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February 08, 2008

A Quick Rant

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Steve wonders about the most important Americans where culture and art go. It's a fun and provocative posting. In my comment on it, I headed off at a bit of a tangent and babbled my way into incoherence. But I was pleased with myself anyway. Here's my comment

Fun, as ever.

Still, this phrase -- "There's an obvious high culture / academic orientation to the lists" -- makes me want to say, "Hell, yeah. And that's a major problem, particularly where the American arts go."

Look (I'm addressing myself to Charles Murray, I guess, or to scholars, or something): America has *seldom* been fabulously strong where high culture is concerned.

We've had a few moments and a few peaks. But our high culture has mostly been strained and tight -- it has mostly represented a striving in the direction of Euro ideals. And since we seldom feel as entitled to "culture" as the Euros do, we seldom enter into and flourish there in similar ways.

Our market, if you will, for high culture has always been a skimpy and beleaguered one, and the art we've produced for it has almost always reflected that fact. In fact, we often seem to spend more time complaining about how Americans don't care about fine art than we do actually creating and enjoying the stuff.

On the other hand, where the popular, commercial and folk arts go (as well as homegrown eccentrics, and one-of-a-kinds, and make-it-up-as-they-go types), we're perfectly amazing.

The two biggest triumphs of 20th century art? In terms of oomph, scale, reach, and popularity, how can you beat Hollywood-style movies and African-American (and Af-Am-influenced) music? And it's (IMHO) quite something to open up a discussion of American culture while overlooking sitcoms, the blues, standup comedy, rock and hiphop, popular dancing, acting, commercial fiction ...

(Incidentally, I'm obvoiusly ranting here, not addressing anyone in particular, aside from some academically-oriented snobs ...)

But that's always a problem when you let academics and intellectuals define what's meant by culture, isn't it? They're going to tend to treat as "culture" what their idea of "culture" is.

Which means that if they're intellectually-inclined (and what intellectual isn't?) they're going to show a preference for more-rather-than-less intellectual art. And if they're Euro-academically inclined, they're going to think of "culture" as something that's kinda-sorta French, or maybe German.

Which results in the tangle we have: a class of gatekeeper-types who insist on applying Euro-intellectual standards to a culture-verse that doesn't actually have a whole lot to do with Euro-intellectual standards. And who mostly find us lacking. I like Charles Ives myself, but I also think Chuck Berry was a hell of a composer.

Like it or not, we aren't a second-rate Euro-culture. We're our own kooky scene. Or bundle of scenes.

An example of how applying-inappropriate-standards steers people wrong: Someone with a strong conviction that lyric poetry is the truest-purest kind of art there is could look at Ancient Rome and say, "Well, they were kind of weak, weren't they?" And then list some Roman lyric poets who were pretty good as the cream of Roman art.

It seems to me far more reasonable to look at Roman culture and say, "Whoa, take a look at those acqueducts! Would you get a gander at that Colisseum!" To accept Roman culture for what it was, on its own terms. Ancient Roman culture wasn't much about individual expression or lyric poetry, in other words, where it had mucho to do with brawny engineering projects.

Nothing wrong with saying, "Hey, I like lyric poetry a lot, it's really important to me. And large-scale engineering projects don't move me. So there isn't much in Ancient Roman culture that does a lot for me." But that's very different than trying to force Ancient Roman culture into a lyric-poetry-is-the-highest-of-all-arts template.

Similarly, American culture doesn't really have all that much to do with Euro-intellectual-style high art. We often pretend we do; we often discuss Am-cult in those terms. (Hence the NYTimes' insane obsession with "literary fiction.") And our picture of American culture gets all distorted when intellectuals and academics try to jam it into a Euro-intellectual template.

But where commercial and folk art and entertainment go -- well, we fuckin' rock. Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, John Huston, Buster Keaton, The Marvelettes, James M. Cain, Bette Davis, Townes Van Zandt, the Nicholas Brothers, R.L. Burnside ... That's a hard to beat list of individual creators.

