I don’t know for sure that I’ve ever made it clear here what I think about public (government) sector arts funding. I might have, but like I said, I’m not sure. So, I want to make as clear a statement on the issue as I can.
I’m agnostic about public funding of the arts.
I used to be someone who would offer a full-throated defense of Public Sector Funding of the Arts (PSFA) at the slightest provocation. A powerful case can be made for PSFA, and I’ve made it before and, when confronted with certain arguments against it, I’m willing to make it again.
Back in 2007, an Op-Ed piece in the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat (for which I wrote concert music criticism at the time) railed against PSFA in terms everyone with an interest in the subject has seen innumerable times: I don’t want my tax money spent on art I find offensive; I could do some of that stuff PSFA pays for; if its any good the market will support it; we can’t afford it (more on that one later).
My response, which the Democrat printed, went along the usual lines of return-on-investment, enrichment, etc.:
A . . . direct argument for public funding of the arts might go something like this: A culture expresses and communicates what it really is, for itself and its posterity, through its art. In a market-driven society such as ours, the best-seller lists, box office receipts, and top 40 offer one version of our artistic output. Public financing of artistic work can offer another perspective, one that is not market-driven and wholly subject to the desires of the buyer.
My thinking on the subject started to change
when I read Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
. From my review
This triptych of chapters [covering 1933-1945], one each on music in Stalin’s Soviet Union, FDR’s America, and Hitler’s Germany, shows what can happen when politics becomes entwined with art. Ross doesn’t specifically make an argument against government funding of the arts, but these are, at the very least, cautionary tales. These chapters abound with villains, but there are no heroes.
I explored this area further in an interview
with Mr. Ross in the same issue of The High Hat
SDH (me): Right after I finished reading the central triptych concerning music under Stalin, FDR, and Hitler, a friend played a passage from Ottorino Respighi’s Feste Romane (to illustrate a point about cymbal technique). I could barely stand to listen to it — after what I had just finished reading, it sounded like fascism. I’ve gotten past that since then, and I was wondering if you had any similar experiences while you were working on this project.
AR: I have a difficult time listening to one recording in my collection — a performance of Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag in Vienna that Hitler actually attended. It’s one of Strauss’s least inspired works; you can sense him trying to find his place in Nazi culture. It’s also hard to deal with the music that Shostakovich wrote for the scene “Stalin’s Garden” in The Fall of Berlin. But in general I don’t believe that music is “stained” by the events that surrounded its creation. It can always be reshaped in listeners’ minds — bent toward good or ill or back toward good again.
SDH: Another thing that struck me after reading that middle section and for the rest of the book is what seems to be an incredible irony that continues to haunt us today. The Soviets, especially, demanded that their composers produce music that was close to the people, music that was accessible. This was also the case in other totalitarian countries, in the East and the West. The irony comes with the fact that music that is produced in response to the desires of the audience, or more ominously, in response to the market, similar in style and stance to that required by totalitarian governments. Do you agree with this? If so, what, if anything, do you think it means?
AR: This is more or less true, and it’s a haunting fact, but I don’t read too much into it. Totalitarian dictatorships are those that submit to the will of one ruler, and if the ruler’s taste is that of an ordinary music-lover, then naturally the music he demands from talented composers will appeal to ordinary music-lovers everywhere. However, I think it’s a mistake to believe, as many advocates of modernist music have suggested over the years, that there is something deeply amiss with the kind of mural-like populist composition pursued by Copland, Shostakovich and others during the 30s and 40s simply because totalitarian regimes appropriated that aesthetic. Again it’s that logic of the “taint” or “stain” that I reject.
At the beginning of the Public Broadcasting System’s (PBS) recent telecast of the Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams’ Nixon in China
, during the recitation of the funders, the slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was read:
A great nation deserves great art.
This slogan crystallized my current thinking about PSFA. It, PSFA, is always beneficial to the nation/state/county/city doing the funding. Always. Period. In purely economic terms the return on investment is impressive—most analyses show that for every dollar spent on PSFA between 6 and 18 dollars of economic activity are generated.
PSFA (even on a minimal level, which is all we’ve ever done) allows TV slogan readers to say things like “A great nation”, etc., with a minimally straight face.
The problems with PSFA for the arts themselves are well-known, if not always exactly agreed upon:
- Projects funded are too high-profile or too big or too well-known—how many regional opera companies (for example) could mount productions with the money the NEA provides the Met?
- Projects funded are too low-profile or obscure—shouldn’t funding go to events more people will see?
- There is too much emphasis on re-creation (performance, etc.)/dissemination of existing works, not enough on creation of new works.
- There is too much emphasis on giving money to individual artists to create art, not enough to bringing art to audiences through performance or dissemination.
- Too much money goes to people with connections or to prominent institutions.
- Not enough money goes to people with connections—I voted for this so my husband could get funded.
- The imprimatur conferred by government funding stamps the work as the art of the establishment—a tool of the Man.
- Too much money goes to artists who question the foundations of our system.
- The art produced isn’t worthy because it wasn’t subject to the rigors of the marketplace.
- Well, I could have done that.
Again, all of these issues are problems for the art world, not for the funding entity. The funders still benefit from the funding, regardless of which of the above factors come into play. These factors can, however, be serious problems for art, calling into question, at least for me, the value to art of PSFA.
There are benefits to the arts in all of this, without a doubt, but are they worth it? I really don’t know.
On the other hand, there is one area where PSFA is absolutely essential: Education. On every level. Students, from pre-K through (at least) undergraduate should receive meaningful training in the arts.
I’m not an educator, by any means, so I don’t have clear ideas about how this should be done, but there are people who do, and we should give them the resources to figure it out, test, and implement their findings.
Florida State University
has one of the leading, strongest set of arts programs in the United States
. The problems and possibilities listed above are all in play there. Every year, the University sponsors an arts festival that, for me, embodies the problems with PSFA—the roster consists largely of middlebrow acts designed to appeal to an affluent middlebrow audience, and to meet them in their comfort zone.
On a day-to-day basis during the academic year, and to a lesser extent during the summer, FSU and dozens of other institutions like it provide a thorough, ongoing festival of art in all its variety. Hundreds of performances, countless lectures and presentations, and numerous exhibitions (and, on the FSU campus at least, an impressive collection of sculpture around the campus)
make these institutions ready loci of arts education. Let’s find a way to use them, to systematically extend the art making into the rest of the community, region, state, and nation. This will take funding, to figure out exactly what is to be done, how to do it, and to get it done.
I was tempted to end the previous paragraph with: “And do it we must.” But we know that in today’s environment, we aren't compelled. We can’t afford it, we’re told about everything except war and upward redistribution of wealth through the tax code. We’re in a “budget crisis”. Well, that’s just a lie. It isn’t true. The money is there. In fact, the money is there for anything we as a nation want to do. It just so happens that right now we want to fight unending wars and shovel money to those with money already. On the one side we have politicians who cut arts funding during a made up budget crisis, knowing the cuts won’t make a difference in the budget (because the amount is so small), but being too cowardly to make the cuts they want to make during more clearly flush times. And on the other we have a feckless opposition, who bend to the first because they want to be seen as “serious” by an out-of-touch corporate media.
John Adams, the President, not the guy who composed an opera about a President, wrote his wife, Abigail:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
Looking at this as a blueprint for America
’s future is sad, because it’s difficult not to conclude that we are still on step one, and that we are there by choice. We’re in a struggle for what we are to be as a nation, and I’m finding that there really are
no agnostics in foxholes. “A great nation deserves great art”? Maybe, but that seems inadequate at this point in history—a great nation needs