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March 02, 2009

Do Hard Times Inspire Great Art?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I should have been paying enough attention to take the trouble to take notes or stash links. But it remained in peripheral vision status until this morning when I noticed a link on the Arts & Letters Daily site with its teaser caption stating: "Road novels, stories, and gangster films of the 1930s depicted American social mobility as a bitter cheat. We may now relive 1930s art..." (boldface in original).

The linked article, on the Wall Street Journal site, was "Will this Crisis Produce a 'Gatsby'?" by a writer identified as "Sean McCann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, is the author of 'A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government.'" I didn't think much of the article, it using the slippery and often data-defective concept of income inequality as its peg. For instance, McCann asserts that creatures called "Republicans" caused a whole bunch of income inequality during the seemingly prosperous 1920s. As if there was no such thing when Woodrow Wilson was wheeled out of the White House for the last time.

But McCann's article isn't my real subject.

What I want to discuss is whether there is a link between economic conditions and quality in the various arts, roughly as traditionally understood. (Alas, that leaves out spray-can graffiti.) The point being, if indeed bad economic times are conducive to more high-quality art, then we might be in for an artistic renaissance of sorts if the economy stays in the gutter.

My problem is that "quality" in arts is evaluated subjectively, unlike measures of, say, manufacturing quality in automobiles. Worse, I'm not a Lit Guy, not having the tools and reading experience to examine the quality of novels of the 1920s, 1930s, 40s, 50s and so forth to evaluate how literature of the Depression-ridden Thirties compared to other decades.

It turns out that I can come up with one instance, though it's not in a field of traditional art. It's Industrial Design, which flourished during the 30s in part because of the depressed times. I recently wrote about that here.

Another almost-traditional art that did well during the Depression was the Hollywood movie. Many observers consider the 1930s a "golden age" of American cinema, and I'm inclined to agree.

A case can be made that there was a good deal of creativity in the arts during the years of the Weimar Republic in Germany (1919-33).

French arts did well during the period 1868-1878 as the country stumbled through the final years of the Second Empire, defeat by the Prussians in 1870, the Paris Commune of 1871 and dealing with the burden of reparations to the German Empire in the years following the war.

Post-World War 2 was tough for Italy, yet the country became noted for top-flight films and outstanding automobile styling between 1945 and 1955.

Clearly, bad times do not necessarily mean bad times for the arts.

On the other hand, good times do not mean bad times for the arts. When times are good, more patronage money is available. Yes, French arts did surprisingly well during the period cited above. But they also did well during most of the Second Empire and they did well during the Belle Époque of the decades straddling the turn of the 20th century. The 1890-1914 period was strong for arts in Germany, Italy and Austria as well.

So what might the future bring for arts in America if the economy stays sick? Less private patronage will hurt the arts. And if Democrat-run administrations follow form, government patronage is likely to take up the slack. Given the bureaucracy-driven approval-by-committees-of-experts government funding M.O., I would not be surprised to see overall artistic quality tanking along with the economy. Not that it's so great in the first place.



posted by Donald at March 2, 2009


Whether in the arts ... or almost any field for that matter ... I am increasingly convinced that the private sector is no less "bureaucracy-driven" nor any less prone to wanting "approval-by-committees-of-experts" than is the government. I would think the ongoing debacle of Wall Street and the private sector financial services industry would clearly show that top heavy bureaucracies accepting the findings of various experts is a widespread phenomenon outside, as well as inside, of government. A lone entrepreneur, like a lone artist, may be completely free to make decisions quickly, based on their gut or strongly held opinions, without ever considering what any experts have to say. Once any enterprise grows beyond the scale of a small business it requires a structure that we label "bureaucratic." This is true of cola companies, major symphony orchestras, the NEA, or Citi Corp.

For the arts in the modern era private patronage tends to follow rather than lead government funding. A handful of committed donors may make modest donations to small arts groups based on their belief in the art and artists. Larger donors, especially business donors, really like to see the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval conferred by NEA or other government agency support before they kick in.

For nearly two decades one knew when Jesse Helms was attempting to pump up his campaign war chest because there would be some overblown "controversy" in which some tiny fraction of an NEA grant would have found its way to the pocket of someone connected with the display of an art object that could offend certain viewers. This relentless political propaganda campaign probably raised more than the total NEA budget for conservative politicians who benefited by promoting a distorted the view of NEA and the arts as a whole.

Frankly, I think your negative view of the art produced by actual living artists is far more symptomatic of an advanced case of fuddy-duddyism rather than the actual situation.

FWIW – The Wife volunteers (because there is insufficient funding to cover a salary) as the Managing Director for a very small local theater company. They have a budget that is based on 90% earned income (60% is closer to average). The company is driven by a commitment to their art and the community. This year they've increased their programming by adding a number of bare bones productions offered on nights when the main stage is dark. Their final main stage show this season was moved onto the schedule for a full production after its compelling success as a Dark Night reading. Part of the reason was that the cast consists primarily of students drawn from local high schools. The adult company members felt these kids did such a great job they deserved the chance to experience a full production. Given that many of them would be off to college next year the company wanted to see that they did not lose the opportunity.

Oh, and the Dark Night series was supported by a small foundation grant.

Posted by: Chris White on March 3, 2009 8:49 AM

By art, I usually think only of literature and film. More socially-aware movies (even like Sullivan's Travels). More outright escapism (Gold Diggers, Top Hat, etc). And Ginger Rogers singing in pig latin!

Practically speaking, though, I guess if fewer people go to college, fewer will have the training and perspective to engage in artistic creation. It's not a requirement of course, but college gives you a lot of freedom and time to experiment.

I consider myself a fiction writer, and yet when I was seriously unemployed in 2002, writing fiction was the last thing I had time for (although I did find time for blogging, oddly enough).

On the other hand, the experiences (both happy and unhappy) from that period of my life were valuable and interesting (see one of my essays about it

I agree that Germany in the 20s and 30s was producing some remarkable art. But we are hardly in the same shape. We're overleveraged, so what! You have to keep in mind that 24 hours news station are leading this call to panic by stoking up our worst fears. And jittery Wall Street will throw as many temper tantrums as a 2 year old. Let's keep a sense of perspective. I lived in two countries in Eastern Europe during two severe financial crises. I don't expect it to come anywhere near that level. We have a sense of urgency, yes. And in a year or two, there will be severe consequences. But will American society change that much as a result of this crisis? I doubt it.

Maybe poverty increases the moral support for the arts while at the same time cutting the funding that helps to build it up.

Netflix subscriptions have gone up, library use has gone up and I expect people to do more reading.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 3, 2009 9:42 AM

"almost-traditional"? The sound film was a brand-new medium, though it was based on the established art of theater.

One factor that contributed to the success of 1930s Hollywood was the low cost of labor. Extras, ensemble dancers, musicians, set carpenters and painters, prop makers, all available in huge numbers at bargain rates. Hollywood could do things then that were economically impossible later.

Bollywood may have a similar strength now. Of course this applies more to "spectacle" movies. A lot of great Golden Age films didn't cost that much to make: The Maltese Falcon, for instance. Westerns were cheap too.

A stupid question occurs here though. There were lots of Westerns in the 1930s, but very few have been ranked as "classic". Stagecoach (1939) is the oldest "classic" Western that I can think of. Cimarron (1930) was nominated for seven Oscars and won two, but is almost forgotten now.

The only Oscar nomination for a Western until 1939 was Wells Fargo for Sound in 1937.

Why, in the Golden Age of Hollywood, couldn't Hollywood make great Westerns?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on March 4, 2009 7:53 PM

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