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Marketplace of Ideas
William Osborne - 2

Due to its internal tensions, being a hip-con became an increasingly difficult balancing act. White racial resentment, for example, is still difficult to define as hip. The hip-cons seemed to divide into two groups, one along the older yuppie model, and the newer along Eminem’s mean-right pattern. As early as 1992, many hip-cons had moved toward the saxophone-playing Bill Clinton and his more moderate conservatism, which included a crack down on crime. By the end of Clinton’s second term, 13% of all African-American men could not vote because they were in prison or had criminal records. The people whose music had laid the original foundations for hippness were still strongly disenfranchised and vast numbers were still living in poverty and degradation.

After twenty years of neo-liberal Reaganomics, the political and cultural landscapes of Europe and America were farther apart than ever. The long-term forms of social democracy that Europeans might have used to approach the problems of massive racial ghettos could not even be considered. Hillary Clinton’s campaign for national health insurance -- which is a mainstay of European social policy -- failed miserably. George W. Bush was elected, and the dot.com economy collapsed. Fueled by recession, state governments began to slash or entirely eliminate arts budgets. America’s cultural institutions struggled to survive, many of them running up large deficits. The new American administration, which embraced neo-liberalism to an unprecedented degree, jeered at its traditional allies as “old Europe.” 

An American Culture of Rationalization

With subtle psychological shifts that are almost impossible to deconstruct, the conflicted hip-con ethos of America became an increasingly complex network of rationalizations. The Prez plays the sax, so we’re still hip, aren’t we? If we listen to both Springsteen and Schönberg we must be egalitarian, right? Even white guys can rap, can’t they? Inside of 20 years we went from Miles Davis making obscene gestures to his white public, to a buttoned-down Wynton Marsalis playing in Lincoln Center. Many of jazz’s greats earlier in the century were firmly embraced by the white establishment, and not all jazz comes out of a spirit of protest. Nevertheless, some critics seemed to feel that the presentation of notably conservative jazz in Lincoln Center was another example of the white establishment conveniently presenting and appropriating only a specific spectrum of black culture. Both pop and jazz seemed to find a place in America’s culture of rationalization.

In many respects, hip-cons have come to represent the latest incarnation of the classic American ethos of being rebels without a cause. Listening to rock gives them a sense of breaking from the bourgeois middle and rejecting conformity to a system that is often vacuous and morally conflicted. The irony that the mass media is one of the largest manifestations of cultural isomorphism in the history of humanity is not considered. 

In culturally isomorphic societies, thought is less and less likely to move outside a pre-configured set of paradigms. In the 20th century, for example, we saw a culturally isomorphic essentialization of art in the "Gleichschaltung” of the Third Reich, in the Social Realism of the East Block, in the “Cultural Revolution” of Maoist China, and to an increasing extent in the mass media commercialization of culture in America. [7] Like the political divisions of the 20th century, these aesthetic orthodoxies reduced human expression to systemic concepts that tend toward the formulaic and reductionist. Since narrowed perspectives make it difficult to confront aspects of reality, a culture of self-referential rationalization evolves. 

The European’s Defense of Communal Identity

So where does this leave the European view of America and its arts funding models today? To answer, it is important to note that continental Europeans often regard American music as a type of exotica – an art that embodies a radical departure from their own traditions. In Germany, for example, Ives, Bernstein, Cage, Reich, and laptop improvisers fit their desired image of the American spirit. Composers more in line with Germany’s still dominant forms of complex modernism, like Carter and Babbit, remain much less appreciated and performed. 

Europeans thus especially appreciate the crossover forms that have become an American specialty, but they reject the argument that a commercial paradigm is an appropriate funding model for classical music. They question the breezily hip tones that tell us classical music must become commercially viable or go extinct. Rock or die? Is that the only real alternative? What does that mean for artistic integrity and the autonomy of human expression? 

In the spirit of their mixed economies, Europeans would argue that many forms of artistic expression cannot be positioned or relativised within the mass market or its fringes. For them, culture must be communal and autonomous. They often see American culture as hegemonistic -- a totalizing and destructive assault on the humanistic, cultural and social structures they have worked so long and hard to create. 

A general sense of the different perspectives concerning communal identity can be illustrated with an example now widely discussed in the States. Many Americans have seen how corporate-owned strip malls and Wal-Marts have deeply affected their cities and towns. The old downtown areas are abandoned as customers move to corporate businesses on the edge of town. Communal identity and autonomy, which are an important part of cultural expression, are replaced with a relatively isomorphic corporatism. 

Europeans struggle to maintain a different model. Most cities and towns have thousand year histories that are reflected in the architectural and other cultural treasures of their various municipal centers. They employ zoning laws and other regulations, as well as public education, to protect their cities from the Wal-Martization that would be caused by embracing American-styled neo-liberalism. Europeans have large department stores and the occasional K-Mart, but their influence is kept within balance. They would consider the losses to their cultural identity caused by corporate uniformity to be too great. 

