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Against the Culture Czar

Post #1282 • January 26, 2009, 8:07 AM • 30 Comments

Inspired by a neoconservative bailout of foundering businesses based on intangibles, and the election of a liberal, sophisticated president with more than a modicum of taste, arts groups are now bum rushing the body politic to make sure that they get in on the action, as Robin Pogrebin reports. The main player here is Quincy Jones, who has Obama's ear, and plans to "'beg for a secretary of arts' along the lines of the culture ministers in many European countries." The Wall Street Journal produced what I thought was a tepid challenge to this notion, coming from David A. Smith, who counters:

Art is a type of human expression fundamentally different from the other activities carried on by people in society, let alone by a state. It is a far more individualistic enterprise and has to be conceived - I almost am tempted to say jealously guarded - as such. Similarly, the cultural programs carried out by the American government thrive on the individualism and energy found in their respective agencies. ... To think of the government's widespread and variegated cultural programs as the proper responsibility of something as bureaucratically ponderous as a single department is, I think, a way to damage the way people ought to think about art.

If we were really concerned about guarding the individualistic enterprise of art, why not just leave it to individuals?



Chris Rywalt

January 26, 2009, 10:15 AM

Who cares about philosophy? I want someone to give me money!



January 26, 2009, 10:40 AM

I agree with this. Government should stay out of art funding except for very clear cost/benefit funding, and even that should be limited and tightly administered.

Having a dedicated government agency would be a boondoggle. The government is horribly bloated as it is. Why it is thought that we should be emulating systems promulgated by degenerating European countries is beyond me.

I spent a good amount of time in the '70s on these types of organizations and while we werre able to do some good things it was mostly damage control, with the good people in a constant state of frustration and the not-so-good people pushing personal agendas and being unrealistic and sometimes downright childish and destructive. The history of the NEA stands in radiant proof of this. Artists and bureauocrats are oil and water, and when they do mix it is a toxic emulsion.

We have to suck it up and face the fact that we are simply independent entrepreneurs and nobody owes us anything just because we choose a hard path.


Chris Rywalt

January 26, 2009, 11:06 AM

Honestly, given the bloat in the federal government, adding a Ministry of Art would be like one more Ring Ding to the world's fattest man. It really wouldn't do anything or cost that much. I mean, if you really want to save money, how about we buy one less bomber?



January 26, 2009, 11:41 AM

For the price of a bomber, we could probably fund another art bureauocracy. Not that I am recommending it.



January 26, 2009, 11:52 AM

Finding a good person to head whatever organization might be created is the most difficult challenge. The person must be a political and artistic genius. Think, for a moment, if Ken Moffett were appointed to head this thing. "Oil and water" does not go far enough. Lynne Munson, on the other hand, might be just the right person.

Probabilities greatly favor that the wrong person would be selected. After all, there are so many to choose from. The cynic in me feels that the wrongest of the wrong would rise to the top.

Where are the Medici now that we need them?



January 26, 2009, 12:14 PM

They're dead. If they were alive now they'd be buying Koons.



January 26, 2009, 12:17 PM

So you don't think they had eyes?



January 26, 2009, 12:27 PM

Once again, that kind of question can only be answered by someone who has the ability to distinguish the dynamics of culture in different periods.

Those people were into power. They wanted and got the best, but in the Florentine Renaissance there was a tight, accurate social mechanism for determining the best. Just as we now know who is the best football player they knew who was the best artist.

Did they have eyes? I would really like to answer that, but I can't.



January 26, 2009, 12:28 PM

I don't know where "opiekind" came from. Aarghh!



January 26, 2009, 12:40 PM

The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of this being a bad idea, at least as it would play out in practice. I'm totally against it, for what it's worth.


Chris Rywalt

January 26, 2009, 12:46 PM

Considering you're the last holdout for the gold standard, though, Jack....



January 26, 2009, 1:26 PM

second to last, Chris.


Bunny Smedley

January 26, 2009, 1:27 PM

Here in the UK - possibly one of Opie's 'degenerating European countries' - we have something called the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Last year we spent UK 6.6 billion on it. What does it do? Regarding 'culture', it places export bans on various national treasures - most recently, you'll see from the website, six dresses designed by an early 20th century French couturier [sic], and seeks to encourage tourism by e.g. regulating bed & breakfasts out of existence. Regarding 'media', it holds conferences and sometimes fulminates toothlessly when our parastatal broadcaster does something particularly witless. And regarding 'sport', it has landed us with the Olympics, currently projected to cost UK taxpayers something in excess of UK 20 billion - this, in the midst of the worst economic recession in recent memory.

