Post #1625 • October 9, 2013, 11:29 PM • 17 Comments
David Thompson's blog has become an indispensable resource for arguments against the public funding of contemporary culture. Not only does he have his ear to the ground for germane stories, his readership is bright and principled. One Sam Duncan just opined, brilliantly:
The Luvvies justify tax subsidy of The Arts by saying,We can't call ourselves a civilized country without opera houses, ballet companies, etc., etc.Well, perhaps not. But can we call ourselves a civilized country when we have to be forced to pay for these things against our will? Does that not then make us an uncivilized country pretending to be civilized, aping true civilization, a sort of cargo-culture? It's not our culture at all, spontaneously emerging through voluntary action, it's someone else's, laid on the top of our real civilization like fancy icing on (as they might have it) mud. Isn't that worse?
This was in response to David himself:
The political uniformity and extraordinary conceits of our own publicly-funded arts establishment have entertained us many, many times. As when the writer Hanif Kureishi told Guardian readers that culture, as represented by him, is “a form of dissent,” while the paper’s theatre critic Michael Billington claimed that a reduction of taxpayer subsidy for loss-making plays is nothing less than “suppression” of that “dissent.” Likewise, when the playwright Jonathan Holmes claimed that he and his peers are “speaking truth to power” – I kid you not – and insisted, based on nothing, that “the sole genuine reason for cuts is censorship of some form” and “the only governments to systematically attack the arts have been the ones that also attacked democracy.” You see, the suggestion that artists might consider earning a living, rather than leeching at the taxpayer’s teat, is apparently indistinguishable from fascist brutality and the end of civilisation. Though when the status quo in London’s dramatic circles is overwhelmingly leftwing, and when publicly subsidised art and theatre tend to favour parties that favour further public subsidy for art and theatre, what “dissent” actually means is somewhat unclear. And reluctant taxpayers please take note: Despite all the years of providing hand-outs, you’re now the oppressor.
David was commenting on this piece by David Marcus:
What conservatives should be saying is that the NEA and the tax exempt status of many arts organizations are hurting the very art forms they purport to support. They are in fact making American art less relevant to American’s lives.
... The fact that theater is about as old as human civilization and has existed under every governmental system known to man (including many which actively tried to suppress it) doesn’t seem to enter into this analysis [that theater cannot survive in the marketplace]. It is simply accepted that government support of the arts creates better, and better attended art. In fact, the perverse market incentives enshrined by federal tax expenditures through deductions for arts giving and direct government support have been accompanied by a decrease in attendance and a crisis in theater. There are three compelling reasons why we need to reexamine the role of government in the arts, and specifically in theater. First and most importantly it is failing. Less and less people go to theater even though the federal dollars keep rolling in. Second, these government dollars are not expanding the base of arts attendees, but rather subsidizing the entertainment of wealthy, white people. Thirdly, government dollars are not content neutral, a cultural ground game is being executed by the progressive Non Profit community to ensure that culture remains the sole preserve of leftist ideology.
This is a bold and new(ish) claim. David Mamet, whom Thompson also mentions, has weighed in on this to the effect that public subsidy has a distorting effect on cultural production, driving it leftward...
[The] question of art is neither “How does it serve the state?” (Stalinist) nor its wily modification into “How does it serve humanity?” but “How does it serve the audience?”
...but the assertion that it is even working against liberal interests is an advance.
Another commenter at David's blog brought up David Byrne's recent ballyhoo for Creative Time, published also in the Guardian. (Why is this topic causing so many Davids to converge?)
The city is a body and a mind—a physical structure as well as a repository of ideas and information. Knowledge and creativity are resources. If the physical (and financial) parts are functional, then the flow of ideas, creativity and information are facilitated. The city is a fountain that never stops: it generates its energy from the human interactions that take place in it. Unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where many of New York’s citizens have been excluded from this equation for too long. The physical part of our city—the body—has been improved immeasurably. I’m a huge supporter of the bike lanes and the bike-share program, the new public plazas, the waterfront parks and the functional public transportation system. But the cultural part of the city—the mind—has been usurped by the top 1 percent. ... Many of the wealthy don't even live here. In the neighborhood where I live (near the art galleries in Chelsea), I can see three large condos from my window that are pretty much empty all the time. What the fuck!?
Matt Welch replied,
Why, it's almost as if these goddamned 1 percenters go on year-long world tours or something! Byrne's daughter Malu recounted to the New York Times last year that while
my income barely supports my need for food, art materials and rented time in a studio space, I’m one of the lucky ones: I live rent-free, with my dad, David Byrne, at least for the time being. She went on to chronicle the opinions of a circle of creatives who long to escape the relentless financial pressures of New York City.
Her father has an inchoate solution in mind.
Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible? I think it is. It’s still the most stimulating and exciting place in the world to live and work, but it’s in danger of walking away from its greatest strengths. The physical improvements are happening—though much of the crumbling public infrastructure still needs fixing. If the social and economic situation can be addressed, we’re halfway there. It really could be a model of how to make a large, economically sustainable and creatively energetic city. I want to live in THAT city.
To be fair, David Byrne is not calling for public subsidy directly, though he's implying that the reinforcement of the city's intellectual life should come by way of the mechanism that reinforces its infrastructure. If only there was some one-percenter who had a vested interest in maintaining the culture of the city, with the financial means and connections to start a private initiative that would invest in promising creatives and make their material lives a little easier. Let me think... I know, why don't we propose the idea to David Byrne?
There's a wonderful passage from Bastiat:
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
I refrain from calling Byrne a socialist, but what goes unsaid here is that our objections are to a prior assumption by believers in state power, namely that because some undertaking is worth doing, that the state ought to be doing it. If Byrne is addressing society in the above quote (and I think he is to some degree, although largely by not making Bastiat's distinction), he is doing so as if it were an aggregate, even an abstraction. This may be the essence of the statist mind: that an abstracted aggregate of other people ought to be devoting their energies to the effort I deem noble. It's from there that the demands flow. The collectivist is not asking you to give up expenditures on your hobby to support his (even if his has been fashioned into a career), he's asking the abstract aggregate to change its trajectory or support the arts or something nebulous and lofty like that. Cargo Culture springs into being when such demands are met.