As an American who has lived in Europe for the last 24 years, I see on a
daily basis how different the American and European economic systems are,
and how deeply this affects the ways they produce, market and perceive art.
America advocates supply-side economics, small government and free trade –
all reflecting a belief that societies should minimize government
expenditure and maximize deregulated, privatized global capitalism.
Corporate freedom is considered a direct and analogous extension of personal
freedom. Europeans, by contrast, hold to mixed economies with large social
and cultural programs. Governmental spending often equals about half the
GNP. Europeans argue that an unmitigated capitalism creates an isomorphic,
corporate-dominated society with reduced individual and social options.
Americans insist that privatization and the marketplace provide greater
efficiency than governments. These two economic systems have created
something of a cultural divide between Europeans and Americans.
Germany’s public arts funding, for example, allows the country to have 23
times more full-time symphony orchestras per capita than the United States,
and approximately 28 times more full-time opera houses. 
In Europe, publicly funded cultural institutions are used to educate young
people and this helps to maintain a high level of interest in the arts. In
America, arts education faces constant cutbacks, which helps reduce
The Rise of Neo-Liberalism As a Cultural Paradigm
The divisions between American and European arts-funding models are best
understood if one briefly considers the changes that have evolved in U.S.
economic policy over the last 30 years. Except for the military, there has
been continual political pressure to reduce government. Even though the
government’s budgets have continued to increase, arts funding has been
particularly vulnerable to cuts. By 1997, the NEA’s funding was close to
half its former high, and has only slowly regained some of its lost ground.
University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman stressed the value of
limited taxation and unregulated global markets in the 1970s. Many
influential members of the political and economic elite embraced his views.
With Ronald Reagan’s election, Friedman’s proposals became established U.S.
policy. Friedman’s philosophy of limited government and free trade was seen
as an extension of Adam Smith’s 18th century market-liberalism, and is
technically referred to by many economists as neo-liberalism. 
Some of neo-liberalism’s most important tenets are cutting public
expenditure for social services such as health insurance, education and
cultural programs. This is consistent with its other policies, such as the
deregulation of the market to allow the free flow of capital and limit
restrictions caused by issues such as environmentalism and job safety;
privatization of state-owned enterprises such as schools, parks, toll
highways, hospitals, utilities, and water supplies; and the replacement of
traditional concepts such as “the public good” or “community” with values
emphasizing “individual responsibility.” (We thus see that in its technical
economic meanings, neo-liberalism differs from the common American political
usage of the term “liberal.” Neo-liberalism refers instead to the historical
meanings of market-liberalism as freed from government intervention or
In its purest form, America’s neo-liberalism would suggest that cultural
expression that doesn't fit in the marketplace doesn't belong at all. For
the arts, the alternative has been to maintain a relatively marginalized
existence supported by gifts from corporations, foundations and the wealthy.
A system similar to a marginal and elitist cultural plutocracy evolves. This
philosophy is almost diametrically opposed to the tradition of large public
cultural funding found in most of Europe’s social democracies.
The Hip-Con Argument
Through the influence of neo-liberalism, it is becoming increasingly
common in America to suggest that classical music must enter the market
place in order to survive. One of the most interesting and nuanced
proponents of this view is Greg Sandow, who writes for The Wall Street
Journal. He argues that classical music must creatively accept the
structures of the marketplace. He notes that even the fringes of the mass
market are enormous. If artists can't fit into America’s relatively
unmitigated capitalist system, they are to be blamed, at least in part, for
their lack of imagination and relevance. Alternatives, such as public
funding for the arts, are left largely unmentioned. 
The general correlations between Mr. Sandow’s ideas and neo-liberalism
are fairly obvious. Government is to be reduced and an unregulated market
furthered. His view could also stem from his musical background. He worked
as a pop music critic for Entertainment Weekly before moving to
The Wall Street Journal. In his writings, he moves freely between
pop and classical.
The approach of leveling pop and classical into the marketplace is both
aesthetically hip and financially conservative. The younger Wall Street
might even define business as an extension of the freewheeling, libertarian
ethos of rock and roll. In this sense, they might be referred to as
hip-cons. Rock and roll and its many pop variants are the mainstay of the
corporate music industry’s income. Rock also accurately reflects something
of the American business spirit of enterprise and freedom.
The Danger of Conformity in Mass Markets
From its beginnings, rock revolted against stifling convention and
hypocrisy. Rock, however, is a form of rebellion carried by the mass media,
which leaves it characterized by internal conflicts. Up front we might have
a socially rebellious Bruce Springsteen, but behind him stands a massive
music industry deeply rooted in the Wall Street establishment, whose purpose
is not to formulate social criticism but to make money.