And how about Motown, zydeco, Gold Medal Books, Mad magazine, Warner Brothers cartoons, the Austin alt-country world, L.A.-style "cool" jazz, New England town squares, Charleston, S.C., skateboard-punk style ... That's a hard to beat list of group creations.

Incidentally: Nothing wrong with saying "I really like Euro-intellectual art, and the commercial and folk arts of the U.S. don't do a lot for me." But that's very different than imposing on U.S. culture a Euro-intellectual template.

FWIW, my list of "great" and influential American artists and culture-achievements would obviously be huuuuuuuugely different from the list that critics and academics tend to come up with. (For one thing, it would include Florenz Ziegfeld, Bert Williams, Big Daddy Roth, W.C. Fields, Carole Lombard, Bob Fosse, Fanny Brice, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mort Drucker, Donald Westlake, Bo Diddley, and Mae West.) I think it'd be a whole lot more fun than the usual critic-academic list, a whole lot more reflective of the actual nature of American culture, and a whole lot more accurate about what we've produced that has shown influence and "legs."

So far as literature goes? Well, it doesn't hurt to keep in mind that the people making the lists are -- despite their solemnity and pretentions -- just a bunch of people who have English degrees. They're just eggheads who read too much, for better and/or worse. They might or might not have a little something to contribute to the larger conversation. But it's fine to disagree with them. For one thing: In many cases they were the people in your English class back in college who were kinda boring and dull.

By the way, I like high culture fine. I'm just not going to be someone who looks at Ancient Rome and says, Gee, a little weak on the lyric poetry, no?

In semi-related news: Thursday comes up with a Steve Sailer theory of conspiracies; Steve responds here and here. Thanks to Thursday for pointing out this Megan McArdle posting about the gold standard. One of the feisty and brainy commenters in the long and interesting commentsthread is Mencius.



posted by Michael at February 8, 2008


nothing the euros have done entertainment-wise in the 20th century could compare to the genius that is bugs bunny.

see: eurovision.

Posted by: roissy on February 8, 2008 3:36 PM

Interestingly, much of the great American pop culture pre-1950s was created by European immigrants steeped in Euro high culture, Bugs Bunny included. I cant think of a better example of this than Billy Wilder, probably the greatest American movie director ever.

I think the great genius of America is its ability to foster an environment where people can realize their nutty dreams.

Posted by: JV on February 8, 2008 4:21 PM

The NYT's coverage of literary fiction is an "insane obsession"?
Uh, ok. As if there's a million other outlets of that caliber.

I agree that the brilliant vital American pop culture is just as valid as European "high" culture. You mention Hollywood and African-American music, and I absolutely agree.

But this is really speaking idealistically of the 20th century, nostalgically and with rose-tinted glasses. Today, Hollywood pumps out trite crap that insults the intelligence, African American music is mostly represented today by abrasive rap. Vast generalizations but hey, there it is.

So please forgive me if at times I actually do resent the reverse snobbery here- "what's so great about the European art tradition?"

For one thing it's not trying to sell me something. In 2008 I can see some very original art on the Internet by people like Olaf Eliasson (actually better experienced), or dozens of other European artists whose societies actually appreciate what they do.
This article is sort of funny- since this site is sort of right-ish and boot-strappy and compassionate conservative blah blah.

Well you've got what you wanted, where arts funding and education is slashed to the bone or nonexistent in the US.
Art here is what makes the bucks, and what makes the buck rules. And what rules is the crap you hear on the radio or see at the mall cineplex.

Suck it up, stop whining about cultural inferiority complex- it's richly deserved. In 2008, proclaiming the glories of MGM and Motown - all true but nothing to do with today, right now.

And right now, we have the culturally benighted consumer society, hostile and stingy when it comes to the arts, that we deserve.

