Saving the Arts from the Marketplace

I hope everyone has read William Osborne’s brilliant article on Arts Watch, ”Marketplace of Ideas” – not the first time he’s knocked my socks off with the clarity and multidisciplinary comprehensiveness of his writing. His clear-headed analysis makes the important questions easier to pose: Can we make the argument that, since the neo-liberal policies of supply-side economics, small government and free trade lead inevitably to homogenization and a reduction in diversity and choices (in the name of “efficiency”), they are a disaster for the arts? If so, then rather than try to revamp the arts to fit a rapidly narrowing marketplace, we can insist on their integrity and autonomy, and defend them in all good conscience against economically motivated charges of elitism. I doubt that there are many thinking people in America who consciously want the arts to disappear, or to vanish into a tiny spectrum of mediocrity – but we have to confront the fact that our economic policies are forcing that to happen. Osborne makes that job easier (and, unlike me, manages to make his case without any rancor directed toward the billionaires who are robbing us all blind).

John Ralston Saul, a genius and one of my favorite writers, has long taken issue with the doctrine of “efficiency,” a word that economists and politicians bandy about as an assumed universal good that no one could possibly object to. Efficiency, he points out, is a principle we want applied only to things not important to us. We want our garbage removed efficiently, but anyone who advocated efficient child-rearing – maximum good behavior in return for a minimum of care and affection – would be a monster. To handle the arts efficiently is tantamount to starving them. Also, in the name of efficiency, a city government might eliminate a certain bus route because few people use it. But then those people have to find alternate transportation, which means that the job is more efficient only from the bus company’s point of view – the burden is actually shifted onto the poor people whom local government is no longer providing with transportation. “Efficiency,” as used by economists, usually means maximizing profits for someone on top at the expense of those below. Personally, when I hear the word “efficiency,” I reach for my gun.

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