I swore I was going to spend less time arguing about dumb shit on Twitter, but good intentions and their usual destination, etc. This time I blame Forum Theater trouble-starter Michael Dove, whose tweets in reply to a conservative New York theatermaker caught my eye the other day.
Said theatermaker recently argued in The Federalist that ending federal arts funding will be excellent for the arts, because free markets. I will leave others to belabor the obvious point — that this is an ideological argument, not a provable or even empirical one, every market being different, no market being entirely pure. (Also the argument is not a terribly civilized one, all truly free markets being, like unchecked nature, somewhat reddish in tooth and claw.)
I’ll focus chiefly instead on the weaknesses of the essay itself, upon which writer David Marcus followed up in an even thinner conversation with NPR’s Scott Simon. Read on for the point-by-point, if you like, but bottom line — to someone like me who’s been around for a few decades and watched these NEA fights before — is that Marcus’ argument is an old one built on faulty assumptions about both history and markets. Between that and its lack of rigor about what evidence it does cite, it doesn’t really carry much weight.
Here we go.
Claim 1: According to the NEA’s own numbers, in 1992 41 percent of American adults attended an “arts activity”; by 2012 that number was 33 percent. Arts institutions, which receive the bulwark of NEA funding, are failing badly at reaching new audiences, and losing ground. This is a direct result of the perverse market incentives our nonprofit arts system creates …
My take: Click that link and do your own reading, if you have time. You’ll discover — to your shock I’m sure — that Marcus has cherry-picked a topline result from the report he cites.
Yes, attendance at what the NEA calls “benchmark events” has atrophied among some (but not all) demographics. But in highlighting that big-picture result, the NEA specifically calls out — and Marcus ignores — other numbers showing that Americans of many stripes are coming to the arts in new and different ways that the benchmark measures can’t capture:
- A full 71 percent of Americans reported watching an arts event using electronic media.
- A gratifying 44 percent had “created, practiced, performed, edited, or remixed art” of some kind.
- And 55 percent of us attended a live performance of either a benchmark arts event — performances of jazz, classical music, opera, musical and non-musical plays, and ballet, plus visits to an art museum or gallery — or a non-benchmark arts event in a form that hadn’t been measured in previous studies.
In other words I haven’t even gotten past the executive summary, and I already know that either Marcus didn’t read very deeply into the report — or he’s being deeply disingenuous.
Note, by the by, that the “benchmark” events are just the sort of old-fashioned, hoity-toity arts Marcus sneers at in his essay, which advances the ancient canard that the NEA transfers wealth from poor old Real Americans(TM) in order to fund fancy evenings at the opera for parasitic elites. Newer, less traditional, more audience-friendly art forms are among the non-benchmark forms for which attendance has been ticking up — which is in part what Marcus, in his Federalist essay, claims he’d like to see.
One further note: The overall attendance decline is “a direct result of the perverse market incentives our nonprofit arts system creates”? Probably not provable, and in any case certainly not proved anywhere in or even near Marcus’ essay.
Claim 2: Many theater companies, even the country’s most “successful,” get barely 50 percent of their revenue from ticket sales. Much of the rest comes from tax-deductible donations and direct government grants. This means that the real way to succeed as an arts organization is not to create a product that attracts new audiences, but to create a product that pleases those who dole out the free cash.
My take: Well sure, if you’re an utterly soulless cynic, that’s one way to behave in a market. (And yes, the nonprofit grant ecosystem is a kind of marketplace, just not a purely consumer-driven marketplace.)
In the real world, however, “those who dole out the free cash” write extraordinarily thoughtful grant guidelines that require art-makers to explain their approach to things like:
- incorporating new technologies
- contributing to the physical improvement of their communities
- re-imagining work so that it, yes, reaches new and different audiences
- how to make art in public so as to build community bonds
- and, wait for it: boosting audience numbers generally.