Posted by: Arun on February 8, 2008 7:18 PM

Mort Drucker? Egad, sir! A mere shadow of Wallace Wood and Jack Davis, I say.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 9, 2008 9:39 AM

There are other areas than popular art that tend to get ignored in these kinds of lists. I believe one of the most influential Americans of recent decades is Kenneth Cooper, whose book Aerobics helped spawn the running boom, itself a huge social phenomenon, and just as importantly, helped insinuate into the American mind that having low body fat and high maximal oxygen uptake is the key to fitness and health. His revolution has had a real impact on how Americans live, and most importantly, how they feel and what they value.

Posted by: PatrickH on February 9, 2008 10:28 AM

Great post, mb. I was going to expand on it but then I reread it and realized you had said it all. Our folk and popular art is where our soul lives, and it's our best art. One thing you realize when you get deeply into European high art is that it is great because it is relaxed, passionate, and engaged the same way our pop art is. Until recently, it was not alienated from the mainstream of European culture (and reflected that culture's aristocratic hierarchies in much the same way our pop art reflects democratic ideals).

A few exceptions to the generally "strained" and "tight" nature of American high art:

Mark Twain -- emerged from the world of pop mass culture humor, never had pretensions but just happened to be a genius.

Walt Whitman -- nutty eccentric who was practically a folk artist.

Emily Dickinson -- an eccentric isolate in the folk/primitive art style, but her upbringing in a sophisticated New England culture gave her the vocabulary to be a great poet.

Frank Lloyd Wright -- A megalomaniac who was much too arrogant to ever strain after European anything.

Andy Warhol -- no high art training or ambitions, mix of eccentric and commercial artist who understood the nature of pop before practically anyone else (you'll probably disagree).

There are of course many other great American artists (a number of painters greater than Warhol), but they all show that "tight" quality of straining after a high culture that is not quite native to them.

Posted by: mq on February 9, 2008 1:26 PM

Arun: Without necessarily endorsing the "rightish and boot-strappy" model, I have to ask: Why should any judgment of our society's commitment to the arts be based solely on its level of government funding?

When I browse the online arts calendars of various regional newspapers, I'm impressed and overwhelmed. Within the next few weeks in Fargo, North Dakota, there are two dozen dance events, from a performance by the San Francisco ballet to salsa demonstrations, belly dancing, and square dancing competitions. If you live in Cleveland, in the next seven days you'll have your choice of more than 50 special exhibitions, events, and receptions at local museums. Today in Middlesex County, N.J., you have your choice of 18 museum events, crafts and quilting seminars at local libraries, an animation festival, and more. (Last year, I spoke at the annual book festival in Collingswood, N.J.; I was told that the one-day event attracts an amazing 20,000 people--a figure that refutes the tiresome stereotype of my beloved home state as culturally arid.)

Of course, these are randomly selected examples from places that most Americans don't consider major cultural centers. Here in D.C. this weekend, I can choose from among hundreds of events, including Noh theater, a Shakespeare play, the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe, Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas, the Japanese national ballet, Venezuelan theater, African-American poetry slams...and it appears that I can even see a play satirizing No Child Left Behind. (I can also, if I wish, see Chris Rock or Larry the Cable Guy, or go see a local band.)

Now, some of these events, whether in D.C. or Fargo, probably are partially subsidized by local, county, state, or federal agencies. But if you check out most local or regional arts calendars, the offerings are extensive and also highly diverse--which suggests to me that left to its own devices, the American art-and-culture scene is less about feeling duty-bound to create an official, national arts monoculture and more about developing affinity groups to support niche artistic and cultural interests. Whether their passion is quilting, ballet, Renaissance festivals, folk music, photography, or something else, millions of Americans are clearly spending their free time and disposable income on arts-and-culture events they truly love--many of which are hyper-local and non-commercial.

If arts funding increases, I won't complain. Much of that money will trickle out to local arts groups anyway. But come on: look at how much art our country creates and supports without European-level subsidies. It's remarkable! If arts commissars can't derive joy from that, I'm not sure I want them to be the folks who decide what gets funded in the first place.

