WOID XX - 01-03.
I met a cultureworker from an antique land, who said:
"A few years back the Staatskulturministerium cut our funding and told us we had to balance our budget, no mean task when you run a small archive documenting an adult education program whose glory days were the first half of the Twentieth Century. Then, during a renovation, workmen discovered a pile of photographs: glass plates, thousands of them, many hand-colored, most over a hundred years old—we're still not done cataloguing. These glass plates are our capital. From them we issue glossy books that sell well, and we balance our budget. We mount thematic shows all over the country - the books sell even better."
The Staatskulturministerium must be feeling confused: Wasn't the original, operating assumption that Culture can't pay for itself?
No such confusion here in New York City.
New York City Opera's finally leaving the monster 2,600-seat theater it's been saddled with at Lincoln Center for over forty years. This has to mean the end for City Opera: for it is a fact universally acknowledged by the New York Times, the wealthy patrons, the trustees and cultural administrators (in sum, the mass of hacks and artcrats that make up the cultural-financial establishment) that an opera company cannot survive without being burdened with a clunker of an opera house along with crippling operating costs, not to mention corporate and Government funding.
You see, the masses are just not interested in Culture—I put the masses in italics because the New York Times seems to be the only journal that can print "the masses" with a straight typeface. New York City Opera needs donors like David Koch, the hyper-reactionary businessman who recently put down a pile of money to rename the Lincoln Center theater after himself - the same building City Opera's leaving. (Koch and New York City's government jointly contributed to the reconstruction for which Koch is now distinguished; the Government paid to privatize the People's theater, in name as well as in deed.)
The same illogic rules among European artcrats, who have nothing left to learn from the Americans because they've learned nothing anywhere else. You see, says Henri Loyrette, head administrator of the Louvre, "without corporate donors we'd have nothing but commercially viable shows." (« Sans les fonds privés, que des expos commerciales. ») Translation from the Capitalese, the Esperanto of the Clueless:
if the Louvre didn't chase after corporate donors they'd be forced to put on shows that promise to be commercially successful (meaning shows that appeal to the masses), as opposed to chasing after corporate donors, which would guarantee shows that chalk up a deficit, and that's good because chasing after the masses is pandering; chasing after wealthy donors is showing due deference.
Since Culture to the business boys means That Which Must be Funded, any group that threatens The Mission has to be marginalized or coopted, any group that threatens to contribute to culture (that is, to create a culture that escapes the control of the self-promoted owners of the capital called cultural) is a threat. Getting David Koch, one of the most despised people in America, to put his name on your theater is a brilliant way to keep your average liberal New York concertgoer away. As one ex-subscriber put it, that's like asking a Jew to attend a concert in the Goebbels Coliseum. In America, in France and elsewhere, the artcrats operate from the premiss that Culture can't pay for itself. Except that it's not a premiss, it's a TINA: There Is No Alternative. Not a premiss, then, but an operating principle, an artcrat's mission, at Lincoln center and elsewhere. Of course the Louvre, unlike Lincoln Center, is not likely to go bankrupt in any form or fashion; but as the French like to say, Qui veut noyer son chien l'accuse de gaspillage: any shtick will do to beat a dog.
Now let'em pay." That's pretty much how William Schuman, the first President of Lincoln Center, put it to the businessmen who'd set up the whole, idiotic place; but Schuman was a composer, not a businessman: he thought the Rockefellers had structured Lincoln Center as a money-gobbling clunker by accident or by mistake. Lincoln Center, in fact, was built in order to create a deficit, and to keep the masses out. The two goals are not antithetical, they're part and parcel of the same philosophy—or did you think New York's construction industry exists to house people? That the purpose of the mortgage industry is to help folks buy their homes?
If everybody had housing there's be no need for unbridled construction; and if everybody could afford their home there'd be no need for ballooning mortgages. If every Italian organ grinder could appreciate Caruso what would be the point of having an exclusive seat at the Opera? Oh, right: Caruso had a maddening habit of performing for his appreciative paisan' down in the Village; and the uptown hoitytoity hate it when others try to cut in on their act, whether it's a cultural act, or economic.
