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Public Displays Of…

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As it turned out, the snow day was practically perfect–everything was cancelled before the day even started (we didn’t have to wait around wondering when administrations were going to cave in to the weather), and there was virtually no actual snow. 

Well, there was snow all day, but that really fine stuff that doesn’t even look like flakes, and it melted with contact with the ground.  It was warm enough so that I didn’t  have to put on a sweater all day, and warm enough this morning that I’m not wearing one now, either. 

Some of the snow did stick last night, but it’s no more than can be taken care of with a little rock salt on my front walk and a minor shovel at the end of my drive, where the snow plows put up a barrier when they plow the road.

Snow days without shoveling.  What a concept.

To get back to ugliness in art, or sort of back to it–none of the instances I can think of has anything to do with government funding.  In fact, with a few minor exceptions, government funded art tends to be mostly bland and sort of pointless, at least as far as I can see.

We get two PBS stations in my part of the state–Connecticut and New York–and when I turn them on I get either the mind-numbingly boring (Antiques Road Show), or entertainment for old farts.

I can remember the first time I watched PBS after we came back from England in 1994, an experience more striking because in the twenty years previous I’d either not had a television at all (all through college, graduate school and living in New York), or had British television, which is pretty damned funny in its own ways.

I remember when we first heard about public broadcasting, which was, I think, during the Kennedy administration.  At any rate, I always associated public broadcasting, both television and radio, with the Kennedys, and I think I associated things like the National Endowmen for the Arts with them, too.

And the impression I got, at the time, was that the point of public broadcasting was to make “good” art available to the masses–to offer Beethoven and Shakespeare in a sea of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best.

What’s on PBS these days seems to be Wayne Newton, Liberace and Lawrence Welk, all doing the kind of music that I associate with the “variety shows” of a certain period. 

And it’s the really bland, would have passed the network censors version of that music, too.  The one time I heard “Cutest Little Dinghy in the Navy,” I heard it on a for-profit Fox affiliate radio station called WATR, which broadcasts old fart music on Saturday mornings.  Some of those old farts had really interesting lives.

With the National Endowment for the Arts, the original purpose was–and the function often still is–to fund local hgh-art groups like regional professional ballets and symphony orchestras.  One of our local community colleges gets some of that money, and by combining it with its music department’s own budget puts on concerts of chamber music throughout the year. 

I’ve been to a few of those–I go, especially, when students or former students are playing–and they’re not terribly well attended, but they’re not empty, either.  And the area is not like the area further south, where you could probably fund performances like that on ticket sales and supporter subscriptions alone. 

So it seems to me that the NEA is now doing mostly what it was originally set up to do, and I’ll have to admit that I’m glad the grants to individual “artists” are gone, although maybe not for the reasons some of you are.

As a matter of principle, I don’t see why governments should fund the arts–but then, I don’t see why they shouldn’t, either.  New York City has a long tradition of funding museums and artistic venues, and the result has been a flexible ticket pricing system that makes it possible even for people with virtually no money to experience the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are, I think, good arguments for why a city would want to spend some of its money making such things available, and good arguments for why it might not, so I feel confident leaving that up to the city.

What I  don’t like, and never have, is the grant of government money directly to supposed “artists.”

Let me untangle this a little.

By “government money” here, I mean grants from a government organization like the NEA directly to the artist in question.

I do not mean academic posts like writer in residence or composer in residence at a college or university that happens to be government-run. 

I actually don’t much like that system either, but it’s a different issue from the one I’m talking about now, and I’ll get there later.

Okay, it’s a different issue with the same fatal flaw.  But I really will get to that later.

For me, the problem with grants to individual artists is this:  as with any patronage system, the guy handing over the money becomes the only audience of any importance for the artist receiving it.

The guy handing over the money, in this case, is not The Public, but the members of the committees that allocate the grants.  These people tend to run to a certain type and to hold certain ideas and prejudices in common, and those ideas and prejudices may have very little to do with what the rest of the world thinks.

What’s more, because these people are all generally like each other, they tend not to realize that some of the things they find perfectly obvious are completely incomprehensible to anybody else.

I want to stop here and make a point of something–I am not talking about “elitism” or “elitists.”  I’m not talking about these people “looking down on” the public, although some of them (not all of them) do. 

My problem is that there are so few of them, they all think the same way, and their standards for deciding what’s worthy of being funded and what is not are very narrow, very limited, and very one-dimensional.

