In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Reflections on blogging | Main | American High Culture re-redux; and Continuing Ed: Lawrence Levine »

November 07, 2002

American High Culture Redux


In my last posting on “high” culture in America, I promised to explain where today’s high-cult institutions—museums, symphony orchestras, opera houses, all unified by the practice of scrounging to make up for the inadequate take at the box office—come from. As we saw, the arts in 19th century America were a boisterous, democratic, and very much private sector affair. However, those that hewed closest to their European artistic model, like symphony orchestras and opera houses, were unquestionably fighting an uphill financial battle. The audience for complex, expensive ensemble arts such as these only outnumbered the performers by a ratio of some ten-to-one (in a full house), which made it tough to make money if ticket sales flagged.

Rationally, that may well have been an argument for developing a simpler—i.e., cheaper—style of presentation, but the cultural prestige of the European symphony orchestra and opera company held a potent allure for Americans. It was so potent, in fact, that wealthy European-culture-worshippers, like J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Joseph Pulitzer were willing to subsidize the New York Philharmonic, and Henry Lee Higginson not only founded the Boston Symphony but acted as a guarantor of its debts. I’m offering no criticism of these gentlemen—it was their money and they were certainly free to do as they pleased. (Higginson also had the good taste to sit for John Singer Sargent and got a terrific portrait in return--click on the popup below to check it out.)

John Singer Sargent Portrait of Henry Lee Higginson

However, this was only a stopgap solution to the problem. It was not clear that there would be an endless succession of extremely wealthy art-fanatics who would be willing to spend their money behind the scenes to prop up these institutions. The solution, oddly, was the 1894 income tax law, which included a provision that charitable donations to nonprofit corporations organized for “educational” purposes would be tax-deductible. This presented the wealthy with a choice of paying the government taxes or donating to nonprofit enterprises, which was a choice many less-than-religious supporters of the arts were willing to make--especially if they got to be a certifiable member of the social-cultural elite in return. In short, the income tax provided the incentive, and the nonprofit corporation the vehicle, to broaden the group “supporting” the uneconomic arts.

The biggest givers, while no longer required to assume a heroic burden like that of Mssrs. Morgan or Higginson, got another perk as well: they got control of the enterprise because they sat on the board. These wealthy, prestige-seeking board members, often determined to use their art institution to civilize the masses, had an intensely conservative effect on the material that was actually presented and how it was presented—no more of the wild and wooly hybrids of “low” and “high” art which we saw were financially successful for decades in New Orleans-style opera and on the vaudeville stage. No, by jingo, we were all going to take our “high” culture straight. So much for giving the customer (the American public) what they wanted.

Of course, that's not all the story behind "high" culture in America. In my next posting, I'll introduce two additional factors: real estate developers and universities.



posted by Friedrich at November 7, 2002


Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?