympathies is an elitist.

    Are we not just really talking about the power of knowledge? I mean, this isn’t really about liberal elitists “looking down” on the townies. It is about the dismissal of their special knowledge, in the sense that they know something about comparative religion, world music, the history of cinema, philosophical discourse, and the subtleties of cuisine.

    And yet, is it even about their knowledge of these things? Most so-called “elitists” I know are actually quite uniformed in many areas. Imagine! So are we then really talking about the knowledge itself – the mere idea that someone, somewhere, thinks your mustache is stupid? That you can’t enjoy a good cheap beer anymore without the idea that there was a “fancy” one on the shelf above it? Or that you went to see Transformers instead of some foreign documentary about foreign films? Isn’t this why Professor Glenn Beck gave a rave review of Spiderman?

    Honestly, it feels like “The Republican War on Science” should more accurately be described as “The Republican war on Knowledge”. You there, with your fancy glasses!

    How much of this sort of cultural self-pity is being hyped up for political if not financial gain? Everyday. Millions of listeners tune in to Rush Limbaugh and others who tell them that the “elites” are looking down their noses at them. Yet are they? Or is this trumped up paranoia, digging in to people’s deep-seated fears about themselves, much in the way hypnotists plant false memories? The classic demogogic ploy.

    Because yeah – you don’t have the most fashionable clothes. You didn’t go to university. You enjoy cheesy television. You really like Applebees. You feel comfortable with traditional cultural roles. You don’t “get” modern art.

    But so what? Your clothes are really boring and you didn’t put much thought into their meaning. People are going to sing the praises of university because it is a temple of the human mind. People are going to rag on television because it is overly commercial and filled with cynicism and cliché. Traditional cultural roles are often really terrible and we all need to think critically, taking nothing for granted. Modern art is, well, it’s complicated, and it’s OK to admit you don’t understand it.

    These are objective realities. It is just as true that “elites” are just as lacking in numerous areas of their lives. Yet those areas tend to not have the same sort of “status” associations (although ask a redneck if knowing how to change a tire is as important as the difference between modernism and post-modernism and he’ll laugh in your face).

    In the end, the two forms of knowledge have different uses. As we move further into an information based world, abstract thought will likely become more important than mechanical thought. And what is ultimately important is not whether one has a mustache or eats arugulla, but how much human, social and political capital one possesses. It is in all of our interests to set aside petty bickering and focus on the project of equality and empowerment of humanity as a whole.

  11. says

    Eli, don’t get me wrong. I’m not supporting this particular culture war.

    I simply wanted to add a note of reality to the discussion. This subject, in particular, is being discussed in very abstract theoretical terms, and I wanted to remind people that a huge amount of what actually happens in this space, in the real world, operates on the dynamics I outlined. It’s not like I’m unique in making this claim — I used the word middle-brow to bring up a particular set of associations.

    The Tea Party yahoos in Congress are clearly tools of the rich and powerful, but they come, for the most part, from the middlebrow stratum. I suspect their relationship to art (and to knowledge in general) has, in the background, a lot of the psychological dynamics I describe.
    I don’t know how we improve things, but I do think that we ignore this issue at our peril. It’s hard, however. Civil rights could make some progress by promulgating a philosophy of “People are not bad, even if they said and did certain things in the past, they are just ignorant. You can learn to be a better person, starting today.”
    It’s a lot harder to pull that off with art, if you’re going to start with the viewpoint generally expressed by this post and its comments. Basically the equivalent argument then is “You’re ignorant if you think Shakespeare is overrated, and that The Wire is far superior; and if you continue to hold this opinion even after I’ve told you otherwise, you’re beneath contempt”. Talking about how some ghetto kid improved his life by listening to Beethoven proves what? That we should force all ghetto kids to listen to Beethoven, and tell those who still prefer rap that they damn well deserve their crappy lives?

    I don’t want to start a fight here. I just think there’s an air of unreality to this whole argument; ignorance of how humans have reacted to and used “high art” throughout history, ignorance of social dynamics, a sort of magical thinking that, deep down, everyone else really thinks the way I do and they’re just pretending otherwise.