Exclusion, co-optation; co-optation, exclusion.
The Rockefeller Famiglia built Rockefeller Center, consciously, as an employment project during the Great Depression: a rich man's WPA to compete with the other WPA, complete with its Diego Rivera mural of heroic workers, until the artist had been co-opted and compromised and Rivera was tossed out, his murals blasted off the wall, allegedly for including Lenin in the picture, the head of the competing corporatist philosophy. Lincoln Center was built along the same lines, by the Rockefellers also, as an alternative to the WPA of Culture; its purpose, as with Rivera and the WPA, was at once to co-opt and to exclude, and make a buck no matter what. Culture was, and is, a moneymaker, just as derivatives and bonds are, and like derivatives and bonds it doesn't bring in money by creating and distributing goods, it creates money by controlling the system that distributes goods or operas, whether producing or destroying. In a system of purely symbolic exchanges the means of production are the mechanism of distribution itself: I wonder if Adam Smith's old friend David Hume ever thought of that.
Culture has two mommies:
She Who Creates and Enforces Monopolies on Cultural Production; and She Who Channels Funding (private or public, no matter), through these same monopoly structures. Richard Nixon, the man who let loose the IMF on its new creative career of global speculation, also massively expanded the National Endowment for the Arts for the same, speculative purpose:
Nixon, to NEA Chair Nancy Hanks: "Er, the main thing is, you've got to make it work, now, you know? Not just get the dough but, you know, get it around, uh?"
Nancy Hanks: "Oh, yes!"
As they say wherever they say it, A dog with a bone in his mouth doesn't bark.
Who says Capitalists don't care about opera?
"players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc. The labour of the meanest of these has a certain value, regulated by the very same principles which regulate that of every other sort of labour; and that of the noblest and most useful, produces nothing which could afterwards purchase or procure an equal quantity of labour." - Adam Smith.
Remember the little pencil in Economics 101? The wittle pencil that wanders through the world to selflessly help out wherever there's a need for pencils? Culture's like that pencil from the capitalist point of view, minus the pencil and the demand: it's all about circulation, and the control of circulation, and that control in all its forms applies as much to the audience for art as to the buyers for pencils. Smith was no more a free-marketer than Friedman: they're both mercantilists hiding their game; they don't find markets, they make 'em; or they destroy them to remake them. Destruam ut aedificabo.
The Destructive Class.
In The German Ideology Marx argued the real model for the artist under capital wasn't some bum in a garret, it was an artist like Horace Vernet who commanded an army of producers, someone like Martha Rosler, Jenny Holzer or Jeff Koons today, whose job is not to come up with ideas, let alone to produce objects, but to organize artistic activity around existing structures; as Klaus Biesenbach puts it (the Director of MoMA-PS1, but you knew that):
That kind of practice is relatively harmless unless you happen to be working backstage at Lincoln Center; unless the goal is to destroy; unless some arteest is brought in to "express" the unspoken needs of capital, and capital today doesn't call for the creation of Culture or the creation or manufacture of anything at all: it calls for the creation of debt.
In the little town of Eisenstadt, in Austria, there's a pretty little house where Josef Haydn lived. It used to be, you'd come to Eisenstadt, of course you're going to see the house where Haydn lived, it's like being in Vienna and visiting Freud's apartment. In Haydn's House there'd be a few displays, reproductions of originals, a garden, then thanks and out again through the gift shop. Now these places all have special exhibitions, multimedia, "creatives" are brought in. Typically, the "hip" display involves a moving projection on the ceiling: does anyone imagine they'll get more visitors to Haydn's House by having it look like a disco? Does anyone imagine they'll get any fewer visitors to the Freud Museum by not bringing in the likes of Martha Rosler? The stated mission is to "appeal to the masses" but the motive is "accumulate debt," and that's an insult to the masses and a boon to the bankers. The whole process is meant to comply with European Union directives and agreements to streamline spending, meaning simultaneously to accumulate debt and cut out spending on the wrong sorts. But how can you show you're curbing spending on a tiny museum in Eisenstadt if the budget there's so small it's covered by a few visitors turning up every day at the cash register which doubles as a gift shop? The pressure is on some provincial museum to buy Martha's latest: supposedly that's going to draw in all the hipsters and balance out the debt; it only makes things worse. This is the moral equivalent of France and Germany pressuring Greece to invest in French and German armaments to get approval for a bailout; as for the aesthetic equivalent of a Martha Rosler installation... I find battleships rather attractive, don't you?.
