Monday, February 9, 2009

Stimulating Outside the Box: The Future of Culture

NEW YORK, New York -- After the Senate basically replaced a quarter of the stimulus' spending with tax cuts, it seems the US Congress is determined to keep shoving America down the economic trail blazed by former President George W. Bush and like-minded Reaganomists in the House and Senate.

Given that one of the victims of the Senate's slash-and-burn approach to government spending (which the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics derides as setting the course to disaster) is the meager $50 million that was to go to the National Endowment for the Arts, it may seem a lost cause to consider whether government funding for the arts should be stepped up, either in the stimulus or more broadly speaking. But we at the Walter Duranty Report believe if a cause is lost by the likes of gopher lookalike Mitch McConnell, it's worth picking back up -- in this case by way of a Cub Scout story.

When at the exalted level of Wolf Scout, I was once forced with my den to sing "Kids, What's the Matter With Kids Today?" from the musical "Bye, Bye, Birdie." That sucked a bushy tail.

I thought it was an annoying song, but I also got the sense there was an element of our parents complaining about us, their (degenerate) children. Ironically, the song was first written when they were children and teenagers. Although 1960's "Bye, Bye, Birdie" was satirical, it betrayed a fear of deteriorating cultural mores that the "Greatest Generation" saw in Elvis, rock'n'roll and Marlon Brando. Yet 1950s pop music and cinema is now seen as one of the greatest cultural contributions of America. The moral here is: Every generation seems to think it is on the brink of unprecedented cultural decay.

I'm sure many think that about today; and they have as strong a case as ever to make. Baltimore's XX-year-old Opera went belly up X months ago. In Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art, considered one of the country's top contemporary arts museums, was on the brink of closing in December. And to the horror of many, Brandeis University announced last week that it would shut down its art museum, a leading collection of postwar US art, and sell off the pieces in this, the worst market for art in decades, rather than cut operating costs throughout the university.

Not surprisingly, arts institutions (including the visual and performing arts and literature) are following the lead of nearly every other sector of business and society and hoping for salvation via the stimulus bill. But should there be increased funding for the arts, stimulus or no? Is this a good idea economically, artistically, or from the point of view of the kind of republican democracy the United States tries to be?

As a matter of pure economics in a recession, there's certainly a case to be made. As Michael Kaiser, head of one of the country's art heavyweights (Washington DC's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), recently told National Public Radio, the arts employ nearly 6 million Americans -- about 3% of the entire workforce.

According to arts industry insiders who spoke to the New York Times, that amounts to nearly $200 billion in economic contribution each year. As many note, jobs for artists are as high-paying and no less intrinsically worthy than plumbers', welders' or policemen's. But for reasons that aren't entirely clear -- maybe it's our latent fun-hating Puritan instincts -- we tend to think of any artist as a fag-o queer who needs to grow up and get a "real job."

Yet, in addition to the very real money that artists do make, there are deeper reasons for valuing the arts. Art gives us pleasure but also forces us to as hard questions about politics and the way we live our lives. Art improves our quality of life by allowing us to express ourselves and simply be among "nice things" (you'd be surprised what an impact that fluffy feeling can have on house prices or a place's ability to attract high-spending tourists). And art is the medium in which American culture exists and manifests itself. When that manifestation occurs, it is our No. 1 export and greatest source of international goodwill and softpower.

While arts organizations see endowments plummet and spectator numbers down as we all tighten our spending habits, the recent federal program the Big Read offers an easily-appropriated model for what government might do to help out, as a Guardian op-ed argued last month. That program, implemented after polls showed Americans were reading less and less, funded local reading groups, contests and programs, often through schools, and reading rates apparently improved. Today, there could be a Big Play or a Big Paint to use federal funds to underwrite locally organized theater performances at town festivals or in schools. Similarly, public works programs could be organized to hire young artists to paint murals on dreary government buildings or the increasing number of foreclosed and abandoned homes.

One of the most pressing questions, though, is whether to bail out large organizations on the brink of insolvency. No hands have been forced here yet (although arts groups scarily foresee up to 10,000 organizations disappearing this year), but it would seem reasonable for the federal government to provide funding for state and city governments to close budget caps and prevent further economic deterioration. That level of government is probably best suited to determine what cultural institutions should be kept from going under for economic or cultural reasons. Unfortunately, the Senate Repulicans and their Democratic enablers think people should be given money to stupidly invest their money in tract homes rather than prevent massive budget holes and service cuts at the state level.

"Lost Causer" McConnell 1, Duranty 0.

The longer-term role of government in the arts presents another difficult question.

It always strikes me as odd that the US, in giving so little government money to the arts either directly or in the form of commissioning murals or artistic flourishes for government buildings or infrastructure as it did until WWII, seems to care so little about the arts. Countries like France and Germany offer arts organizations nearly 20 times as much per capita in national, state and municipal funding. What confuses me is how any congressman can walk by Rockefeller Center, with its incredible Depression-era murals, statues and other public art, and not want to re-create that in the public works he votes to fund?

For the first time in the post-Mapplethorpe era, the current US president has made it clear that the arts are important to the nation's well-being. This perceived open window has caused some to call for the establishment of a Cabinet-level secretary of the arts to streamline and centralize government-backed arts programs. Yet concerns of centralizing "culture" in one person or agency (as in this ham-fisted and generally bone-headed WSJ op-ed) can't be dismissed -- would an agency have too monolithic an effect on a currently vibrant and diverse arts scene? Could it not pick political favorites? (I can see a Bush arts secretary funding Creed heavily and asking Jars of Clay to perform at the Kennedy Center.)

Moreover, there is the question of Republican angst. Members of that party call art "pork," not realizing that art and pork, like defense spending and pork or "homeland" security and transportation funding, are not mutually dependent and can actually both be good for regional economies. Indeed, the ranking Republican members of the House committees overseeing the NEA today oddly seem to want it starved to death.

Perhaps, then, a longer-term solution would be not to create a Department of the Arts at the Cabinet level but instead to increase funding and cut confusion and bureaucratic red tape more simply. A reasonable recent proposal by Lincoln Center's general counsel would simplify the huge amounts of red tape created by the fractured hodgepodge of agencies that govern the finances of arts organizations, as well as create dedicated revenue streams of federal aid to the arts at no cost to taxpayers. The government could offer tax incentives to Americans who increase charitable donations year on year; tax breaks for artists who donate works to charity auctions; or a federal counterpart to the vanity plates states like California use to generate revenue for the arts (stamps, e.g., or a tax opt-in).

Even more powerful may be the high-placed friend the arts may be gaining in Barack Obama. Jed Perl wrote last month on the value of symbolic gestures Obama can provide to the arts, recalling JFK's invitation to Pablo Casals to play Schumann in the White House not only inspired Americans to buy a classical music record or see a concert but reminded the nation that a Spaniard playing a German's composition was indeed American art.

The Economist's More Intelligent Life reported last month that high culture is actually growing in popularity, and perhaps it's time to finally stop wondering, "What's the matter with kids today." There may yet be hope arts institutions will live, even if they're facing financial hardship today.

McConnell is still up, over the WDR. Here's hoping Obama's magic dust, if there's still much left after the Daschle fiasco, rubs off on the smarting arts organizations across the country, either via funding, bureaucratic overhaul, or sheer symbolic value.

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