Posted by: Jeff on February 9, 2008 5:56 PM

Roissy -- Bugs is certainly one of the major cultural creations of the 20th century!

JV -- Immigrants have created a lot of terrif pop culture since 1950 too. Hmm. But without wanting to take anything away from them and their accomplishments, what tends to strike me a little more is that the native-born sometimes don't get as much credit as they deserve. In many ways the story of American culture was 1) taken over by immigrants and then 2) rewritten by those immigrants in their terms and through their lens. Which is fine, of course, but then again so is pointing this out. Anyway, I'm cooking up a posting about the history of the American musical. Short version: it's usually portrayed as the creation of immigrants -- started very ragtag then eventually streamlined itself into the "Oklahoma"-style "unified" musical. In fact, tons of elements entered the stream that is the musical, including minstrel shows and wild west shows. Immigrants certain added to this (and in many ways then took it over), but it's just wrong to claim that they originated and entirely created the form. Anyway, if you're intrigued and have the time, take a look at this posting, where I rant on about similar things.

Arun -- I wince at a lot of corporate crap myself, and tend to have a personal preference for somewhat quieter, more refined creations than America often comes up with. What can I say, I'm a sensitive guy. But I'll differ with you a bit on two things. 1) Despite all the crap, it seems to me that a lot of things are being created that are pretty amazing, and/or that are likely to be recognized as influential in the future. "South Park" is an example -- it's a pretty incredible achievement. I don't play videogames myself, but clearly a lot of cultural energy and invention go into the field -- I wouldn't be surprised if in 50 years videogames are thought to have been the defining medium of our time, much like movies helped define the 20th century. 2) If you're buying the image that the NYTimes Book Review Section-style is selling about the fiction they cover, then I think you're letting yourself be hoodwinked. The fiction they cover is neither 1) automatically the best fiction out there, or 2) automatically the direct descendent of the "great literature" of the past. In fact, today's "literary fiction" is a microgenre, and is largely the creation of writing schools and the 1970s. Ignoring popular, narrative, and commercial fiction is like running a New York Times Music section without recognizing the existence of folk or popular music. It's snobbish, naive, and bizarre. I wrote a series of postings about this. If you're interested you can get to them all from this posting. By the way, if this matters, I'm not by any means alone in thinking this. There's a substantial minority of people in book publishing who'd largely agree with what I say here. Among them is the former editor of the NYTBR Section -- I'll link to a recent article by him soon.

Donald -- Mort Drucker, Jack Davis ... They're all in the pantheon!

PatrickH -- You're certainly pretty damn radical! Yeah, anyway, I take your point and agree with it. I've sometimes found myself thinking thoughts like, "Well, if we're going to accept American culture in its own terms, shouldn't we allow for the possibility that the self-help and 'how to succeed' genres might be our main literary genres?" No idea how to answer that myself. Any thoughts? Do you have the balls to go that far? I probably should, but I suspect I don't. But why? Is it just a lack of balls?

MQ -- Hey, great to see you again. That's a terrific way of putting it all, and a sensational (and funny) list. I doubt we actually disagree about Warhol at all except so far as the "liking his work" and "not liking his work" thing goes. There's no getting around the fact that he was a landmark artist, sigh. But you do a far better job of explaining why that's so than I ever could.

Jeff-- That's a great series of points. Fab info too. The argument I often lean on where the "federeal money for the arts" thing goes is 1) even if the NEA were abandoned there'd still be a lot of federal money going to the arts -- namely buildings, parks, and roads (landscape architecture, baby) -- so why don't the feds do a better job there. And 2) I think anyone who makes the case that the NEA is great has to try to prove that American culture since the NEA has been better than American culture pre-NEA. I can't see it, myself. Pre-NEA, without any federal help, we got country music, jazz, movies, Charles Ives, Gold Medal books. Since the NEA ... Well, conceptual art anyone? Of course, if the NEA wants to mail me a check to subsidize my creativity, bring it on!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 10, 2008 11:16 AM

For about a nanosecond in the history of American art there was a movement that aspired to be high or serious or Germanic in its profundity: abstract expressionism. And to some extent it succeeded, IMO. A few works by Pollack, Franz Kline, Clifford Still, Rothko are there. But bombastic pomposity set in rather quickly. And with the next generation a vicious bursting of the bubble was the order of the day. So maybe Americans can't stand to be serious in that way.