In addition, we have something called the Arts Council, which buys up minor works by modish artists (not all of them British) which then vanish from various public buildings around the world. In general it manages to avoid the sort of politicised rows generated by the NEA - which is a pity, as they'd doubtless be more entertaining than anything it does fund.

Sounds tempting, doesn't it? Who wouldn't want a setup like that - or indeed the sort of wonderful outpouring of artistic achievement that Britain has seen since 1997? Such as ... err ...

Only faintly bitter sarcasm aside, my own point of view is that patronage by committee rarely produces worthwhile outcomes, that spending public money on 'the arts' subjects them to a whole series of political and ideological tests which rarely result in anything very constructive, and that governments really ought to concentrate on fostering the climate of material prosperity, physical safety and freedom of expression in which the creation of art tends to thrive. All of which will surely take at least the first week or two of President Obama's administration.

Finally, Chris is right to point out that these sums of money are vanishingly small within the broader context of government expenditure. But at the same time, government spending on art, however meagre, raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions. How much, after all, is a beautiful painting really worth? Is it worth a hi-tech strategic bomber? Is it worth an incubator and team of nurses for a very sick baby? Is it worth a factory full of automotive workers who, in the absence of their habitual employment, may well face an extremely bleak, unbeautiful future? Doubtless there are answers to all these questions, and it's worth thinking about them sometimes. But ultimately - and this, I guess, is a nakedly political point - I'm much happier seeing those decisions made by individuals spending their own money, rather than as subjects for public choice. It's not that the answers are always going to be better - rather, it's that we are, individually and severally, spared the moral indignity of having to pay, however indirectly, for somebody else's wrong answer.


Chris Rywalt

January 26, 2009, 1:42 PM

No [sic] needed -- "couturier" is a real word. I looked it up.

My thinking about government money in the arts is, hey, if our government can give money and tax breaks to corn growers, industrial pig farmers, multinational oil conglomerates, the airline industry, and Toyota, then it might as well hand some out to a few painters and sculptors.

I mean, the question is not, do we allow the government to muck about in private affairs? That ship has sailed. The question is, whose private affairs get paid for? Might as well join the buffet line, people, no one's getting table service.



January 26, 2009, 1:54 PM

"...governments really ought to concentrate on fostering the climate of material prosperity, physical safety and freedom of expression in which the creation of art tends to thrive"

You're awesome, Bunny.


Bunny Smedley

January 26, 2009, 1:59 PM

'Couturier' is a real word, all right - the 'sic' was simply to express my incredulity that an early 20th century French frock might count as a British national treasure of such crucial significance as to require an export licence.


Chris Rywalt

January 26, 2009, 2:50 PM

Okay. I didn't think you'd miss the word, I just wanted to make sure.



January 26, 2009, 3:19 PM

Bunny, my condolences on your version of a culture ministry. It's amazing how such things can remain in operation, not to mention the money and effort wasted, when they're so patently ineffectual. Really, only the French should be allowed to have a Minister of Culture. It will help maintain their delusions of grandeur, which I suppose they can't dispense with, and it will help Louis XIV rest better in his grave.



January 26, 2009, 3:41 PM

Bunny I'm not sure to what extent England is deteriorating. I am an anglophile and I might think England less than others, but my impression is that of a typical old fart who thinks everything is slipping down the slope on a path of delusion and social self-destruction.

Perhaps this is just the way of nature and the reflection of age.



January 26, 2009, 4:50 PM

Back to the music v. art discussion: I found that my students, by and large, preferred the pop music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s over that of the 90s and 00s. The exception being late Johnny Cash. It is easy to consign my own judgments to olfartism, as opie is toying with, but these were the judgments of young turks confirming my own ... as far as pop music goes.

About the English: there is a good group called David Stephenson and Richard Bell that made a great song out of titles to Ed Ruscha works titled "I Just Want to Hang Out with Ed Ruscha". Unlike most singing, the accent comes through.

Visual art is much stickier. Young artists seem able to accept the trashy stuff without pumping any adrenaline.

Chris, As far as the gold standard goes, count me as a supporter too.


Chris Rywalt

January 26, 2009, 7:04 PM

I just read Paul Krugman's The Return of Depression Economics which makes it obvious why the gold standard isn't a good idea (although it doesn't address the issue directly at all). In fact Krugman is one of the very few authors I've read who makes economics not only comprehensible but actually interesting. (I read the old edition from 1999 without the 2008 changes.)