Europeans see Hollywood and America’s massive music industry in a similar way. They feel these institutions standardize culture into mass markets that reduce communal identity. Far from making music even more commercial, the European response has been to create a balance with public arts funding. In Germany, for example, cities with more than about 100,000 people often have a full-time orchestra, opera house, and theater company that are state- and municipally owned. A good deal of funding for these groups is set aside for new music. Europeans also administer this arts funding locally, and not from a remote Federal organization such as the NEA. [8] They are not only the recipients of mass culture; they express themselves according to their autonomous, local needs and prerogatives.

As a result, the European view is likely to reject a superficial form of postmodernism that presumes to flow with an exaggerated ease from rock to Brahms, as if distinctions between the production, marketing, and reception of commercial and classical music could be brushed aside. They know that the production costs for recording a five-piece rock band are far smaller and the audience vastly larger than for a recording of an opera that would require 200 to 400 people and reach an audience not even a tenth the size. They know that a festival for new orchestral music such as at Donaueschingen might have standing-room-only crowds year after year, but that such endeavors cannot be designed to make a profit. [9] 

In Germany, classical recordings compete strongly against pop. This is not merely a matter of history or coincidence. Europeans use their local public cultural institutions to educate their children and this creates a wide appreciation for classical music. The popularity is also based on a sense of communal pride. They support their local cultural institutions almost like they were sports teams. European society illustrates that music education leads to forms of creativity and autonomy that are often antithetic to mass media. The European view is not based on elitism or a dismissal of popular culture, but on an understanding that an unmitigated capitalism is not a seamless, all-encompassing paradigm - particularly when it comes to cultural expression. 

The Loss of Cultural Discourse in Isomorphic Systems

Proponents of America’s neo-liberalism claim that alternatives to a singular cultural paradigm exist. In reality, the large majority of cultural offerings come from Manhattan and a few other cities, even though the country has 280 million people. Even the other boroughs of New York City, such as the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island would seem short of cultural offerings. And the situation is similar in many of our heartland cities.

International comparisons might illustrate this point. Germany, for example, has one full-time, year-round orchestra for every 590,000 people, while the United States has one for every 14 million (or 23 times less per capita.) Germany has about 80 year-round opera houses, while the U.S., with more than three times the population, does not have any. Even the Met only has a seven-month season. These numbers mean that larger German cities often have several orchestras. Munich has seven full-time, year-round professional orchestras, two full-time, year-round opera houses (one with a large resident ballet troupe,) as well as two full-time, large, spoken-word theaters for a population of only 1.2 million. Berlin has three full-time, year-round opera houses, though they may eventually have to close one due to the costs of rebuilding the city after reunification. 

If America averaged the same ratios per capita as Germany, it would have 485 full-time, year-round orchestras instead of about 20. If New York City had the same number of orchestras per capita as Munich it would have about 45. If New York City had the same number of full-time operas as Berlin per capita it would have six. Areas such as Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx would be nationally and internationally important cultural centers. The reality is somewhat different.

If America’s Northeastern seaboard had the same sort of orchestral landscape as Germany, there would be full-time, year-round professional orchestras (often in conjunction with opera houses) in Long Island, Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Providence, and Boston. California would have about 60 full-time, year-round professional orchestras. Like Germany, the U.S. would suffer from a shortage of good classical musicians. There would be little unemployment for these artists. With that much creativity, it is unlikely Americans would stick to European repertoire and models. Even with half the German ratios, a starkly American musical culture would evolve that would likely change history. 

It is also essential and informative to place these numbers in the context of the dismal social conditions in almost all major American cities, since these are areas where classical music would normally thrive. A recent article in The New York Times, for example, notes that Philadelphia has 14,000 abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and has lost 75,000 citizens in recent years. [10] Regions such as the south Bronx, Watts, East St. Louis and Detroit, just to name a few, show that Philadelphia is hardly an exception. The populations living in our dehumanizing ghettos are measured in the tens of millions. It seems very likely that the problems with arts funding in America are closely related to the same social forces that have caused the country to neglect its urban environments. This naturally leaves many Europeans wondering why America is so intent on exporting its economic and cultural models. 

The problems of arts funding are seldom the topic of genuinely serious and sustained political discussion. The cultural and political system has become so isomorphic that most Americans do not even consider that alternatives could be created to institutions such as network television and Hollywood. With only one percent of the military’s $396 billion budget, we could have 132 opera houses lavishly funded at $30 million apiece. (That much funding would put them on par with the best opera houses in the world, and as noted, likely lead to forms of expression more distinctly American.) 

The same sum could support 264 spoken-word theaters at $15 million each. It could subsidize 198 full-time, year round world-class symphony orchestras at $20 million each. Or it could give 79,200 composers, painters and sculptors a yearly salary of $50,000 each. Remember, that’s only one percent of the military budget. Imagine what five percent would do. These examples awaken us to the Orwellian realities of our country and how different it could be. Given our wealth, talent, and educational resources, we are losing our chance to be the Athens of the modern world. 