But there is a loss. The pure taking art as far as it will go thing is missing in America. Is an American Beckett possible? I don't think so. Art as religion: Brancusi. Can't see it here.

Posted by: ricpic on February 10, 2008 2:37 PM

Who needs Hochkultur when you have Paul Whiteman and his orchestra? Now that was as good as lowbrow ever got.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 10, 2008 4:22 PM

MB –As Jeff points out almost anywhere in the country at any given moment there are a wealth of cultural events to choose from that cover an incredibly wide range of styles etc. And among the venues presenting these events you will undoubtedly find a significant number that get some governmental subsidies and/or private support due to tax laws that give deductions for charitable contributions. Thus, if one looks at the great diversity of the arts available through publicly supported venues, perhaps one can conclude that said funding does NOT mean that arts so funded are subject to some evil, elitist, monopolistic view of what is or isn't good art. The NEA and similar state and local governmental arts agencies are not just supporting (directly or indirectly) conceptual art or whatever, they're also supporting quilt exhibitions and classic film series and poetry slams and concerts of big band music as well. In short, I think one can both support and even look to expand government arts funding while simultaneously championing arts that are not faux European snobbery.

Posted by: Chris White on February 11, 2008 12:30 PM

As someone who is interested in theater / film industry history in general, and the history of the American-style "integrated" musical in particular, I'm looking forward to your post on this topic. Some anticipatory comments / questions:

- - - - - - - - - -

MB wrote:

"I'm cooking up a posting about the history of the American musical. Short version: it's usually portrayed as the creation of immigrants -- [it] started very ragtag then eventually streamlined itself into the "Oklahoma"-style "unified" musical . . . . "

Benjamin writes:

Although not an expert, I've done some reading over the years on this topic, and this is NOT the impression that I've gotten from the histories that I've read. So, I wonder, who specifically has been saying this and what, precisely, have they been saying?

It seems to me that the people usually cited by most historians as being the fathers of the American-style, "integrated musical play" -- as opposed to the European style operetta -- are people who were second (?) (i.e., parents are immigrants) or third (?) (i.e., grandparents are immigrants) generation Americans: specifically, Jerome Kern (born in America), Oscar Hammerstein II (born in America to American born parents) and Richard Rodgers (born in America to American born parents).

- - - - - - -

MB wrote:

"[ In fact, tons of elements entered the stream that is the musical, including minstrel shows and wild west shows. Immigrants certain added to this (and in many ways then took it over), but it's just wrong to claim that they originated and entirely created the form."

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Even here too (i.e., talking about what might be considered by some to be components of the American-style, integrated musical play), it seems to me that most histories generally see the originators / innovators of these components as being American-born rather than immigrants. (One notable exception being, perhaps, Irving Berlin, who immigrated to the U.S. as a five-year-old.)

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 11, 2008 8:44 PM

I believe one of the great Austrians (either Mises or Hayek--can't recall which) had no problem with subsidising the Vienna Orchestra, and from a libertarian perspective no less. I mean, as subsidies go, gov't subsidies of art (especially local subsidies) have to count as one of the more benign.

Posted by: PatrickH on February 12, 2008 9:55 AM

Ricpic -- Funny the way these almost-making-it-to-high-art moments happen in this country, isn't it? We almost get there ... then collapse all over again. Then a few decades pass and the cycle repeats itself. Seems exhausting.

Charlton -- Time for a Paul Whiteman revival?