January 26, 2009, 7:53 PM

We need to straighten out our culture, what there is of it, before we even think about a "culture czar." Talk about putting the cart before the horse.



January 26, 2009, 9:20 PM

Canada and its provinces have ministerial situations not very far different from Bunny's description of England's. There are all kinds of bases for complaint against our national and provincial funding bodies (money management being the primary task of any ministry).

Where England includes culture with its media and sport, Alberta used to lump culture in with all the other things people do - "Ministry of Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture" - but the province is now testing art's potential for reducing crime (I'm not kidding, this is part of the ministry's mandate) by including it in the Ministry of Culture and Community Spirit.

The Canada Council is pre-occupied with funding cultural diversity, and unless you're an active memeber of a visible ethnic minority you're S.O.L. That's my ethnic heritage, I'm afraid, Shit-Outta-Luck; I wish I could make something of it. Like a film.



January 26, 2009, 10:31 PM

Oh, for crying out loud, Ahab, that's embarrassing (your government, that is). At least I'm embarrassed for it. Like I said, only the French can pull off this sort thing, primarily because this is a very French sort of posture, and one expects it of them. They've been at it for ages, so it pretty much goes with the territory and seems more or less natural, if not inevitable. I'm afraid Canadians are quite out of their depth in these particular waters.


Pretty Lady

January 26, 2009, 11:03 PM

I'm pretty much against this idea, too, for all the reasons that Bunny mentions and then some. I'm also afraid of getting lynched by the legion of enthusiastic artist friends who keep forwarding petitions for me to sign, requesting that the government put an entire bureaucracy in place to meddle with the arts.

Chris, I've been around long enough to be deeply convinced that the government is never going to give me any money for what I do. If this 'culture czar' thing happens, I am certain that the forces responsible for making the contemporary art scene a wasteland of vacuous, pretentious, disconnected, nonaesthetic goop will get in far ahead of me and ensure that any money and attention will be channelled in their direction. With the current economic climate, there's a chance that there will be a shakedown in the art world, and that art with substance and quality will eventually get a look-see; if the government jumps in and insulates people from the consequences of their mindless actions, the outpouring of dreck will continue forever.

I do remember, back in art school, working with a Dutch guy who had his tuition, art supplies and living expenses entirely paid for by the Dutch government. He was a remarkably calm, sensible, and well-balanced individual; he didn't think he was a 'real artist,' but hoped to paint one original stroke before quitting.

Maybe that's just Dutch temperament, but wouldn't it be nice if a just society could produce non-egoic citizens?


Chris Rywalt

January 27, 2009, 12:37 AM

The Dutch actually drive better and more safely without signs and traffic signals, so they're clearly not normal. I wouldn't expect anyone to live up to their standards.

You're probably right, PL, about where the money would go. But hope springs eternal, even if it quickly washes down the mountainside into the containment pond.



January 27, 2009, 7:47 AM

I think the garbage will be washed away, Pretty Lady, at least some of it. I had a long talk with a dealer yesterday about that - he was seeing signs.

Chris I wish there was a "containment pool". The problem is that the so-called money we thought we had was just an illusion. The containment pool has evaporated.



January 27, 2009, 8:20 AM

Not only will some garbage be washed away, there will be less incentive to collect more of it. I think we have an opportunity to muscle in with solid, beautiful work at less-than-exorbitant prices.


Bob Ragland

January 27, 2009, 4:04 PM

I think anyone who will work to raise the profile of VISUAL artists, can be good.
I have had a NON-starving art career by raising my own money.
Artists who want some one to give them some money, will have to wait for a very long time.

I have had the persistence to get an NPR interview-12-27-2008, find it by
You will hear some of my thoughts about being a self sufficient artist. I am not the best artist , but I give my art life the best effort.
Art Czar or not, real artists will ARTON!!!!!
The feds ain't going to make an artist's career, only the artist can do that.


Chris Rywalt

January 27, 2009, 6:54 PM

A containment pool isn't as nice as it sounds, OP. It's basically an above-ground toxic waste dump, theoretically isolated by a plastic sheet underneath and walls all around. Most containment pools are filled with agricultural sludge -- water contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides, feces, carcasses, and so on.

So what happened was our money all evaporated leaving only containment pools.

Anyway, I'm personally upset at Bob coming in here with a dose of hopeful reality. Real artists don't need bailouts -- fooey. Everyone could use a bailout!



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