XIX-27. Jobs for Art Folk

The jokes that pass for cultural criticism in the mass media ought to be treated as the jokes they are: they should be numbered so that the passionate defenders and critics of Culture can simply give out the code instead of engaging with issues. Take what passes for debate over including “The Arts” in the Federal stimulus bill:

Conservative: 572!
[Translation: Museums and art centers? That’s jes’ pork for Eastern Establishment snobs an’ limo lib'ruls.]

Liberal: Oh, yeah? Well, 465!
[Translation: Museums and art centers are good for business - the business of folks like us.]

At bottom the debate is like a dada joke in which question and answer fly past each other without making contact: How many artists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? – Rhinoceros! The real question here should be not how much, but what, and how? What effect has Government funding of the arts had so far, and how could Government improve on the effects it wants and minimize the negatives? How does this funding compare to Government funding of bridges and buildings, not only in terms of where the money flows but in terms of clearly defined goals for America’s cultural well being? Because what distinguishes America from most other countries in the realm of Culture isn’t the amount the Government spends on the arts, it’s the lack of a cogent cultural policy. (Having worked for a French government-sponsored cultural institution, let me amend that to read the lack of a cultural policy and skip the cogency.) The question to be asked about the stimulus bill isn’t whether more or less money flows through the usual channels, it's the degree to which this flow reinforces the social policies of the past or serves to reinvent new, more effective social policies. In Washington, though, and in the media, the argument has been reduced to the usual, predictable conflict between freebooting conservatives for whom there is no need for social policies of any sort, and "progressives" for whom social policies are acceptable only as far as they're good for business.



And since we’re on the topic of lack of cogency, let me pass along this pearl, an amendment proposed to the stimulus bill by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma:

None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.

Coburn inserted the bit about museums and art centers into the original House Bill; they were eventually thrown out again, though not before the Senate voted for Coburn's amendment by a whopping 73 to 24, with a large number of art-loving Democrats voting it in. As the Portland-based artficionado Bob Hicks put it, Coburn may be a fool, but he’s a canny fool — he knows how the system works, and he knows how and when to manipulate it.

I have no idea what was on the mind of the 23 lonely souls who voted against the Coburn Amendment, but I have a good idea why it was voted in to begin with. Coburn doesn’t know beans about cultural policy, but he knows what he doesn’t like, and what he doesn’t like is something no one wants to like in Washington, least of all the big art guns: a cultural policy consistent with a progressive social policy. American liberals, who seem so fond of pointing to other governments' support of the arts, would rather not notice that amenities like theaters, arts center, and even, I suppose, golf courses, are considered by progressive sociologists (and even progressive administrations), to be crucial to a healthy economy, not merely because they create jobs or encourage business, but because, by making pleasures and privileges available to all, they remove the stigmatization that holds workers and others back. This is the point so poignantly made by W.E.B. Du Bois at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk in his story of a talented, educated African American who goes to listen to Wagner and, much as he loves the music, flees from the theater and takes the next train back South: he’s been made to understand that this is not for him. This is the theory implicitly ridiculed in the Coburn amendment, and implicitly rejected, therefore, by three quarters of the Senate. When the right-wing National Review sneers that now The unemployed can fill their days attending abstract-film festivals and sitar concerts, the truly progressive answer is Yes, and not just the unemployed! And not just abstract films but square dancing and quilting bees, too!


In his 1974 book, Popular Culture and High Culture, Herbert Gans underscored the divides created around High Culture in the ‘sixties from students, women, blacks and other unequally treated populations, and from a rising dissatisfaction with economic inequality among Middle Americans whose expectations for a higher standard of living have been frustrated by the combined recession-inflation which began in the late 1960s. Culture, from one side of the divide, meant what blacks call Jobs for White Folk, ghetto shorthand for the Welfare system, the Board of Education, and so forth. On the other side, among frustrated blue-collars, it meant Jobs for Black Folk, jobs for those who weren’t entitled to them for reasons that needed no saying. Now, fifty years later and only weeks after Obama’s rousing refutation of a culture of stigmatization and punishment in his inaugural speech, the Pelosis and Schumers and the rest of the Culture Crowd are reintroducing stigmatization through the front door of Culture. Here is another liberal blogger on a liberal blog, where else:

A concept that's important here is that of positive externalities. A park or a museum or a theater or an art center is a positive externality for the community it resides in. It brings in tourists and gets them to spend money. The museum or theater or art center doesn't get all the money, but the community does and is richer for it. And, for the record, the original New Deal spent a good chunk of money on both the arts... and parks.

Or, to quote Kate Levin, New York's Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, who has been vibrantly silent about New Yorker's right to free admissions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the [arts] organization is functioning. Nice to know she's got her priorities straight.

The thought that the "community" might actually get something out of the museum or theater, beyond a job as a parking-lot attendant, does not even occur to these people, because if it did they'd have to ask to what degree the museum as it's presently planned and built and managed works to stigmatize and isolate - hey, isn't that what High Culture's for? The elites, the enlightened, the chosen by an elite panel at the NEA? And doesn't competition for an art prize or grant serve the general welfare, just like any other rat race? The Culture Industry is the mere mirror industry of all other industries: stigmatization through reverse stigmatization, privilege through exclusion. That’s probably why the golf courses were dropped from the final version of the stimulus bill, but museums are back in: it’s a hell of a lot easier for an amateur golfer to get on the links than for an amateur painter to get her paintings up on a museum wall. It’s not the existence of High Culture that Government needs to protect; it’s a democratic access to Culture.

Even a broken progressive tells the truth twice a book: in Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America, Paul Gorman argued that the liberal elites never abandoned their [...] convictions about the essential rightness of hierarchical cultural categories. The problem isn't the conservatives who reject all funding for arts, because they're hopeless and a shrinking minority, and have never managed, or even much cared about, defunding Art. It's the liberals who will defend Culture only to the extent that they can defend it against conservatives, and whose argument boils down to: good for business - and business of a certain kind at that. Their philosophy of culture? To paraphrase Brecht, Taste is like your civil rights; everybody can have it, it's just that not everybody can afford it.



Liberal proponents of Government funding of the arts point to the WPA, but they forget that there were two very distinct programs of arts funding launched at the beginning of the Roosevelt Administration: the first, which is very much like the plans of the present and the future and the recent past, tried to funnel money directly to “meritorious” artists, the merit to be determined by the usual artcrats, senators, and such. The second, the WPA, argued from the premiss that artists are workers like everyone else and, since everyone’s entitled to an honest day’s work, then artists are, too, being workers. Under Roosevelt, the idea was that those who produce culture were deserving of a job under the same conditions and the same program as ditch-diggers and parking-lot attendants: a job was a right, and so was culture; no less, no more. Then again, one WPA administrator insisted artists should have a time clock in the studio to make sure they were creating, nine-to-five with a break for lunch.

Likewise, today the real fear among liberals and conservatives is not that artists will be treated like workers, but that workers might be treated like artists: That’s probably what the nomen-omen Congressman from Wisconsin, David Obey, meant when he said of Obama’s stimulus bill, We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.

Treated like shit, in other terms. It's the solution that's the problem.