  12. says

    “Are we not just really talking about the power of knowledge? I mean, this isn’t really about liberal elitists “looking down” on the townies. It is about the dismissal of their special knowledge, in the sense that they know something about comparative religion, world music, the history of cinema, philosophical discourse, and the subtleties of cuisine.”

    So, to clarify my point above. Consider what you are saying here. Yes, there are plenty of ignoramuses in the world. But there are ALSO plenty of people who consider that THEIR knowledge of the history of opera make them cultivated individuals, while that guy over there with an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek is a pathetic fool. That’s the way this actually plays out in the real world. For every individual who truly is interested in the learning, there are a hundred who are primarily interested in the fact that a deep knowledge of New Wave Cinema represents social capital, whereas a deep knowledge of heavy metal music does not.
    And if you think this is not so, look, honestly at yourself and your colleagues. Can you honestly say that you and all of them make an effort, as far as is practical, to learn EVERYTHING there is to know about the ENTIRE world? They haven’t decided that “oh, who would be interested in science” (or engineering, or the social sciences, or history, or …)?
    The Two Cultures — that was a lecture about what, exactly?

    Again, my point is not “woe is us, scientists don’t get no respect”, it’s that art, and learning in general, are used by most people and in most places, as social markers vastly more than they represent some sort of generic love of learning.

  13. says

    Wait a second – I didn’t mean to be necessarily making a value judgment. I was trying to show that “elitist” is a relative term. Having poor fashion sense is an objective measure – it assumes there is such a thing as fashion sense, then applies a critique. If you don’t care about the latest fashions, then that’s fine. But you can’t complain that there are people out there who, when applying fashion critique, apply a specific rubric and you score poorly. Same for food, literature, art, etc. Sarah Palin likely thinks my musical taste is terrible. That’s fine – that’s her rubric. But I’m assuming it is a much smaller and more limited understanding than my own (forgive me if I assume to much – I’m just going by her stereotype of herself as a bumpkin). Some forms of knowledge have greater status-signaling than others, but it depends on the context. If I bought a gun, it would likely be a piece of crap to gun enthusiasts, yet fine by me. Are they “elitists”?

    Larger point: I have no doubt that snobbery exists with regard to a certain type of classical cannonism, that is highly subjective, and open to a variety of post-modern critiques. But my intent was to highlight the way in which this “elitist” angle is being used as a right-wing rhetorical device that ends up creating straw-men and fueling divisiveness and animus. Believe me, I’m as staunch defender of popular art as anyone, yet as I shuffle between Shania Twain and Brian Eno, I recognize that there are standards by which things can be judged, and that just because you don’t understand the complexities of something, it isn’t fair to call it “elitist” – which is what I think has become a hobby-horse among the revanchist right.

    Last point: you may have exaggerated, but I don’t think “art, and learning in general, are used by most people and in most places, as social markers vastly more than they represent some sort of generic love of learning”. I think that’s a part of it (yet, maybe no more so than going to a rodeo). But I think it’s mostly genuine, and that it comes from a variety of cultural memes that unfold in complex ways. Sure, seeing a foreign film connotes a certain intellectual status, but it also requires a level of interest, which could be rooted in many things, not the least of which is a genuine curiosity about expanding the mind. Good art is often difficult, and takes a bit of work to engage with. Shakespeare is considered brilliant and important for a reason, and his expression isn’t something you can absorb as mindlessly as a Stephen King novel. Is that elitist? Well, Stephen King does many wonderful things, but he doesn’t do them as well as Shakespeare. I think it perfectly reasonable to establish rubrics that involve very high standards. Likewise, while I’m no fan of opera, I find it perfectly reasonable to think of it (on whole) as in many ways a much more serious form than star trek or heavy metal (both of which I happen to enjoy immensely!).

  14. says

    Eli, remember my point is I am trying to explain why calls of elitism WORK as a political strategy.
    Much of what you are saying is way too optimistic, and somewhat detached from history.

