Jan 28 2017

Ars Gratia Artis

Or, if you will l’art pour l’art, saying it in Latin just makes it seem older and more profound than its relatively modern (Théophile Gautier, 1835) coinage would suggest.

Not that it was entirely original, the nature of art was a pretty hot topic among Romantics-

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats, 1819

And the nature of Art, Beauty, and Truth do have deep and ancient Philosophical underpinnings and were frequently debated in Classical (as in Greco-Roman and older, not mid to late Enlightenment) thought.

Edgar Allen Poe put it this way-

We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake […] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: – but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

The Poetic Principle (1850)

So if “Art for Art’s Sake” is sufficient, why should there be Government subsidies at all?

I am fortunate to practice an Art, Writing, that is essentially a solitary pursuit. It’s easy, all you need do is sit at your keyboard, open up a vein, and bleed. The representational Arts, like Painting, Photography, etc. are somewhat the same. Not that they don’t require some kind of financial commitment, I type on several thousand dollars of hardware and software, just that the cost is modest and can be borne by an indulgent and sympathetic family or better yet an admiring patron. Theo bought Vincent’s paint and canvas.

Some would call Theo an enabler, I consider him a life saver. The thing about being an Artist is that you can hardly help yourself. Should you take away my toys and lock me up I’d soon enough be scribbling on the walls in feces and blood.

But not every Art is like that, particularly the Performing Arts. You do Music you need at least a Band and better an Orchestra. You do Ballet and you need an Orchestra and Dancers. You do Theater you need Actors, you do Opera you need Actors who can sing and an Orchestra. Probably a Chorus too.

And there are contributing Arts like Sound and Set Design and Costume and Make Up and all those other Oscar categories you ignore.

All of which cost bigger than family or an individual patron can be expected to provide and while you may argue “Magic of the Marketplace” I urge you to consider the number of unpopular disasters and disappointments Hollywood produces every year (X-Men: Apocalypse or BFG anyone?). Box Office and Merchandising are a crapshoot at best.

So the Government subsidizes the Arts in the form of minuscule grants that hardly begin to cover the actual costs of production and in any event represent trivial (as in we spend more on staple and paperclip theft) portions of the overall budget. Additionally the vast majority (99%) goes to thoroughly conventional projects that may have been controversial in late 1800s Paris but are now dusty relics.

Good-Bye to All That

How the arts helped kill off the NEA — by trying to play the conservative “economic value” game
by Matt Burriesci, Salon
Saturday, Jan 28, 2017

I’ve worked in the arts for 25 years. In all that time, I’ve never met a single artist or cultural leader who has said to me, “You know what I’m really passionate about? Improving math scores, creating exports, advancing health care and helping local merchants.” To be fair, the first reason on the list (“Arts promote true prosperity”) does make the case worth making — that the arts are central to our humanity. But even this argument is cloaked in cynical economic parlance. Items 2-10 on the list are the real defenses that arts leaders parrot — that the arts are only valuable insofar as they are economically beneficial, or they are good for the “real” academic disciplines like math and science. (The “social impact” defense argues that the U.S. military uses the arts to “promote troop readiness and resilience.”)

All of it is very clever, and at least some of it is true. But none of it has much to do with the true value of the arts and humanities. The arts and humanities have value because they make us better human beings. That’s basically it. They teach us history and encourage virtue, they help us debate serious issues in a respectful (or sometimes indirect) manner, they make us appreciate beauty, they make us more empathetic and they challenge our own beliefs. All of this helps ensure a skeptical, human and responsible citizenry. And if you don’t think that has value, well — what rock have you been living under?

A humanistic culture does not select a crazy demagogue to lead it. We are no longer a humanistic culture. One of the reasons we are not is because we, as cultural leaders, have abandoned our charge to create that culture, and do so without shame, apology or equivocation. We have spent far too much time articulating the economic and ancillary benefits of our disciplines and not enough time actually building and serving the culture.

Instead of focusing on our core artistic and humanistic missions, many cultural organizations have (out of necessity) become quasi-social service agencies, filling critical gaps in public education, health care and even care for our returning veterans. All of this is laudable work, but why have we done it? Why aren’t our public schools doing it? Why aren’t hospitals and the VA doing it? Isn’t that their job?