But wait! Not only do grants come with guidelines, they come with reporting requirements. In other words, “those who dole out the free cash” are paying attention to results, not just to your pie-in-the-sky art-maker hopes and your proposal for an all-vegetarian Hamlet in space. (And make no mistake, pie-in-the-sky hopes about better outcomes are all that’s on offer when Marcus or anyone else suggests scrapping public funding for the arts in favor of letting the free market decide what arts and artists to support.)
Bottom line: “The real way to succeed as an arts organization,” to quote Marcus again, is to do all the things a healthy arts organization must, which includes constantly working on finding new and under-served audiences. As far as I can tell from looking at grant guidelines, the NEA (and private foundations, and other arts funders) understand this quite well, and they take it carefully into account when they award grants.
Claim 3: In 2014 an absurd study from Southern Methodist University, funded by arts groups, purported to find that NEA grants provide art for all income levels. Even The New York Times ran a triumphant story, painting Ryan’s concerns as lies. The study’s methodology was quickly dismantled.
Hold up now: Was it? By whom? Please show your work, especially if you’re publishing in a place where you can hyperlink to the said dismantling.
I suspect Marcus means this ArtsJournal item, which raises a mild objection to the study’s approach — which a study author defends in the comments — and to the language framing those results. I suspect that Marcus means that item because Marcus appears in those same comments. More than once. And links out to his own response on the topic.
So by “the study’s methodology was quickly dismantled,” he appears to mean that he and another dude, who at least has the benefit of academic credentials, disagreed with the study’s findings or with the way those findings were (a) framed in the report narrative or (b) reported on by The New York Times. Which is fine, but hardly dispositive.
Claim 3.1: SMU had used the income level of ZIP codes in which NEA-funded institutions exist to argue that institutions in poorer ZIP codes provided art for those poorer citizens. But this is an ecological fallacy. Just because a theater or concert hall exists near a housing project doesn’t mean residents of the project are buying expensive tickets for events.
My take: No indeed it doesn’t mean they’re “buying expensive tickets.” But it might well indicate that those residents have access to cheap or free tickets through an audience-access initiative or other community-enrichment program supported by NEA funding and run by that theater or concert hall. “Poor neighbors probably aren’t paying full price” is just a lazy-ass argument. Next?
Claim 3: Taking away free government money for the arts won’t make art disappear. … It will force artists and arts organizations to finally come to terms with their market realities. Audiences are better than experts at deciding what art is good or important.
My take: Sorry, what? In what universe is the quality or the enduring importance of a piece of art — as opposed to its immediate popularity, which is a very different thing — something that’s better determined by “market realities,” which might include everything from the hurricane season to Beyonce’s tour schedule?
Experts, including scholars and artmakers and critics and reporters with actual subject-area knowledge, can contribute hugely and usefully to the canonical assessment of many things that a consumer or even a mass of consumers can’t, whether it’s the optimal tuning for a Formula One engine or the likely appeal of a new play drawing on a thousand-year-old theatrical tradition.
“Audiences are better than experts at deciding what art is good or important,” considered charitably, is Wisdom of Crowds thinking applied in You Are Not a Gadget contexts. It's a claim that makes sense only in an ideological conversation, not an aesthetic or functional one. It’s also the shabbiest kind of anti-intellectualism, as snobbish in its own way as a dowager’s red-staircase sniff at the underdressed rubes headed for the Family Circle.
Claim 4: One argument we always hear about state funding of the arts is that it has always been this way. We hear about Shakespeare and the Medici. But Shakespeare was a member of one of the earliest for-profit corporations in the English world, The King’s Men. The company received legal protection from court, but it also turned a profit.
My take: Oy. It’s always about the actual monetary profits with conservatives, isn’t it? Never about the intangibles — the profits of the spirit. Firstly, Shakespeare also had private patrons, some of whom were state actors, and it’s difficult to separate the state’s interests in promoting Shakespeare’s career from the patrons’. Secondly, the profits from the King’s Men didn’t fund the sonnets, without which we would be rather culturally poorer.