Meanwhile, Ms. Creative's off to another international adventure; but the curators, the lady at the front desk and all, they're like civil servants in Greece and Minnesota, they could be hearing any day now that their pensions are too high, they've got to be let go, somebody's gotta pay for all those disco balls. All that is solid melts into dumb-ass frivolity.
(As I write, there's much talk about these two economists, Vafourakis and Koo, who've pointed out that simultaneous retrenchment in the public sector and credit crises in the private reinforce one another, and it would be best for the European Central Bank to spend more time lending to member countries, and less time punishing them. Economists are so naive: they think what's in the common interest should take precedence over what's to the advantage of some over others. That's like saying it's in the interest of Lincoln Center's owners to attract paying customers and not to drive the place into the ground. Simple Boolean logic can answer that.)
David Harvey should be put to work on this:
Harvey being the economist who writes of "periodic bouts of predatory devaluation of assets" in global capital; who talks about "creative destruction:" You bomb a country to smithereens, then hand out loans to rebuild it, then buy the country back when the loans and the bonds come due. Some still wonder why everybody's beating up on Greece, which until recently had a lower deficit than many other EU countries—Britain, for instance. The answer's obvious: because that's where the money is. Dollfuss and Schuschnigg did not prepare the way for the Nazi annexation of Austria simply by being fascists, they prepared the way through reactionary social policies that cut down on social services and piled up enormous cash reserves, cash the Nazis needed to start World War II. That's the principle behind the Austrian School of Economics: Either you're being killed, or you're being fattened up for the kill, and sometimes both at once.
Remember The Producers? The movie-turned-musical about a couple of crooks who plot to raise money for an expensive musical production that's sure to flop so the investor's money will disappear into their own pockets? Well, Lincoln Center nowadays—much of global Culture nowadays—is like that, minus the "small-time" part, plus the big-time speculators. In 2006 the trustees of City Opera teamed up with some eurogigolo named Mortier who kindly agreed to drive City Opera bankrupt by getting himself appointed at its head and closing down performances for a season while he dipped into the endowment; there ought to be a law—oh, wait, there is a law: the trustees asked the State Attorney General to look the other way. The AG asked, "How far?"
Think of Lincoln Center as another one of those games they set up on the sidewalk: there's a pile of money floating around somewhere, is it under the first cup, or the second, or the third?
Meanwhile, Mortier planned a massive reconstruction of the theater, which allowed David Koch to step up with the money and present himself as the Savior of the People. (And please, folks, let's avoid any facile comparisons to Hitler: when Koch tried to address his own adoring crowds at a performance at least he was booed.) What David plans to do when City Opera goes bankrupt is anybody's guess: buy up the building and turn it into condos? Pass on the contract for rebuilding to his friends? Or simply insist on permanent performances of Godspell?
Hey, it's a living. In culture or in finances these people don't find markets, any more, they destroy them; and if in the process the institution being destroyed is in debt to government largess as well, so much the better: we know how David Koch feels about government interference.
No. It wasn't the ignorant masses that destroyed City Opera. It was Beast that killed the Beauty.