Chris -- I don't see it happening often, but sure I agree that it's theoretically possible.

Benjamin -- I should stop shooting my mouth off before I've finished my research. Anyway, the real gist of my ever-projected posting doesn't have to do with immigrants, it has to do with the way the story of the American musical is usually told, as a march towards a single goal, the unified-musical-theater-piece. That's certainly one marked strand in the story, but the larger story of musical theater in America strikes me as hugely more diverse. (Revues, follies, satirical sketch comedy). And telling it as the one story of the march-towards-the-unified-piece seems to me to distort the actual facts of the matter dramatically. But back to you soon (I hope) with an actual posting. Eager to hear your responses to it.

PatrickH -- If Austria or Iceland or France wants to play the national-arts-subsidies game it's fine by me. Probably even makes sense. The reasons it strikes me as a bad idea in the States are more or less these: 1) since we aren't small, since we aren't centralized, and since there's no consensus about what "American culture" consists of, any attempt to subsidize the arts at the national level is going to lead to arguments, quarrels, and resentments, which in turn is inevitably lead to political battles and lobbying taking precedence over the arts themselves. 2) Although the dollar numbers are pretty small, a bureaucracy gets put in place, and a ripple effect occurs, neither one of which is insignificant in terms of influence and tone-setting. Profs and critics want to sit on committees, students study the art of writing proposals, a whole culture of "public art" (that the public doesn't actually like) is created ... And once again the US winds up trapped in a quarrel over commercial art vs. something that's considered to be more high-minded but which few people actually like. But I certainly take your point. And if there is going to be direct federal support given to the arts, better it be in the form of dough to local ballet companies and museums than anything else. Still: Why not leave that kind of local-level support to actual localities?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 12, 2008 11:37 AM

Michael – I am beginning to think that you need to get out of Manhattan more frequently ... visit some B and C list cities (Allegany, PA or Utica, NY, not SF or LA) and stay longer than a week to do some grassroots research... if you're going to critique government funding for culture.

To your first point in response to Patrick (whom I hope won't mind me taking a crack at answering your two points) regarding the centralized, bureaucratic, political nature of arts funding; a significant portion of the NEA budget (a tiny pittance of what they should be allocated, IMHO) goes to states in block grants to state arts agencies. Depending on the state this process repeats itself from the state to county or local levels. Which means that many of the actual artistic decisions are taking place on the local level.

It is true that they also directly fund individuals and organizations of all sizes. And yes, there are going to be those who game the system, learning the jargon and budget slight-of-hand tricks that pay off in grant monies, and yes, there will be lobbying and politics and aesthetic feuds to contend with, but so what? The result is still far more local control and focus on "the arts themselves" than, for example, the local ABC affiliate ... or Clear Channel's "local" rock station ... or the neighborhood Regal Cinema 10 screen megaplex... and any of their audiences get.

If one looked at the two dozen dance events Jeff mentioned taking place in Fargo, ND it would surprise me mightily if none of the venues or organizations were getting any governmental arts funding. My bet is that at least 20% of the groups involved function in that non-profit arts sector that taps government cultural funding, and that a good portion of the for-profit sector dance events are benefiting from the ripple effect of that funding.

There will be aesthetic arguments, questions about validity, and the clash between high and low forms not only between, but also within, each sector of the cultural community ... commercial, non-profit, government sponsored. Ask yourself whether it was these issues that led Grammy voters to give Album of the Year to Herbie Hancock for "River:">">"River: The Joni Letters" and not ">Amy Winehouse for "Rehab". Are the Grammy's about music or the music industry or popularity or politics or the Grammy bureaucracy or all of the above? I'd say all of the above.

Posted by: Chris White on February 12, 2008 5:01 PM

Oddly enough, I read an Economist article (I think it was in the Economist, maybe this blog even linked it) that bemoaned the centralized arts funding of European countries like France, while the more decentralized, and often private, funding in the US was lauded. Oh! It was about opera, I think? Anyway, the Americans think out system stinks and the Euro-types at the Economist thing the European system stinks. The grass is always greener.....