I think that that is inevitable any time you try to make a panel of any kind–academics, church ladies, the local Chamber of Commerce–rather than the public at large the judge of what ought to be seen, shown, heard or read.

Note my list of bad ideas for forming artistic grant committees–an artistic grant committee composed entirely of members of the local Chamber of Commerce would have different specific problems than one composed of local college art professors, but they would still have problems and the problems would still stem from the same source.

The simple fact is that most of us do not know what the rest of us will value in art, any more than most of us know what the rest of us will value in life.  We just don’t.  Each of us makes that decision in her own mind.

What’s more, most of us don’t understand what the rest of us will understand when it comes to art, either.  Images and musical passages that speak to some people do not speak to others. 

But what’s most important here is this:  artists, be they writers or composers or musicians or painters or sculptors or whatever, need to learn to speak to audiences. 

Some art is obscure only because it’s very new and people have a hard time grasping the very new.  Once they get used to it–the way they’ve gotten used to Joyce and Faulkner, for instance–it is no longer obscure.

But some art is obscure because the artist hasn’t learned how to communicate what he’s doing, and that is at least part of what an audience is for. 

The Great Tradition,  I’ve said before on this blog, is our conversation with the dead.   Contemporary art is our conversation with artists, who, if they’re any good, are better at thinking in a certain manner than the rest of us are, and therefore are able to explain us to ourselves more completely than we can do on our own.

But first they have to communicate.  And in times and situations where the “audience” is six people in a room somewhere making all the decisions, they don’t learn to do that.

It’s why French film is such a mess.  French filmmakers have only second-hand contact with the real audience.  Their primary audience is the grant committees.  Then, when they desperately want to do something “popular,” they produce saccharine crap that corresponds to their delusions about what the general public will like.  They don’t actually know what the general public will like, because they’ve never dealt with it.

The situation in colleges and universities is slightly different.

First, the academic arts system that runs through both private and public universities throughout the country does in fact constitute an audience, and a fairly large one. 

A contemporary literary novel, for instance, will sell at least four to six thousand copies–about as much as a midlist mystery–and it will be easier to market than most books.  That’s because we know where the audience is and what they’re doing. 

But I can’t say that the writer of contemporary literary fiction does not respond to his audience, because he very definitely does.  And if the four thousand people who constitute the audience for that midlist mystery are a “real” audience, then the four thousand people who constitute an audience for the contemporary literary novel are a “real” audience too.

The problem is that academia is a particular kind of place with a particular set of rules, and most damagingly a place where conformity and process are at the forefront of virtually everything.

Artists–writers and composers and sculptors and painters and whatever–who work within an academic environment or find their primary audience there are almost guaranteeing that any work they do will be both safe and largely unoriginal. 

Maybe that’s why academic departments are so crazy on the subject that art must be “transgressive”–because no art they deal with or produce is transgressive in the least.

What they seem to mean by “transgressive” is “the kind of thing we think will upset those people we don’t know very well.”

For better or worse, I think artists do themselves less damage when they just take their chances with the general public, even though that means–as it always has–that many of the best of them will not be successful until after they’re dead.

Written by janeh

February 11th, 2010 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Public Displays Of…'

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  1. It sounds like a great snowstorm. I really hate the kind that start about mid-morning so that you struggle to work through its preliminary stages and then struggle home through even worse conditions.

    I’m going to go off on a tangent; I know, it’s my favourite thing to do, but really, all I know about art and art funding is that one of my relatives by marriage seems to make a living at art, and I rather like at least some of what he does, but am too nervous of exposing my ignorance to ask what it all means.

    I had the local morning show playing through my earphones so as to find out what they were saying about some weather headed our way since it would be really, really bad at work if the weather turns out to be very bad in the next two days. (This was on a public radio station; I adore CBC radio and am supportive of CBC TV, although I rarely watch any TV. Privately-owned stations never seem to play anything I want to watch/listen to, or worse (ie stuff I can’t tolerate at all)).

