Supporting the Arts

Of course government should support the arts. Unfortunately, as soon as we try to reduce this prescription to specific practices, it gets extremely messy. What level of government should give what to whom, under what conditions? What government programs, other than writing checks, matter? The New York Times offers a Room for Debate forum that assembles a bunch of arts advocates, plus a Cato Institute small-government ideologue, for a conversation that consistently, and typically, ignores many of the most important realities and constraints affecting this sector. Why do smart people leave their brains at the door and get all mooshy and soft-headed talking about art? Hats off to the Times for running a piece on this important topic, but shame on all the authors for an almost unrelieved collection of fact-free posturing and noodling. Not that they are unusual in this regard: reading most of what’s written about this issue could make a cynic think none of these people cares enough about art to actually think carefully and do homework. Sorry; arts policy doesn’t need wooly sentiment, pointing with alarm, doe-eyed begging and whining, or charity-case condescension; it needs the dignity of serious thinking that treats artists and their audience as grownups.

The first thing we don’t hear about is all the art that isn’t what the French call les arts savants: classical music, plastic arts displayed in museums, some borderline forms like jazz and industrial design, and the like. Implicitly, arts advocates simply put aside all the art created and delivered through the private market, like popular music, movies, and folks getting together to jam and going out in the park with watercolors. This inattention to most art deepens a division between art for the educated and rich and art for everyone, by a nearly congruent division between worthy art and art that doesn’t “count”. These divisions do not have to coincide: Shakespeare, Verdi, Wagner, and Charlie Chaplin had no trouble connecting with popular and élite audiences with the same works; in fact, Wagner wrote a whole opera to show how cutting-edge artistic innovation and broad appeal are complements.

Identfying “the arts” as what highbrow institutions offer also makes the whole conversation about the supply side, being nice to artists and arts institutions. Most arts funding gives money to arts presenters and, indirectly, offers art to art consumers. But if you give a concert that a dozen university music professors, a few critics, a charitable funder, and some composers and musicians absolutely kvell over , what have you really done for art, or for that matter for society, if nobody else comes to hear it? What the arts most need is a demanding, competent, large audience, and supply-side programs aren’t very good for this; in fact, they are quite liable to capture by élites who use the arts to maintain their status. The research on this is long-standing and solid: the most important correlate of consumption of highbrow art is parental introduction to museums, theater, and concerts in childhood. Not much government can do about that, but the second is introduction to the arts in schools, especially hands-on learning, and the history of the last twenty years has been to trash this entire enterprise as a frill we “can’t afford”, along with physical education and sports for everyone. Why the things that make life worth living – art and health – are frills or optional in a sane, rich society, and why Venezuela can afford a national network of youth orchestras and we can’t,are mystifying, but here we are.

Desperate for love, arts advocates cleave to the values of the oppressor and try to tell us that art is good for learning math, or for economic growth. This is a terrible strategy because it devalues art: if going to a concert reduced your math grade on the next quiz, and having a rich artistic life dinged your disposable income by 5%, art would still be a good deal. It also risks someone noting that actually, good math courses are even better for learning math than Mozart, and a football stadium may be better for local tourism than a museum.

Furthermore, trying to build a local economy on an arts program confronts the all-or-any problem. Any rustbelt factory can convert to making windmills, but most, can’t. Artists flock, for the most part to Richard Florida’s creative-class-friendly places, but almost always in concentrations of which relatively few can supply all of national demand . Northhampton, Mass, and Beacon, NY, and Marfa, Texas can build an economy or rescue a failing one with art. But most struggling towns and cities cannot; indeed, only a few can (though that doesn’t mean the others have to go without art). Here I differ with Kelly’s post; encouraging a lively local arts life can’t depend on attracting artists to live and work everywhere; for most places it has to have to do with engagement with art, and encouraging a lot of local amateur participation.

Here we encounter a big difference between plastic and performing arts. A small city can’t support an opera company or a professional symphony, but it can have a museum, and there is estimable art enough in the storage collections of the big museums in big cities to spread widely across the nation. If we did that, people would actually look at it, with no perceptible change in the visitor experience of someone going to the Met, as 90% of the works in those collections are never shown. The entire state of Florida has two (2) Monets for almost twenty million people; Chicago has 33 for eight million, of which six are not on display.

What everyone can engage with now is all art in digital form, which is not just HD opera in movie theaters, but all recorded music, anything in text (poetry, fiction), and video. No, a recorded opera or symphony concert is not the same thing as a live performance (now that I mention it, why are local musicians bussing tables instead of playing in restaurants?), but it’s a lot closer to that than it is to nothing. Not a word from our pundits and advocates in the Times about fixing the broken economic model for digital media. If we figure out how to give non-rival artistic goods away at the correct price, which is free, and pay the creators according to the value they create, a lot of the art crisis would go away. Not impossible: we do it for parks and sidewalks.

Another problem afflicts performers as a result of our wonderful technology: the positional arms race that allows a few stars to blow everyone else off the ‘stage’. Our whole art establishment seems dedicated to teaching us that the only art that matters is provided by a few international stars; certainly not anything home-made (have you ever seen a piece of sheet music for sale at the symphony or opera intermission chotchke shop? any art supplies outside the children’s section of the museum store?) nor a live performance by your friends and neighbors. There is such a thing as artistic excellence, and long may it live, but there’s much more to an artistic life than listening to Placido Domingo sing, and quality of experience is much more dimensional than a linear scale ranking artists or works.

What the Times forum participants either don’t understand or don’t care to recognize is that art is something that happens inside the head of a listener, reader, or viewer. They have not a single word to say about the experience of art consumers, like professors who can have a long conversation about pedagogy without saying a single word about what students do in class or while studying. If Sonny Rollins plays his sax alone on the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night a solipsistic experience of value to one person has occurred (and nothing wrong with that), but it isn’t art until he shares what he figured out with an audience. Shared means people not only hear it but engage with it, and engage using not just the notes on offer but all the music its members have already heard. Perception is an active process (like learning) What arts policy needs to address, broadly, is building that personal capital that makes art consumption flower as a collaboration between artist and audience.

This needs to begin with Deming’s rule, “drive out fear.” The highbrow arts are presented in a way that scares my students and makes them feel unqualified and unwelcome. My students, Berkeley undergraduates, are headed into our social and economic élite; if they don’t feel entitled to this patrimony, the arts have much bigger problems than cadging grants and subsidies.

A couple of the participants in the panel have nice things to say about the new Brazilian arts subsidy program. Indeed, the Brazilians understand a lot about the place of art in daily life, and are a lot less uptight about compromising quality for popular appeal, with the result that while a fair amount of schlocky music circulates, they also have national heroes who are world top class artists – and at whose performances people are up on their feet dancing. If you can get your hands on it, watch Paulinho da Viola circulate effortlessly and comfortably between the concert stage and sitting around a table with his Portela homeboys in Meu tempo é hoje (you can get this delightful movie here). If you’re in São Paulo, fall down to the Bar do Cidão after ten any evening to hear some fine picking and singing in a set and setting we’ve almost completely lost.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.