    You say, for example, “Shakespeare is considered brilliant and important for a reason”. Well, that reason was that he was English, not French, and was taken as a beacon of anti-Napoleonism at the start of the 19th century by Germans. Shakespeare was not worshipped in the 17th and 18th century, and even Goethe’s love of him in the late 18th century comes across more as “here’s a guy who can stick it to the man, Aristotle, and all those old conventions”. In other words — political issues and fashion — not some sort of transcendent and immediately obvious quality.
    And of course the whole turnabout in artistic fashion that happened with the Romantics is full of this sort of stuff — what was considered exquisite in the 18th century for its tight craft is now considered fussy, what was considered loathsome (mountains being the classic example) is now considered awesome — and that very word takes on new connotations.

    You are surely as aware as anyone that the history of the arts (in both the west and elsewhere) is a history of exclusion. There’s a reason that women, african-americans (and their equivalents elsewhere) etc don’t feature much in the high arts.
    OK, you say, people were wrong up to the late 20th century, but now we’re inclusive and multi-cultural, now it’s all good and you can’t complain — good art is good art. But that also doesn’t work — anyone who has the slightest knowledge of _Fountain_ or _4’33″ of Silence_ knows that high art in the 20th century became a kind of extremely elaborate in-game, where the opinions of a chosen few (NOT some sort of innate “quality”) became the determinant of what does or does not count as “real” art. When Duchamp and his insider friends call something art, when Cage and his insider friends call something music, their opinions count — and honestly, that’s the only way you can view the situation at the time and the subsequent history. It’s about insider vs outsider status.

    What we have had in the art world is very much the same as what you see in the fashion world, or in the world of names. Those at the top of society wish to proclaim their superiority by difference — different art, different fashion, different names — from those below them. Of course, in a year (fashion) to a few years (names) to a decade (art), ‘oi polloi have caught up, and so the wheel spins and something new is au courant. Look at that “au” there. There is a reason “high” fashion and “high” art are named the same way.
    When this is the social dynamic, it is neither surprising that the middle-brows fight back by saying “I deny your ability to make judgements for me”. We see the same thing, for example, in every civil rights struggle, the black, the woman, the gay saying “I deny the value of your opinions”. Why be surprised to see it happen here?
    And why be surprised that it is exploited for political purposes?

    I keep returning to this because I really do think the current artistic canon is very limited, stupidly limited, and the way it is taught and treated is profoundly destructive. I think the visual arts, especially in the last thirty years have done a pretty good job, through high school, through college, and through society, of saying “There is a huge world out there of interesting visual material. Try to become acquainted with all of it, and then figure out which of it you like.” There is much less hectoring than there used to be, and, for the most part (though you still get your “OMG, Damien Hirst is SO 2007″ pricks), there is an acceptance that I will love Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, while not caring much for Mondrian, you think differently, and neither of us is worse for that.

    In literature we see far less of this. Instead we have this sort of attitude that “Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, and if you think otherwise, you are just an idiot” — and, yes, I personally would go so far as to say that I loathe Shakespeare. Stephen King is worse? Well I’m not a particular Stephen King fan, but I could spin a story of how King creates a world view in _The Dark Tower_ series that is every bit as all encompassing as Shakespeare’s reflection of the Elizabethan world view of humors, astrology and alchemy. Why not go on about something like the Ramayana instead — way more interesting world-view, and just as unconnected with reality? Likewise all these ridiculous claims, that Shakespeare’s view of tragedy with the tragically flawed hero is the only way to structure drama, that he invented the modern personality, etc etc.

    I suspect that if literature (especially as taught in high school) were to become as eclectic, as generous of spirit, as willing to accept that there are many things both worth doing and hard to do well — and writing GOOD rap lyrics or Leonard Cohen style lyrics are some of them — then within a generation much of this elitism tack in the culture wars would lose its salience. (Just like nowadays sneering at espresso may appeal to the absolute lowest hicks, but gets little traction beyond that; whereas mocking the arts, I think, still has a lot more salience).