If we’d like to discuss metrics, deliverables and results, then we must ask how our interests have fared by employing this economic strategy. The main reason you have a lobbyist is to advance your priorities as central to the republic, and to preserve those federal agencies and policies that support those priorities. Americans for the Arts has spent years and tens of millions of dollars advancing this neoliberal defense. Have we seen a steady increase in funding for agencies like the NEA and the NEH? Or have these agencies teetered on the brink of elimination for more than a decade? Funding for both of these agencies is far below what it was in the early 1990s, even as the federal budget has nearly doubled in size. For too long, arts leaders accepted a foolishly low bar for success: the mere preservation of these agencies has been accepted as victory.

Perhaps private funding for the arts has increased? Not exactly. When it comes to institutional philanthropy in general, we have seen funding for purely artistic and humanistic endeavors shrivel up and die. Gone are the days when national private foundations made unrestricted gifts to cultural institutions simply because it was seen a self-evident public good, or because museums, theaters and libraries obviously need money to continue operating. As a result, we have contorted our programs to serve agendas that would’ve seemed bizarre 50 years ago — after-school care, basic arts education (long eliminated from most public schools, another failure), even job training and cancer care.

Where, exactly, are the results? They are not to be found in the opinions of our policymakers. Regardless of political party, politicians love to mock the worthlessness of the arts and humanities — as Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have all done. You won’t find results in our educational system, which now almost goes out of its way to ensure that our children are not exposed to silly things like virtue, skepticism, empathy and aesthetic beauty. You won’t find results on college campuses, where liberal arts programs are being decimated across the country.

The strategy of advancing the economic benefits of the arts has failed. The failure has been demonstrable and total.

Tellingly, in the predictable outrage over the proposed elimination to the agencies, Robert Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts, did not even bother to appeal to the intrinsic value of the arts and humanities. He seemed to think that the opposition simply didn’t understand, and all would be well once it was explained.

“The NEA is different today. It does work for veterans and the military, benefits the economy and job development and community development,” he said to the Washington Post. “President Ronald Reagan thought eliminating the cultural agencies was worth considering, but he changed his mind, becoming a staunch advocate. A number of years later, the Gingrich Congress wanted them eliminated. In both cases, Republicans turned it back.”

The opposition understands perfectly. They’ve got all our little charts, reports and statistics. They just don’t care. They have never cared, and they will never care. We have not succeeded just because our opponents have temporarily been impeded from achieving their political objectives. All we’ve done is slow them down. It’s a Fabian strategy, and while it may have saved us from destruction, the threat will never disappear until we take the battle to Carthage.

That’s something I learned from history. Remember history? We used to think it was pretty important. Don’t we wish everyone had a good sense of history right about now? Wouldn’t it be nice if we’d made it a national priority?

Our opponents actually believe in something, and they have the courage of their convictions. They will always advocate for the elimination of the NEA and the NEH, and they will do so for myriad ideological reasons — to wit: it is wasteful government spending, it is not the government’s job to support the arts and humanities, these agencies are merely pork programs for blue states and liberals, and the arts and humanities are detrimental to the larger conservative agenda.

The opposition does not accept the concept of immaterial value. In fact, the belief in such a concept is viewed as naïve and illegitimate — but sadly not just by the opposition. Cultural leaders and our advocates have embraced that cynicism as well. We have helped our opponents achieve their goals by cozying up to their neoliberal fantasy. We have accepted that the only value in life is monetary, and if something isn’t immediately measurable, then it should not even be discussed.

It is awful that we may now face the elimination of the NEA and NEH, and I will do everything I can to prevent it from happening. But this crisis presents a remarkable opportunity for cultural leaders. We can extricate ourselves from this colossal strategic failure, and return to our true business: rebuilding the culture. We should stop being ashamed to believe in a value that cannot be weighed, measured, cut, or quantified — and to try and convince others to believe it, too.

I’ve floated these ideas to a few of my friends who work in the arts — privately, of course, because one never wants to utter such things in public. Almost all of them have said the same thing, and in the same weary, confused voice: “Well, yeah, Burriesci­­, I mean, I agree — but that’s just idealism.”


That’s all it is.

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