Claim 4.1: Also, the Medici didn’t sponsor art to be charitable. It was a status symbol for a great and powerful family. It was renaissance marketing.
Ahem: Speaking of state actors whose public and private interests can’t be separated. The Medici glorified themselves and the city-state they controlled at the same time.
More to the point: The “renaissance marketing” (again, what a grubby view of things) in which they indulged reflected ideals of intelligence, wealth, and taste that were ascribed not just to the Medici but to all Florentines and eventually to all of Italy.
If NEA grants help to fund art that projects to the rest of the globe a sense that Americans are possessed of a fraction of that taste, wealth and intelligence, the Endowment should be regarded as a national treasure by every last wearer of a MAGA hat.
Claim 5: [T]here was a tremendous appetite for high art among Americans, long before the advent of the non-profit system. The cultural literacy of the average American in 1950 makes today’s Americans look like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. Poets and conductors were famous ...
Oh for love of the sweet baby Jeebus: Marcus made a slightly more specific claim — that we could count on the modern arts ecosystem to thrive without NEA funding and other structural support because hey, “[Leonard] Bernstein and [Robert] Frost were rockstars” — in the Twitter exchange with Michael Dove that caught my attention in the first place. It was the sheer absurdity of that observation — past performance offered straight-faced as evidence of future growth — that made me want to see what else this dude had to say. (I knew I shouldn’t have.)
Yes, Leonard Bernstein was a rockstar — before there was such a thing as rock ‘n’ roll to compete with him. Also, he was a rockstar in a universe that offered Americans three TV networks and the moviehouse as competitors for the arts-consumer dollar. And he became a rockstar in very large part by way of nonprofit-funded cultural programming that aired on those TV networks.
Oh wait, you want actual specifics? Fine. Bernstein was well-ish known by the late 1940s and early 1950s, having made a splash both as a conductor and as the composer of things like Trouble in Tahiti, Wonderful Town and Fancy Free, the 1944 ballet that got reworked into On the Town. Later on, Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957) would cement his legend in the theater, which was then still a potent sector of mainstream entertainment.
But arguably, what made Bernstein a rockstar rockstar were the mid-1950s TV broadcasts that put his movie-idol face in living rooms across the country: Omnibus, the CBS arts program on which he entertainingly explained the inner workings of the classics, starting with Beethoven’s Fifth.
It was Omnibus that eventually spun off Bernstein’s legendary Young People’s Concerts — 53 televised installments of a New York Philharmonic concert-hall staple that proved not just entertaining and enlightening, but fun and family-friendly as well in the era of Ozzie and Harriet.
Now follow closely here:
- Commercial TV networks arose in the U.S. when the government gave chunks of spectrum on the public airwaves to private corporations. That sounds a lot like a gigantic transfer of wealth from the great mass of the American public to a tiny elite, doesn’t it?
- Those networks, across several decades that were absolutely crucial to the formation of an American pop-cultural identiy, aired a certain amount of highbrow programming as part of what was essentially a quid pro quo with regulators, providing a public benefit in exchange for that government largesse. That sounds rather like a set of East and West Coast gatekeepers setting some of the terms of cultural engagement for the broader public, doesn’t it?
- This is my favorite bit: Omnibus was funded by the Ford Foundation. Now, Ford’s not the NEA, I grant you — but it is certainly one of those wicked, market-poisoning gangs of peasant-trampling elites who “dole out the free cash” to a chosen few artists.
So argue for a change in the not-for-profit funding system if you like. Hate on the NEA if you must — though it may make you seem rather small, especially if you’re not making a great deal more noise about the state-sponsored rapine that is the Farm Bill. (Farm Bill activism, of course, won’t make you as talk show-friendly as being an artist who doesn’t support public funding for the arts.)
But for heaven’s sake, don’t point to Leonard Bernstein’s popularity as evidence that the American public, roaming free among the amber waves and purple majesties of the all-hallowed market, will inevitably find great artists and turn them into pop-culture icons.
Because that’s just ignorance talking.