YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 9, 2012

Big Bird, Prostrate

http://tinyurl.com/9roa6er (Read this first)

Henry Geldzahler of the NEA

 Several questions are raised by Governor Romney’s suggestion that he might cut federal funding for PBS, with the example of a prostrate Big Bird subsequently pounced upon by even bigger birds on the Left. This blog considers the vexed question of government funding of the arts and humanities, a subject that interests me, for I have not only been the recipient of small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I served on the radio panel of the NEA from 1978-1980, so saw at least one bureaucracy in action.

Here are my major arguments on behalf of cutting subsidies to CPB, PBS, NEA, NEH, Pacifica, and public radio in general:

  1. The history of the arts and humanities in Europe demonstrates that patronage determined the content of “high culture” artworks created by authors, composers, painters, sculptors, and architects. Patronage was supplied by the Church, by aristocrats, and by the new merchant princes in places such as the Netherlands and the city-states of what would become Italy. Iconoclasts such as Spinoza worked at an occupation to support himself, while his writings were often circulated anonymously and in subversive bookshops that also handled pornography.  Censorship in Europe was fierce and effective. The lower orders meanwhile created their own, usually traditional, folk forms, often co-opted by artists seeking reinvigoration for their own productions. That process continues today in popular music and in the fashion industry.

Artists in America, from its founding on, depended upon commercial success, for the U.S. lacked a hereditary aristocracy accustomed to providing sinecures for its pet artists and intellectuals. In spite of initial difficulties over copyright enforcement (Britain frequently pirated books by American authors, to the chagrin of Herman Melville, for example), artists in the New World (especially in theater and in the burgeoning mass culture that was managed by recent immigrants in the 20th century) became successful, mostly through publishing and performance. Such “commercial art” became objects of derision by a vanguard supported by bohemian, wealthy individuals such as Peggy Guggenheim or the modern museums that sprang up after WW1. But American artists were comparatively neglected, as the colorful and highly educated Europeans were favored over the native born. For many decades, American artists and authors expatriated, turning their backs on an American public they saw as philistine and unworthy of their attention.

Enter the Depression and burgeoning Fascism in Europe. Communists and progressives  were interested in celebrating the Common Man, often at the expense of the big capitalists/businessmen who were viewed as their exploiters. There was a major market for such Americana, and WASP elites supported their efforts to show their devotion to ordinary Americans. But the anti-Stalinist Left had its own contingent of writers, authors, and publishers. The arts worlds of the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s were roiled with conflict and it is exciting to study their productions, which have not been surpassed in a later period as government stepped in under the administrations of Democrats (see the NEA as founded in 1965, preceded by the WPA in the 1930s), to encourage both established and budding authors, etc.

Big Blue Eagle

Lost in the cultural histories of the twentieth century is the record of social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration, who viewed the national government as an appropriate locale for a national morale service (see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/). Keep this in mind as we move into the cultural work of the 1960s and 1970s New Left and counter-culture, many of whom, it seems, have parented children who want to live the “cool” life of the artist, without the degradation of waiting tables or some other menial job to support themselves. (On the Blue Eagle see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Recovery_Act.)

II. Enter now my own active participation in government granting agencies. This is what I found out as both grant recipient and as participant in the NEA radio panel . First, the grants are so tiny as to fund at most one project, and the amounts awarded are rarely sufficient to support even that one (vetted) endeavor. Second, multiculturalism as a strategy for containing and co-opting the civil rights and feminist movements, determined what organizations and individuals received government sponsorship. Third, the NEA radio panel was rife with corruption and cronyism. Moreover, the staff of the NEA had the power to overrule the panel’s recommendations, so that our contributions could be ignored safely, if the aims of the NEA were in any way thwarted.  In many cases, NPR, I noticed, did not even bother describing the programming content for which they applied; apparently it was taken for granted that they would be subsidized.

It was frequently the practice to award small grants as a lure to attract matching grants from corporations and foundations. Such matching grants were tax-deductible, so it can be argued that the taxpaying public is now the primary patron of the arts, replacing the European elites of old. This diffuse patronage system contained individuals objecting to the [anticapitalist, anti-urban, anti-American, in your face] offerings by government grantees, who were exhibited, performed, and published, then presented to a broad public, some of whom were offended that they were paying for materials that undermined or mocked their religions and values.

On the other hand, some grantees enjoyed such popular success (Sesame Street, Prairie Home Companion) that it was obvious to all that they could survive on the market, without government support. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Apart from considerations of the proper role of government in funding the arts (on  Constitutional grounds), there is the disputed question of government direction of creative work, especially given the heterogeneous makeup of the American electorate. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were remarkably alike in their sponsorship of State-approved icons of heroic workers along with those arts that were comprehensible to “the People.”

Conclusions. An education in the arts and humanities should be made available to every American child. But along with these life-affirming activities should be offered, at appropriate ages, instruction as to the social and political conditions that brought the arts into being: patronage, censorship in the period under discussion (what can and cannot be said at any given period), the message of the artwork (closely observed as to both form and content). I have been harshly critical of populism on this website, but it is in the interest of all the people to understand both the form and content of high culture, mass culture/pop culture, and folk arts. I don’t expect this outcome to be realized in my lifetime. Meanwhile, the government should get out of the business of funding the arts, for such powers will always be politicized on behalf of some faction or another. The European governments that subsidize grand arts projects do so because social democratic governments have taken over the responsibilities of the old aristocracies, and are as hostile to a fully-realized modernity as their forebears. “Excellence” to them, entails rule by a self-perpetuating oligarchy of Platonic guardians. pleased, unlike Plato, to permit a sprinkling of subversion to demonstrate how ‘really’ pluralistic and open these societies are to criticism, innovation and freedom of expression. Marcuse called such strategies “repressive tolerance.”

Banned in Berkeley?


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