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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Defunding the Arts

In ancient Athens, when it came to finding money to put on a show, one of the city fathers would gently “volunteer” a wealthy citizen to serve as the show’s producer. This producer, now called a choragus or chorus leader, would foot the bill for most if not all of the show’s expenses. In return, the choragus would be honored with a crown and a place in the procession to the theater.

My mind drifts back to sunny old Athens as I reflect on the current debate in Washington regarding the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes under its wing National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). (For a primer on the financial relationship between these entities, see this.) Leaving aside for the moment the issues of defunding the news programming found on NPR and educational programming on PBS, the issue of defunding the arts programming on these networks raises interesting questions about the relationship of art and politics at all levels of government. Current defenses of federal arts funding are the last, fading echoes of the ancient Athenian inheritance. Arts entertainment is for the benefit of everyone in the city (so the argument goes), therefore the city should take responsibility for providing it.

But we need to remember that a trip to the theater in ancient Athens was a very different experience than that of tuning in on a Sunday night to an episode of Masterpiece Mystery. First of all, theatrical performances in ancient Athens were part of a religious festival. That parade to the theater in which the choragus was honored was a procession in honor of the god Dionysius. The plays themselves, moreover, while certainly means of entertainment, entertained by making space for a communal reflection on what was most important in a shared way of life.

This is not the 21st-century American experience. We do not engage the arts from a shared moral and religious viewpoint. Far from it. We live in a fractured moral and religious environment, a brokenness that is reflected in the arts we produce.

A work of art always embodies a philosophy of the human person. A work of art always says something significant about who we are, where we are going, and how we are to get there. But again, in our political community, there is no such philosophy that is communally shared. Instead, there are many philosophies in various stages of conflict and coexistence. In light of this situation, what does it mean for the state to patronize the arts? Whose art is to be patronized? Which philosophy? How are these questions to be answered except by someone in power exerting his or her preference?

Aristotle believed that the state was obliged to have concern for the arts insofar as (1) they provide relaxation (and thus rest for further work and virtuous activity); and (2) insofar as they affect public manners and morals.  

Do these principles apply to our present situation? Well, the private sector does well enough on its own providing opportunities for relaxation. But not (it will be countered) the best kinds of relaxation—that relaxation afforded by works of art that reform the spirit in a rich and delightful way. 

But what works (it will be countered in turn) are those? Who is to decide which works reform the spirit in rich and delightful ways? One federal bureaucrat’s masterpiece is another federal bureaucrat’s piece of raw sewage. A rating system for the movies might be the best we can hope to agree on, and we all know how hopelessly vague that is.

Our political community wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it officially eschews any substantial philosophy of the human person. On the other hand, it wants to subsidize substantial philosophies of the human person as embodied in works of art. It’s an incoherency that is best silenced by cutting the funding that gives it a voice.

But what of this, call it the “national parks” objection: shouldn’t we, as a people, have some beautiful works of art we can congregate around, just as, in the national park system, we commonly enjoy beautiful tracts of land?

On Aristotelian principles, I think the answer is a qualified yes. There should be some works of art that are a product of, and dedicated to, our communal life. But like the national parks, and to avoid the problem of conflicting philosophies, they should be a relative few, and focused on uncontroversial aspects of the American experience. So I’d be happy to see the federal government fund a national Fourth of July celebration on the mall in Washington, a Ken Burns documentary on jazz or baseball, or projects at Colonial Williamsburg. Beyond this brief, I don’t think we need to publicly fund the works of individual artists pursuing their own visions. “I would rather have as my patron a host of anonymous citizens digging into their own pockets for the price of a book or a magazine,'' wrote the late John Updike, “than a small body of enlightened and responsible men administering public funds.” Even JFK didn’t believe that the government should fund symphonies or opera companies, except when they were engaged in cultural exchange programs.   

The philosopher Mortimer Adler, in his wonderful book on these very issues, Art and Prudence, notices that when it comes to the state’s relationship to the arts, only popular art is relevant. If a minority wants to go to the New York Metropolitan Ballet, by all means let them enjoy it. But what matters politically is the art that the majority want to experience. This means that a Harry Potter book, or a film like The Social Network, has more relevance to our communal lives as Americans than most of the offerings from PBS. This isn’t an argument for government intrusion into the film, record, and publishing industries. It is a reminder that there is more than one way for art to relate to the political life.

For consider: there are instances when a work of art brings people together across a fairly wide spectrum of moral and religious viewpoints, and in these instances something like the communal reflection of the ancient Athenian audience occurs. But notice that these instances are customarily not produced by PBS, which offers arts programming of a fairly highbrow sort. Rather, whatever communal art experience we enjoy in this country is provided by private corporations—be they film studios, record labels, or book publishers. It is these private entities that generate works of the widest popular appeal.

This is not to say that all works of popular culture are aesthetically superior to works of so-called “higher” culture. I am not arguing that Harry Potter is just as good as Shakespeare. I am arguing, rather, that in our political and economic situation, private enterprise generates the widest possible communal engagement in the arts. Because of this, our focus should not be on federal subsidies for the arts—but on private efforts to make our popular culture as philosophically rich as it can possibly be. 

I say all this as a fan of many PBS programs. I also say this as one who lives in a town—Waco, Texas—which chooses not to support televised programming at the local PBS affiliate, so that I cannot even see PBS programs on broadcast television. To the persistent objection that without federal funding high-quality arts programming will be put in jeopardy, I reply that such a view is fantastical. We are swimming in privately-funded arts programming every bit as good, and often better, than what we find on PBS. At the same time, there is no reason to think that programs of the quality of many PBS programs cannot compete in this marketplace.

In the end, those like me who want to see a program like Masterpiece Mystery should be ready to pay for it. That is, to volunteer as choragai by reaching into their own pocket.  

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