Anyway, I bet if you looked at arts funding dollar for dollar, and include private funding as well as public, the differences wouldn't be so much between the US and some European countries. People often forget this. Also, there's a lot of inflation in the arts these days. Some of that work could be done much more cheaply. I am entirely serious on this point.

Anyway, I love, love, love the arts, but really, when places like the Art Institute of Chicago come up with exhibitions like "all of Jasper Johns work that features the color gray,", well, I'm sorry. I laughed so hard at that exhibit. I don't see why middleness should be rewarded. It was a perfectly find exhibition, but the utter literalness and formulaicness of it. I bet the person who cooked that up had some fancy-schmancy degree. And bores his wife (or husband, or partner).

*A new museum or museum wing seems to go up in the city every, like, year. So, obviously, there is money around but maybe the arty types spend it stupidly.

Posted by: MD on February 12, 2008 7:27 PM

Chris -- You lost me at "But so what?" The fact that many "local" decisions are made at a place of work (by secretaries, clerks, accountants, paper-pushers, etc) doesn't mean that everyone isn't trying to please the boss, or that the boss isn't setting the tone. Same with top-down arts funding. Also, I do think it behooves those who are enthusiastic about federal funding for the arts to make the case that the artslife in the US post-NEA is decidedly superior to what it was prior to the NEA. Reasonable people can obviously disagree about this, but I'd make the case that prior to the NEA the artslife in the US was 1) more lively and genuinely diverse, and 2) less bureaucratic and academicized than it is now.

MD -- Hey, MD's back, great to see you. I think there are lots of informal arts subsidies around that don't tend to get counted into the usual total, don't you? For one thing: parents (and other relatives) helping out. Where would the arts be without parental (and often husbandly and wifely) subsidies? It must come to tons of dough. It'd be fun if someone made an informed guesstimate.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 12, 2008 9:45 PM

Michael – My "So what?" comes from the perspective that the negatives you ascribe to the NEA are (a) going to be there anyway and (b) are actually MORE of a problem in the for-profit arts venues. A local dance company may well be influenced by their sense that they can more easily get grant monies for programs that 'serve at-risk youth' or 'promote diversity' because these are funding cycle buzzwords. What this means on the ground is that they'll set up after school classes in Hip-hop or present performances of traditional dance by the local Cambodian or Somali immigrant community. In what way is this bad? In what way does it stifle the arts? In many smaller communities you'd be hard pressed to find a for profit dance company and if you did it's more likely they're sticking to modern and ballet for the offspring of the middle class because that's where the money is for them.

Your thesis about the arts having been more lively and diverse before the NEA rather than after it might just possibly be true in a handful of major cultural centers like NYC, but not for the vast majority of communities across the country. In the good ol' days a talented dancer or actor or painter couldn't dream of making their living ... or part of their living anyway ... from practicing their art without going to the big city. Not that plenty of artistically talented folks from the hinterlands don't still head for NYC or San Francisco or Chicago or LA to 'make it big', but a lot of those who stay home for whatever reasons find opportunities in the hinterlands far better with the NEA and its state and local offspring.

Let's shift from dance to music for a moment. I can see any number of country, rock and hip hop performers at local bars. Few of those venues are going to book jazz or chamber music or opera or ... to hear these I am most likely going to go to a venue in the non-profit sector. Do you really think I'd be better off with my choices limited to a Lynrd Skynrd tribute band, a Carrie Underwood wannabe and DJ 2Tuff? Over here is a paper pushing bureaucrat with a liberal arts degree sucking up to the grant committee, over there is a retail alcohol purveyor trying to attract young binge drinkers. Which one do you bet on being more likely to promote aesthetic diversity and quality? I'm still betting on the former.

Posted by: Chris White on February 13, 2008 7:55 AM

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