Two stories in this week’s papers about shocks to the cultural establishment have had me wondering whether to entitle this edition of my blog “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” or “I Told You So.” Do I get a merit badge for resisting temptation? (I obviously don’t deserve one, because the previous sentence proves I can’t entirely resist.)
One, by Mike Boehm of the Los Angeles Times, reports on art world response to a new Rand Corporation study, “Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts,” issued Tuesday. This is one of a series of Rand studies commissioned by the largest arts philanthropies (The Pew Trusts, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation, etc.) in recent years. The idea was to give Rand — with its mega-establishment credentials and clout — vast sums of money in the serene hope it would corroborate what institutional arts advocates had been asserting for many years, that support for arts organizations is a wise investment of public funds because it has all sorts of underappreciated economic and educational benefits. Here’s how I characterized this approach in a talk I gave to a Western States Arts Foundation cultural policy symposium in 1999 (read the whole talk here):
“Mozart is good for math scores; arts programs in prisons reduce recidivism; public art raises utilization rates of public plazas. It’s not that such things aren’t true — I’m prepared to believe them all. It’s that embracing these arguments with such fervor exposed the weakness of their advocates. Decades of economistic and specialist discourse had led to the absolute impoverishment of any argument from the power of art to stun, to speak truth, to celebrate, to condemn, to refresh perception, to suggest what cannot be adequately expressed outright. Leaning so hard on art’s secondary effects implied that the argument from its primary purposes had been definitively lost, and this inadvertently lent aid and comfort to the opposition. If all we had to offer was this limp stuff about reading and math scores — which could be raised just as high by so many other means — wasn’t that tantamount to admitting defeat? Trying to justify cultural subvention through social-scientific quantification was a depressing misstep, like a tired poker player half-heartedly bluffing his way through the last hand of the game.”
What happened to make the heads of the major arts lobbies so unhappy this week? At tremendous cost in foundation funds that could and should have gone to artists and arts groups, Rand has said that previous studies claiming huge economic and other side-benefits for arts funding are deeply flawed. As the article linked above sums it up, “Rand proposes that advocates become less fixated on what the arts can do for business growth and kids’ math and reading scores, and stress intangibles such as enchantment, enlightenment and community-building.”
They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day.
The other big story is the announced departure next year of PBS CEO Pat Mitchell after what will be five years of a failed strategy, public television’s bending so far backwards to accommodate the right that it has fairly asphyxiated itself. In a market-driven society like the U.S., public broadcasting should exist to correct the imbalances in expression and communication that come with the commercialization of absolutely everything. It should be protected from all commercial considerations, and be guaranteed complete freedom of expression. What’s more, these things should be granted happily as free-will offerings from a polity that cherishes our sacred freedoms.
Instead, since the Reagan era, the public dimension of public broadcasting has been systematically starved as punishment for its perceived liberal bias, until — to borrow a friend’s colorful metaphor — it has become weak enough to drown in the bathtub. After decades of acquiescing to such treatment, public broadcasting leaders are scared of their own shadows, most recently giving into intolerant pressure groups by pulling a kids’ show that dared to feature a family with lesbian parents. Like the arts philanthropies that poured money into justifying arts support on the basis of math scores and economic multiplier effects, these cowed leaders cannot even imagine standing up for the strong constitutional values they should embody and represent. Public broadcasting’s bold visionary solution is to do an end-run around even having to ask for public funding: selling off broadcast spectrum and using the income to establish a trust fund.
Our public discourse about culture has been tightly constrained by received ideas and silly schemes, including the attempt to justify art as economic development and to repackage public broadcasting as a form of corporate “image advertising” (as when Mobil temporarily burnished its image by associating itself with “Masterpiece Theatre”). At the 1999 symposium, I quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for authentic awareness…” Clearing away the cliches and disguises, we can begin to understand the crucial question that’s really at stake: What will become of a society whose public and institutional leaders refuse to face truth, to pursue beauty, to honor our deepest freedoms, to cultivate creativity and the unfettered flow of ideas?
I realize it’s considered embarrassing to speak such truths in the public policy arena. But please join me anyway in daring to contemplate these questions in the light of authentic awareness, then exercising our freedom of speech — which might actually help us preserve it.