    So the radio program changed to a current affairs one in which the host interviewed two people on a sex scandal in municipal politics in Toronto, which I hadn’t heard anything about. One person’s argument seemed to be: This is a democracy, and in a democracy we elect people like us to represent ourselves. None of us are without our secrets; in fact, we all consider it perfectly normal for unmarried people to have sex, even with multiple partners. (When challenged about whether someone with a long-term live-in partner could be considered ‘unmarried’, he backed down slightly, but insisted that everyone, married or not, behaved in the same way.) And, of course, since this sort of behaviour was entirely normal and totally accepted by the general public, who should elect people exactly like themselves, the scandal was generated by the media, who had lost the decent sense of discretion they used to have about such matters. His opponent seemed very ladylike, and was reduced to repeating that she knew lots of politicians and most of them didn’t engage in cheating and then lying about it. No one got into any discussion of having a standard of behaviour that everyone should aspire to; or that maybe we should be electing people who are in some ways better than we are – more skilled at running things, to begin with, and quite possibly able to maintain some basic level of honesty in their behaviour, although I’d like to think that most of us could manage the basic level of honesty thing.

    On the one hand, I do tend to think that the media can be far too intrusive into people’s private lives, and even politicians should be able to expect some privacy. On the other hand, deliberate manipulation to create a public image as a nice family-oriented person on the part of the politician makes me suspicious of his trustworthiness, especially when he seems to be treating the women in question as accessories rather than humans. And getting caught at it makes me wonder about his political and management skills.

    On the other, the kind or ‘we’re all morally bankrupt, so we should accept that our politicians are too’ stuff makes me want to vomit.

    This is probably why I’ve nearly stopped listening to political debates and interviews. I always want to get my word in because no one’s making the points that are obvious to me.

    Thank you for a forum where I can let off a bit of steam. I must get back to my mountains of work, and maybe pray that all the flights operate on time over the next two days.


    11 Feb 10 at 10:26 am

  2. Hmmm. Let’s see, we’re talking about someone spending my money on something I don’t want, because this person–who doesn’t know me very well–thinks it would be good for me. I don’t normally use the word, but “elitist” would seem to sum up the attitude fairly nicely.

    If the money is now being sent to organizations instead of individuals, perhaps it’s because we remember the individuals it was–fairly recently–sent to? The “performance artist” covered in chocolate, the “Vagina Monologues” and the Mapplethorpe Exhibition? This is known in the political world as “waiting for things to cool down.” Giving the money to a like-minded organization, so that one can then say “well, no WE didn’t fund that” is known in clandestine services as “having a cut-out.” It’s a safety measure, not a change in objective. The rotting shark and the Dung and Vagina Madonna were run through just such a cutout.

    I will stand by my earlier contention. I have no problem with good-looking public buildings, and no particular quarrel with art within those buildings. But if the politician is not prepared to be photographed beside a work of art, perhaps he ought not to write the check. I would also ask, if buying art the government thinks I ought to see is a legitimate use of tax money, is there ANY government spending which cannot be regarded as legitimate?

    That said, much “publicly funded” art really isn’t so bad. But then I follow Sir Percy Blakeney: “There is nothing so bad as that which is not so bad.”

    I also note that there seems to be enough of a commercial market to support good cheap editions of classic authors, concert-goers and CD purchasers seem quite happy to patronize Wagner, Mozart and Bach, and my nicely-restored DVDs of THE MALTESE FALCON and CITIZEN KANE required no government subsidy. Once more “market failure” seems to mean “people aren’t buying what I want them to buy” or “people won’t sell things at the price I want to pay.”

    As for academia’s hot-house flowers selling as well in hard covers as a mid-list mystery, I do not say it is not so, but first, I’d like to see the figures for both with the required reading and university library copies subtracted from each one’s sales. Then I’d ask about book clubs. Then I’d want to see a baseline of, say, 10 or 20 years. (Jane’s too modest to say so, but almost every book she’s written since 1984 is either still in print or has been until fairly recently.) Then I’d point out that by specifying “mid-list” the heavy hitters were taken out of the competition.

    But I had not, as I recall, directly criticized Academia’s tame writers. I said the academic gate-keepers were not taking their job seriously, and by that I meant they were accepting as valid art or as valid criticism much that is not. If you treat dada as though it were the equivalent of old masters, you get the current art market, and have no one else to blame. If you treat deconstruction as legitimate criticism, you can hardly complain when the younger generation decide there is no standard but taste, and one person’s taste is as good as another.

    All of which said, I don’t worry about state or university-funded fiction writers not learning how to communicate. I don’t think they have anything to say.


    11 Feb 10 at 6:40 pm

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