An interesting German expression: it's supposed to mean "civil war," but you could twist it to mean "war of/by/for/involving the middle class," or, if you prefer, the cracks in the facade of cultural politesse. Here is George Steele, the new head of New York City Opera, the man who's been left with the whole bloody financial and social mess at Lincoln Center, in a shit-eating press conference:
I wonder what costs he was referring to. Could it be the cost (the social cost I mean) of the terrible acoustics in City Opera's Lincoln Center theater? The New York Philharmonic across the Plaza has equally bad acoustics, but the Philharmonic solved the problem by hiring Zubin Mehta, the kind of conductor who makes an orchestra sound as if it's playing underwater no matter where he is. Besides, the usual audience for the Philharmonic isn't interested in a new, fresh hearing of anything, they just want their Tchaikovsky to sound like the recording at home. Like the readership of the New York Times' art reviews they're not expected to have opinions, just to clap at the appropriate moment. That's the attitude that inspired a solution to City Opera's own acoustical problem: wire the house so the masses can pay good money to hear the same canned music they get on their i-pods. The Metropolitan Opera's acoustical problem isn't in the acoustics, it's in the fantasy that handing the masses a chance to hear and watch an opera in movie theaters is good enough, they wouldn't know the difference, all that matters is the brand. [Beware what you wish for: the general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, has decided, after three years of theater broadcasts, that the masses are "cannibalizing" his box-office receipts at the "real" Opera. Sure: and they stick bones in their noses...]
Unfortunately the lowly proles who came to City Opera knew the difference; it took ten years for City Opera's management to figure that out, a mere 123 years after Victor Adler, the founder of Austrian Socialism, did:
"Of all the outrages of our current 'order', perhaps the most outrageous is that it excludes the people from the enjoyment of our highest intellectual treasures. But the day will come when our artists will be able to speak to the people, when the veil will fall which separates them from those out of whose hearts they speak, when art will be common property for all who have the intelligence and the emotions to grasp it."
Austrian Socialists had no problem taking Schoenberg to the masses; neither, it seems, does the present management at City Opera. Of course, Schoenberg and such are still a problem at the Met, whose sponsors, not being masses, tend to go for operas with lots of horses in them. Therefore a problem, also, for the artcrats:
Uh, yes, actually, some of us have heard of Schoenberg, and John Zorn, and other such composers that City Opera's started to present, but what do the artcrats care, Culture's how you beat up on the masses, and Lincoln Center is the cudgel. Joe Volpe, former general manager at the Met, has moved beyond his practice of sending out the VoPos (the Volpe Polizei) against the music students, the young, the Schoenberg-lovers at Lincoln Center; now he merely patronizes them:
Translation: The Met's idea of High Culture is endless loops of Tosca and Trovatore; the masses' idea is ... Schoenberg?! 'Fraid so, Joe...
City Opera's break with Lincoln Center means a a Bürgerkrieg has broken out that's been a long time coming; of which renaming the building is just a telling detail. The prancer Paul Taylor has just announced he's moving his eponymous company to "The Koch Theater," and what a pleasure it will be to perform at "The Koch Theater" with all those rich sponsors - Mr. KochSir, for instance. The setup at Lincoln Center was meant to get the "People's Opera" playing the role of the street urchin drooling at the window of a garish candy store called the Metropolitan Opera, and it's a role it couldn't, wouldn't play, and if management would, then the audience wouldn't; but apparently the artcrats will still, even after the People's Opera's gone. Old arselicking habits die hard.
The model of liberal democracy,
according to Adorno, is the theater: Everybody has equal access to a seat, its the placement of the seat that defines the inequalities among us all. This applies, obviously, to Lincoln Center, whose purpose is not to give the masses access to the culture they may have already, but to define the masses in their relationship to the Culture imagined by the upper crust, and even if that Culture's crap to begin with; and that relationship, by the very definition of Culture, must always be such that the masses are external to it. (The Germans define this with more rigor: they draw the distinction between Zivilization and Kultur, between Caruso singing for his buddies in the Village and Caruso singing for his uptown patrons.) Now City Opera gets a chance to become a part again of New York culture, as opposed to remaining a poor cousin of Lincoln Center Kulcha: now begins what David Harvey calls an "anti-dependency movement." The chances for success are slim, indeed, but all the same,
for City Opera: praise. And good luck.
[7/15/2011; last revised 3/16/2013.]