Thursday, June 09, 2011

More Liberals and the Arts

CAP's Alyssa Rosenberg delves into the issue of whether the arts should do more to align themselves with progressive politics (and by extension the Democratic party) to shore up a more durable position from which to protect its funding. She sees the appeal of this idea, but also wisely points out the costs:
But powerful outside groups have had to use hot pincers to obtain much of the support labor and women’s organizations have obtained from the Democratic lawmakers, and still experienced dramatic contractions of labor rights, union memberships, and abortion access. Throwing in with a political party may get the arts community access to machinery and infrastructure—but it would require arts organizations to build formidable new organizations and fundraising capacity to earn a seat at the party table, much less a favorable slot in the list of Democratic priorities.
The cultural sector in America possesses nothing akin to the organizations these other causes use to translate supporter dollars into lobbying might. And while there are an endless number of enlightened notions precious to progressive Washington, only the ones that line up along some angle of money and constituency actually precipitate action and taxpayer dollars.
That aside, how likely of a fit are the arts for progressive politics? Rosenberg calls it a "tough sell" because progressives, despite their best intentions, still have a hard time sticking up for controversial art, a big roadblock given conservatives' undimmed enthusiasm for culture war stunts.
But I think this underplays the real challenge: that liberals have serious misgivings about whether even the non-degenerate arts warrant government funding. Certainly there is a large swathe of liberals (who probably intersect with public television and radio contributors) that consider arts funding a virtuous use of taxpayer dollars. We observes this milieu, compares it to the narrow-minded, anti-intellectual strain of conservative zealotry now (still) ascendant, and assumes that liberals must be on the side of culture and by extension whatever government can do for it. But that fight is really about free speech and cultural tastes (i.e. letting people express themselves vs. being a reactionary asshole); it tells us very little about how different political persuasions feel about government's role in subsidizing the arts.
So in the interest of figuring out where liberal-minded people really come down on that question, I submit four concerns/suspicions that a lot, if not the majority, of liberals probably have about government funded sponsorship of the arts:
  1. Arts subsidies have some fundamentally anti-populist features. This is the protest one hears against government support when aligned with bastions of "high" culture--that the government shouldn't be in the business of supporting culture that is experienced by relatively few people or culture that, despite subsidies, still charges for entry.
  2. Unsubsidized culture is satisfying enough. If you don't mind largely excluding a few sectors (i.e. classical music), it is the case today that a liberal-minded person in a big city can live a highly fulfilling cultural life without ever consuming (or more importantly perceive that they are consuming) a piece of art that has received any direct government subsidy.
  3. Arts subsidies' effect on societal welfare is weak to nonexistent. After 40 years of fighting a rearguard action against conservatives who would drown government in the proverbial bathtub, liberals are highly protective of the narrow but unimpeachable space in which justified government action exists. As an economic welfare enhancing activity, the arts may well have some value, but it falls somewhere below the already dubious value of state-sponsored sports stadiums and well short of preferred investments in infrastructure, health care, etc.
  4. Arts subsidies go to works without redeeming social/political content. This is sort of the liberal counterpart of conservatives' anger over taxpayer dollars spent on "degenerate art"--a sense that, if the people are going to fund art, then it should at least advance the peoples' aims. More fundamentally, it is a rebuke to the (not unfounded) concern that governments sponsor art in order to perpetuate the dominant culture.
Save perhaps for #3 and probably #4, you'll recognize these as points that Greg Sandow makes frequently. What arts (and especially classical music) inclined folks need to confront is that he's not playing a classical music provocateur when he channels these ideas, but as a liberal trying to reconcile his enthusiasm for the arts with his gut reactions.

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