  15. says

    Oh, should have added. The reason literature is so important here is that language really does form our individual and collective souls. Language politics is always bitter and divisive. And the way literature is taught, with this very narrow canon and unwillingness to see the huge varieties of language skills is no different from any other sort of exclusion — it’s saying that a certain small group are the genuine citizens of this society, and everyone else, the people who don’t get it, are second class citizens.

  16. CharlesWT says

    Maynard, great essay. Thanks!

    [...]
    Pulitzer Prize winner Quindlen had given voice to the Cultural Sputter of the
    bien-pensant, a well-known reaction afflicting people of taste forced to live in a world of vulgarities. It’s an act with a very long pedigree. Eighteenth-century aristocrats by the palaceful were appalled when professional writers first appeared. Writing in exchange for money, they thought, would be the ruin of letters. John Ruskin, King of Victorian Sputterers, couldn’t stand Rembrandt because the Dutch master’s paintings lacked “dignity”: All those paintings of self-satisfied, bulbous-nosed burghers made Ruskin gag.

    The sputter is endlessly adaptable. A notorious space-age version choked Norman Mailer half to death. He was watching astronaut Alan B. Shepard walking on the moon in 1971, when Shepard suddenly took out a secretly stowed golf club and launched a drive at the lunar horizon. Mailer was spiritually mortified. Humankind should have been humbled, literally on its knees, as it entered the cathedral of the universe; instead it drove golf balls through its windows. What’s the matter with people? Give them infinity, and they make it a fairway. Give them liberty, and they reach for a Lucky. Or they go shopping.
    [...]

    In Praise of Vulgarity: How commercial culture liberates Islam — and the West

  17. Benny Lava says

    Another way of thinking about it is that we tend to think of arts funding rather than supporting artists. For example Yglesias thinks tax exemptions for supporting “the arts” is the way to fund art, rather than just saying artists should pay no taxes as they do in Ireland*. Don’t you think the latter is a more efficient way of supporting the arts?

    *Ireland has recently changed artists’ income from completely tax free to now taxed with the first 125k tax free.
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/1015/1224281155909.html

  18. Michael O'Hare says

    I think treating artists as though they are children or incapable of creating value like all other working people or as some sort of priestly privileged class or charity cases is deplorable and insulting. Why should income be tax free just because of occupational status?

  19. Kenneth Almquist says

    With regard to the update: The chart you link to doesn’t entirely support the idea that the music recording industry is in dire straits. Sales are a lot lower than their peak in 2001 but significantly higher than they were in 1985 when the CD was introduced. And the general shape of the sales curve, though not the actual values, was easily predictable in 1985. CD’s were superior to new technology, so people would buy them to replace vinyl and tape, but since CD’s don’t wear out the steady state demand (after the initial surge of buying) would be less than if older recording media were still being used.

    Unless the chart adjusts values for inflation (and I see no indication that it does), then the recording industry is in worse shape than it would appear from the chart. So I’d like to see a chart with inflation-adjusted values before I drew any strong conclusions. It would also be interesting to see a chart showing gross profit (sales minus manufacturing costs), again adjusted for inflation.

  20. says

    Maynard, I think I agree with most of what you are saying. I agree that decrying elitism works as a political strategy. But I think it’s cynical, and if anything promotes a very specific kind of “hollow” elitism. By this I mean the usual stereotypes of elitists as liberals. I guess my main point I’ve been trying to get at is that there is nothing inherently elitist about having expertise in cultural or philosophical traditions that happen to have historically been aligned with the upper classes. (I made a terrible mistake earlier in referencing Stephen King – I should have chosen a Dean Koontz or Danielle Steele, where the reader has no real literary expertise and does not desire it. I think somewhere in my unconscious I was drawing from a subtle debate regarding the place of a King in the literary canon, talk about putting your foot in a can of worms! In my defense, I’m a huge music fan and have offended more than a few would-be critics with my praise of Shania Twain’s songwriting.)

