William Osborne on 18 Jan 2001 19:49:08 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] The NEA's Political Context

I would like to briefly comment on a remark Bush's proposed Attorney
General, John Ashcroft, has made about the arts, since it tells us
something about cultural politics in America.   Using time-worn methods of
populist politics, Ashcroft suggested that opera is for the Mercedes crowd
and does not interest folks who drive pick-ups:

 "Now, the opera gets a subsidy from the NEA, but by and large, Willie
Nelson and Garth Brooks don't.  Those of us that drive our pickups to
those concerts don't get a subsidy; but the people who drive their
Mercedes to the opera get a subsidy."

Is there more behind this statement than meets the eye?  Ashcroft has
worked to completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, even
though the funding it provides is already very small.  The federal
government spends about 100 million dollars annually on the NEA, which
amounts to only 36 cents a year for every American citizen.  No other
government of an industrialized country spends so little on the arts. 
(Vienna's three State Theaters, for example, receive one third more funding
than the entire NEA.)

Mr. Ashcroft has attempted to justify his stance through rhetoric which
portrays the working class as uninterested in opera and other forms of
"high culture."  Such polemic is not only divisive, it is partially
misleading.  The Santa Fe Opera provides a case in point.  New Mexico is
the 49th poorest state in the nation, and yet many of its people, including
the working class, recognize the value of the Santa Fe Opera (a high
quality regional house that is something of an anomaly in America.)  Even
if they can't attend, the state's citizens know the opera lends the state
prestige, that it brings the region many economic advantages, and that its
presentations are valuable in themselves.  Many working class families in
New Mexico would jump at the chance to take their children to the opera if
they could afford it (which most can't.)  Like people everywhere, they want
their children to have the better things in life, and they see the arts as
part of those opportunities.  

In reality, Mr. Ashcroft's "Mercedes crowd" frequents opera because they
are often the only ones that can afford it, and even more, because there
are hardly any significant opera houses at all in America outside of a few
major metropolitan areas.  Astoundingly,  the Met is the only full season,
year round opera in America.   Even San Francisco, which is presumably one
of the world's most cultured cities, only has a half time opera.   In the
heartland of America, the usual fare consists of occasional slap-dash,
semi-professional productions performed in and with improvised, rental

International comparisons provide troubling perspectives.  In most European
countries, public access to the performing arts is considered essential,
something like public schools and libraries.  In Germany, many cities with
only 100,000 people have a full time, year round opera house and symphony
orchestra.   Due to state funding, the average price of an opera ticket in
Germany is about thirty dollars.  That's not cheap, but families can afford
it on occasion.  I examined the price list and seating plan of the Met and
roughly estimated that the average price of a ticket is about 150 dollars,
or five times higher than the average opera ticket in Germany.   Due to
America's plutocratic system of "private" funding for the arts, the Met and
many other cultural institutions have the character and ethos of exclusive
cultural country clubs.  By denying funding for the arts, politicians like
Ashcroft create a form of cultural plutocracy, and then turn around and
criticize the arts for being elitist.  

Normally, America's policy of arts funding is thought of as a particular
aspect of its highly libertine ideology of free enterprise. But this might
only detract from a more problematic issue.  The Federal Government does
not hesitate to allocate trillions for scientific research.  In many
respects, the science departments of research universities are merely
extensions of  uncountable billions of government funding.  In the case of
science, there is little talk of "free enterprise" or "governmental
interference" -- something that apparently applies only to the arts.

So why the seemingly arbitrary double standard?

Many politicians, such as Jessie Helms or John Ashcroft, do not even
attempt to disguise that they reject public funding for the arts because
they do not like the art world's "Leftist" and "immoral" tendencies.  Seen
as such, the US government's paltry funding for the arts is not only an
economic philosophy, but also a somewhat less than subtle form of political
censorship.  If artists do not present what these politicians like, funding
is reduced or even eliminated.  (These same politicians have directed
similar forms of intimidation toward NPR and PBS, and even demanded they
"reform" their programming.) 

Many feel that America's policy for the arts has had a devastating effect
on it's cultural and social identity that extends well beyond silencing
"Leftist" or progressive views.  What is 36 cents a year compared to the
sums people spend on mindless Hollywood movies and videos?   How does 36
cents compare to the billions spent on advertisements supporting commercial
television's endless banalities?  

Over the long term, America's policies for funding the arts effect a form a
cultural repression that degrades and demeans the identity of people and
their society.

The way Helms and Ashcroft castigate and economically confine artistic
expression, suggests that the American government's negligible funding for
the arts is not merely based on conservative economic philosophy, but also
represents an ethos that functions something like a subtle, anti-Leftist
extension of McCarthyistic repression.  

William Osborne
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