Mass media pop is thus distinguished by its ability to create a ready,
packaged (and often benign) form of social criticism that raises protest
only within the strictures the mass market will accept. This characteristic,
however, must be carefully disguised or the impression of hipness is
weakened. Big business is the dirty secret in the background. The current
crisis with file sharing is an example of the troubles the music industry
can have when its business side becomes too visible.
The best argument for pop music actually leading a social rebellion would
probably be found in the '60s, but even then elements of conformity were
apparent. The massive criticism of John Lennon’s comment that the Beatles
were more popular than Jesus Christ was a clear illustration. Antiwar songs
and drugs were socially acceptable, but presumed insults to Christianity
were not. Some recent examples of how pop must conform to the strictures of
the mass market are Springsteen’s backdown from his criticisms of the New
York police for brutality, the attacks on Sinead O’Conner after her
criticisms of the Pope (which contributed to the end of her career), the
delayed release of Madonna’s antiwar album in spite of her carefully parsed
image as a fearless rebel, and the boycott and burning of the Dixie Chicks’
CDs after their criticisms of Bush and the Iraq war.
Mass pop thrives on controversy, but it must be carefully gauged to
create notoriety and not shut down the show. More variation exists on the
market’s fringes, but the degree is generally proportional to the size of
the audience. The more unusual the stance or music, the smaller the market.
The financial viability of the fringe markets thus depends on having a
limited supply of artists and a specialized public for a particular view or
The dangers of artists being forced into conformity are apparent. Given
the volatility of mass markets, Wall Street has a very particular ethos.
This was clearly summarized by Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald's,
who was angered by some of his franchises: “We have found out ... that we
cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists
out of them in a hurry. ... The organization cannot trust the individual;
the individual must trust the organization.” The very nature of a mass
market is conformity in both product and customer. 
Mr. Sandow’s suggestion that classical composers should tap into the
fringes of the pop market is thus interesting, but of limited value. The
fringes are indeed larger than the usual audience for classical music, but
they could still only support a limited amount of experimental music. The
industry is not in a stable condition, the audiences would be splintered,
and the reactions of the public fickle and highly unpredictable, especially
for kinds of avant-garde classical music they had never even heard before.
Tapping into even the fringes of the pop industry would likely require
elements of conformity that might not suit the wildly varied and
experimental nature of modern classical music.
Even traditional types of classical music that have tried to be more
commercial are often criticized for their bad taste. David Lister, Media and
Culture Editor for The Guardian, created an interesting summary of
"The members of the string quartet Bond, who were trained classically,
perform in skimpy tops, tight trousers and stilettos. Sometimes they are
accompanied on stage by nubile dancers and a rock band, and play music with
a dance beat. British chart compilers said their debut album was pop music
and banned it from their classical chart but it went to the top of the
"The 23-year-old violinist Vanessa-Mae can probably claim first rights on
emerging from the sea in a suitably dripping outfit to promote her skills in
performing a concerto. When still a teenager she used the wet look in one of
her early promotional videos."
"One critic said of Russell Watson [a singer]: ‘His ability is reliant on
massive amplification, and I very much doubt whether he has the stamina (or
the desire) to sing an entire role in an opera.’"
"The 'Gregorian Babes' [to] whom Sir Thomas refers to [are] a desperate
attempt to manufacture a classical version of the Spice Girls. The group
went to the top of the classical charts, but their medieval madrigals were
described by one critic as ‘estuary Latin’."
In America, the neo-liberal paradigm has already given a
corporate atmosphere to our culture that is stronger than ever before in
history, and stronger than in any other country in the world. So why are we
being asked to go even farther in this direction? Generally speaking, if any
one system of support for artists becomes isomorphic, artistic freedom
suffers. Varied systems help guarantee freedom of artistic expression. This
is why Europeans have a vibrant and healthy system of decentralized public
funding to provide an alternative to the commercialization of culture.
The Rise of Crossover and Its Hip-Con Public
Even though the yuppies of the late '70s and '80 never
represented a clearly defined movement, they might be seen as interesting
examples of the hip-con spirit. They were regarded as politically
conservative and preoccupied with moving toward the centers of power – often
with little regard for the implications. They were a counter-reaction to the
far more extreme “tune-in, turn-on, drop-out” philosophy of the '60s. The
yuppies of Manhattan were often well educated, ambitious and intelligent.
The “downtown” classical music scene became one of the chic places for the
more sophisticated to be seen. The stiff, incestual establishment serialism
of the uptown may have been square and alien to many hip-cons, but some of
the downtowners were incorporating elements of popular music that they could
relate to as cool.