    This is all very complex and I’ll need much more rumination before saying anything interesting. But let me leave you with this: bring it back to the question of government sponsored arts, some real-world examples might fill out some of my original case for, if anything, framing arts funding as populist. Museum subsidies, theater subsidies, NPR, college radio, etc. all provide enormous benefit to every member of the community, while supporting the often risky and sacrificial lifestyles artists must often choose. I have many friends who have been – still are – your classic “starving artist”. They all have day jobs, yet have poured their souls into making art, and thus made sacrifices elsewhere in their lives. Their art is generally “non-mainstream”, or uncommercial. Even if they wouldn’t see much income from government funding, the public would have more access to it. This is often a problem for art that is outside the mainstream, or “difficult”. Public support of curation and exhibition can be invaluable in bringing these forms to a broader audience. This would seem to be the anti-thesis of elitism.

    OK, last thought blast: there’s got to be something deeper going on psychologically with anti-elitism and art. There’s something of a fundamentalist mentality to it, in the sense that art is associated with liberalism, which is associated with modernity and threat to traditional values. It is interesting that you brought up historical exclusion. Exclusion has been so much a part of the American mythos – even as we have excluded our own people. To be American is both to be excluded and yet exceptional. It has been said that there is no dirtier word in America than class. We don’t want to admit to it, yet is stings us. And what is “elitism” but the use of a sort of “class card”. It is real, but at the same time a sort of forgery, and one that can’t be mentioned by name. The working class has been excluded from arugulla, museums, literary criticism, gender politics, etc. But those things aren’t necessarily exclusive – or they don’t have to be. Yet they happen to be things, ideas that are nurtured and germinate in academia, the ivory tower that is indeed exclusive. The fact that universities are bastions of liberalism is neither an accident nor a fact lost on the many who feel left behind culturally and economically. So in a way, liberalism has been foisted on its own petard – it has allowed itself to be associated with economic privilege, even if that is not generally the case, and liberals are not necessarily more affluent.

  21. Benny Lava says

    Why should income be tax free just because of occupational status?

    What is the difference between that and making funding art bureaucracies tax free? The goals are the same, but one is less efficient at producing artwork. Your knee jerk reaction about being “insulted” tells me that you haven’t really thought this through.

  22. Michael O'Hare says

    I’m not insulted, I think it’s insulting to artists. And I’m not especially interested in producing artwork; I’m interested in people consuming artwork. Anything that’s made and not seen or heard is to a first approximation a waste.

  23. Benny Lava says

    Why do you think it is insulting to artists? Your making a purely emotional argument, not an empirical one, which is why I don’t think you’ve actually thought this through. People can’t consume artwork if none is produced. Why would you assume that more artwork is consumed through an income tax deduction rather than an income tax cut? Do you have any evidence? And is there any quality/quantity tradeoffs?

    Again, I suggest you think about this rather than simply making a base emotional argument about “insults”.

  24. says

    Eli,
    I think we’ve pushed this about as far as it can go. One last thing, however.

    “Even if they wouldn’t see much income from government funding, the public would have more access to it.”
    You are committing here the classic error (which honest conservatives, the two of the that still exist in America) constantly complain about — conflating results with means that are merely CLAIMED to give those results.
    In this particular case, the issue is that, all over America there are museums with HUGE collections in storage, which are made available to the public once in ten years if that. Yet museums (and those who fund them) do nothing to ameliorate this situation, as I understand it because of a combination of the way the vanity factor works in how art works are endowed to museums, and the way the tax codes and such work.

    I don’t know the details of this issue, but I do read Felix Salmon who has mentioned it frequently and angrily, as a classic example of “proof” as it were that endowers are feeding their vanity and trying to impress their friends, and, regardless of what they may claim, they actually don’t give a damn about “universal access to art, blah blah blah”. If this particular issue interests you, I’d urge you to go read his blog.
    (I guess the best you can do is do a google search on something like Felix Salmon art museum, and read the first thirty or so hits that come up; I’m afraid I can’t give a better pointer than that.)

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