We also see that cultural isomorphism leads to the suppression of political, social and cultural discourse. Discussions outside the neo-liberal paradigm are becoming increasingly rare. How astounding, for example, that a U.S. Senator recently gave a long interview for the American Music Center’s webzine, New Music Box, and not one question was asked or comment made about the NEA or any other form of public funding for the arts. Europeans would find this incomprehensible. 

Another example of the loss of intelligent discourse is the discussion surrounding the current proposed $18 million increase for the NEA. This sum represents only  seven-thousandths of one percent of the proposed 2005 U.S. budget, a number almost too infinitesimal to comprehend. And yet the topic is once again being opportunistically exploited as a political battering ram.

In Europe, by contrast, funding for the arts is a central platform of every major political party. Lively and varied artistic expression is considered one of the most important forums for national discourse. Politicians literally search for opportunities to speak about the arts because it is politically advantageous. The dialog is generally intelligent, meaningful, and carefully considered. 

Summary and Conclusion

In review, we see that Europe’s funding traditions and models suggest several policies and administrative practices Americans might consider:

1. Europeans use public funding to provide alternatives to the marketplace for cultural expression. This reinforces freedom of artistic expression and deeply enriches their societies. America’s heavy reliance on the market as an arbiter of culture sometimes limits our options. Our government spends billions on other intellectual spheres, such as education, space exploration and scientific research, but we have seriously limited our cultural lives through a suspicion toward public arts funding. 

2. European politicians avoid attacking the arts for populist and opportunistic political gains. This is a taboo that is seldom, if ever, broken and the perpetrators generally only discredit themselves. Few mainstream European politicians would make remarks such as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who said, “The artists and the homosexuals ain’t seen nothing yet.” Europeans would find it absurd to eliminate almost half of a nation’s arts funding because of two or three marginalized avant-garde artists. After the traumas of both fascism and communism, Europeans realize how destructive the intimidation of artists is to the dignity and cultural identity of society. This no longer happens in Europe, and need not happen in America. 

3. European arts funding is generally decentralized and administered mostly on the state and municipals levels. The NEA’s centralized funding makes it an easy target for populist political attacks. Europeans would also find it strange for a federal government to fund the arts in any specific way because it is so difficult at that level to have direct contact with the lives and work of artists and the communities they serve. The NEA and the states must continue to develop arts-funding models directly connected to cities, towns and regional communities.

4. Europeans use their cultural legacies to establish and assert their place in the world, often through extensive cultural diplomacy. American politicians should be reminded that Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein and Louis Armstrong can often accomplish far more than an F-16, and for a tiny fraction of the costs, both economic and human. Given our talent, educational system, and wealth, we must renew our vision of how brightly our cultural light could shine.

5. Europeans combine arts education with the living presence of the performing arts within their communities. Classical music is far more relevant to young people when performing arts organizations are a highly present and esteemed part of their city or region. In America, the nearest genuinely professional full-time performing arts organization is often hundreds of miles away. America’s children should perceive the arts as part of their communities. And our more talented children should be able to think of the arts as a realistic career option, just as children in Europe do.

6. Even though Europeans often celebrate the lighter classics, they still stress classical musical for its inherent strengths. As the American Symphony Orchestra League has noted, America has been trying to build publics by emphasizing pops (and cross-over) concerts since the 1960s. This has had a partially adverse effect through lowering the public’s expectations. Superficial programming is also increasingly influencing classical music radio stations. Through confidence in classical music’s inherent strengths, higher standards and expectations could be awakened.

7. Europeans view the city itself as the greatest and most complete expression of the human mind and spirit. Venice, Florence, Rome, Prague, Amsterdam, Dresden, Barcelona and Paris, just to name a few, are all embued with this ideal. Americans, by contrast, behave almost as if they have lost hope in their cities, as if they were dangerous and inhuman urban wastelands to be abandoned for the suburbs. This tacit assumption has had a profound but largely unrecognized effect on American political and cultural discourse. Classical music is one of the most urban of art forms. Its status will always be measured by the health and vibrancy of our cities. Ultimately, questions of arts funding will only be fully resolved when we recognize that the well-being of our cultural and urban environments are deeply interdependent.

Over the long term, these general understandings that Europeans have gained over centuries of experience could beneficially influence the political and cultural climate in America. It is not enough that people have freedom of speech; they must also have mechanisms for meaningfully expressing and debating it. Public arts funding is deeply valuable because it encourages societies to be diverse, intellectually alive, inquisitive and realistic. It furthers the discourse societies need to fully express their communal and national identity and place it in the rest of the world. It furthers our ability to heal and help. It furthers our well-being, freedom of expression, and pursuit of happiness. Public arts funding represents the deepest American ideals.

William Osborne is a composer, musicologist and arts activist. Since 1993 his works have been performed in more than 115 cities in North America and Europe. He has written numerous articles about the social and political influences of music, including "Symphony Orchestras and Artist-Prophets" published by the M.I.T. Press. His articles about the Vienna Philharmonic raised an enormous media response and brought to an end the orchestra's 150 year policy of excluding women.



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