For the most part, the downtown artists who incorporated elements
of pop were not anything like hip-cons. They were (and still are) solidly on
the political left. They knew they had been able to take advantage of the
fringes of the mass market, but given the diversity of avant-garde musical
expression, they generally recognized that this model was limited and suited
to only a narrow spectrum of modern classical music. It was only much later,
after neo-liberalism had become more established, that their work was used
to support an argument that classical music should be moved to a stronger
Some of the most notable crossover artists were the Bang-On-A-Can
All Stars, who rose to prominence with programs that included works
emulating elements of the tasteful, semi-popular new-age music of Brian Eno.
Programs by Laurie Anderson, such as “Home of the Brave,” were modeled on
the format of rock concerts. Her song “O Superman” reached No. 2 on the
British pop charts. John Zorn created collages using television cartoon
music that was almost iconographic to a generation of young Americans. And
the repetitive, rhythmic qualities of minimalist composers such as Reich and
Glass attracted a generation brought up on rock. 
During the '50s and '60s, pop music had developed a central place
in the American psyche. For the young people of the late '70s and '80s, a
crossover with experimental forms of classical music was simply part of a
quintessentially American milieu they did not even have to think about. And
even though it was not a very conscious idea for the young hip-con public,
the idea of widening the cultural influence of the marketplace fit the
neo-liberal spirit that was a growing hallmark of the Reagan era. The
musicians also seemed to be influenced. One of the most important aspects of
cultural isomorphism is that artists often unconsciously adapt to and employ
the larger social forces surrounding them.
One of the first writers to note the crossover forms being
developed by the downtown composers was The New York Times music
critic John Rockwell, who described some of the work in his 1983 book
All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century. He
later became a program director for Lincoln Center’s summer festival.
Partially through his influence, some members of the downtown began reaching
more established midtown publics and a wider international audience.
Rockwell noted that once again the desire and ability to merge
the aesthetic structures of classical and commercial was something
distinctly American. What neither he nor anyone else anticipated, was that
the crossover would eventually be used to support a claim that classical
music and its modern composers should be more strongly shifted to the
marketplace. Few understood the aesthetic, social, and economic implications
of the evolving neo-liberal paradigm that was making American society and
culture more isomorphic than ever. 
Europeans rejected most attempts in their own societies to merge
commercial and classical music. Their cultures are not dominated by the mass
media as in America, and they do not have the same innate relationship to
pop. Given their more extensive cultural history and public arts funding, it
is not surprising that Europeans hung on to (and were burdened by) more
complex and historically continuous ideas of classical music. And above all,
they continued to view forms of culture associated with the American mass
media and corporatism as hegemonistic and potentially isomorphic, regardless
of how hip they might seem.
The Increasing Political Division of Europe and
In many respects, neo-liberalism is a manifestation of the
suspicion toward government traditionally held by the American right – an
ethos that contrasts strongly with Europe’s tradition of social democracies.
During the '60s and '70s, however, a number of Republicans were still
relatively strong supporters of the newly founded NEA. Support for the arts
was still considered a part of traditional, conservative values. As the
Republican Party moved increasingly to the right, the old cultured
libertarian conservatives like Nelson Rockefeller or William F. Buckley
moved to the background. By the '90s, mainstream libertarian conservatism
seemed far less sophisticated. A new populist version with an openly bigoted
crudeness along the lines of Rush Limbaugh had evolved. Rock, country
western, and a kind of neo-liberal cowboy social Darwinism replaced
Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
Populist rightwing attacks on controversial artists such as Karen
Finley, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe were used to rationalize
funding reductions for the NEA. Between 1992 and 1996 the agency’s budget
was reduced by almost half – from $170 million to $97 million. Twenty
categories of grants were abolished between 1990 and 1995. The Contemporary
Arts Center of Cincinnati was indicted for pandering obscenity hours after
the opening of the photography exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect
Moment. In question were seven portraits, mostly of sadomasochistic
acts. The partisan rhetoric of conservative politicians such as North
Carolina Senator Jesse Helms raised suspicions of intimidation and
censorship. And perhaps more important, the elimination of entire government
agencies was a continuing theme of congressional rhetoric under Republican
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The neo-liberal agenda of reducing
government became part of the rationale for shutting down Mozart and
Shakespeare along with Serrano.
Popular music also moved to meet the demands of a newly forming
market on the right. Following on types of punk that incorporated a kind of
tribal masculinism, by the 2000’s Eminem even metastasized black male anger
into a hip-con white male anger. He endorsed, for example, extreme violence
against women, but given the backlash of the '90s, this was within the
strictures of the mass media’s pre-packaged forms of protest. These social
statements were embraced by the music industry because the swing to a crude
and somewhat bigoted form of libertarianism had made them widely accepted
and provided the basis for a mass market. The racist implications in some of
Eminem’s most recently revealed statements, however, are not widely
accepted. We thus saw the industry that supports him quickly backpedaling.