The Next Step

You know, this health care debate is setting the groundwork nicely. Everyone is familiarizing themselves with the concept that for-profit insurance companies cannot possibly act in their customers’ best interests because they’re trying to maximize profits, which means giving minimum service for maximum return. The obvious next step is that art is the same way. The corporations that produce most of our art and entertainment (one of those distinctions I don’t make, sorry) are trying to maximize profit, which means they give us art (entertainment) that appeals to the widest number of people on the most superficial, attention-getting level. To make that art thoughtful would be counter-lucrative, because they want us continually unsatisfied and coming back for more as quickly as possible. So our television and movies consist largely of pretty people mouthing innocuous banter; we can’t stop watching, but we don’t get anything from it. (Well, I haven’t had TV reception in 20 years, but even I reflexively glance at Jennifer Aniston when she catches my peripheral vision.*) Art that feeds us, that sustains us, that makes life worthwhile, cannot be reliably produced by an organization whose primary goal is profit. Europe offers a lot of examples that art is one of those things that the social collective, represented by government, can do better for us than people trying to turn a buck on it. Next: socialized, government-supported art. Watch how health care does, keep an eye out, and be ready to strike.

*(I keep asking her to go home, but she hangs out on my front porch.)


  1. Peter Lawless says

    Oh no! Kyle, I really respect you and read your blog all the time, but this is crazy! Much like the current health care situation, it is gov’t involvement that got us where we are now. More gov’t can’t possibly help! We already have gov’t supported orchestras, and look how good that’s going – they are squeezing out modern composers by playing the same old favorites from hundreds of years ago. As you know, the few modern composers that get most of the performances are not necessarily on the cutting edge themselves.
    The past thirty years has shown how the best music comes from the people who innovate and adapt to the time they live in. I think John Zorn and Philip Glass are great examples of artists who would never have achieved anything by waiting around for gov’t grants and commissions. They did whatever that had to (driving taxis, starting their own bands, producing their own concerts, etc) to get there music out.
    This socialized healthcare will bankrupt our country, and socialized art would bankrupt our creativity and individuality. I’m sure Shostakovich and many of his murdered comrades could tell you all about the marvels of state-sponsored art.
    KG replies: Well, let me impose on your respect, for which I thank you, a touch more. The model I have in mind for the arts is Western Europe, particularly Holland and Belgium, whose governments have made it possible to keep one of the most active, envied, and fertile new-music scenes in the world going. The Dutch are beginning to lose some of their government support because of the economic turndown, and are as panicked about it as you seem to be about the prospect of government support. Even the less efficient British have wonderful festivals that do more for American music than any American institutions ever do. I appreciate your points, but Glass was still driving a cab until the Dutch state-sponsored opera commissioned Satyagraha, catapulting him to international fame.
    I don’t know anything about health care, but there’s an awful lot of propaganda being spread around by the private insurance companies who stand to lose billions if Obama succeeds in pushing through a cheaper system that covers everybody. Make sure you real Paul Krugman in the Times before making up your mind – as a favor to me, if nothing else.

  2. Samuel Vriezen says

    Well, you know, living in a Stalinist country (The Netherlands) myself, and regularly murdering comrades just to get a commission, I do feel that it’s not wise to get methods of production and artistic values mixed up too much. I’m all for government arts sponsorship – I mean a government system has its problems too; even here, composers will have to fulfill new commissions all the time just because they can’t live off one commission forever, and the result is that most pieces get written for only one performance. In the end, I’m for every single method by which somebody gets to make a piece of art, regardless of where the money comes from or if there’s money in it at all.
    That said, there’s a very strong point in your argument. If you read the full Harry Potter series, it’s mildly entertaining, and you can be done in a week or two, and you’ll be reading a lot of redundancies. On Amazon you can get a boxed set for some 55 bucks excl tax, postage. Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, a book that Joyce said took 17 years to write so that the reader could spend 17 years to read it, is at 21 bucks. That’s an investment of about 4 bucks a day for Potter versus one third of a cent per day for Joyce. Which means that Joyce provides about 1200 times more sustainable reading than Rowling. But it also means that Joyce-type fodder can never be sold on the same level as Rowling-type fodder.
    KG replies: If there’s any aspect of the Dutch system I’d love to see adopted in this country, then, it’s murdering colleagues to get a commission. And if I murder a few colleagues and still don’t get a commission – well, I’m still ahead. :^D

  3. Antonio Celaya says

    I may irritate but I am going to veer from your real topic to your metaphorical political reference. The current health care plan wending its way through Congress may be worse than the current system. If all it does (and that may be all it does) is require the uninsured to health insurance from a private insurer, then the chief beneficiaries will be insurers. Insurers will have more market power. Markets are a useful tool. They make a poor religion. “The mythical “free market” (it’s never “free” (one has to be able to afford to play the game) and government always promotes somebody’s side of the game) does not function for everything. It’s useful for computers, but a very poor force for health insurance. For one thing insurers are immune from vast stretches of federal (and often state) anti-trust laws.
    We need a government provider to have someone with enough clout to tell pharmaceutical companies that if they want to sell the stuff they make then it will be for reasonable price.
    The system seems too little understood and the news media offer no explanation. While I think that Hillary Clinton will make a fine Secretary of state, she could have been an irreplaceable asset as Secretary of health and Welfare. She understands the health care market and why it doesn’t work. While I am happy that Mr. Obama has replaced the adolescent Bush, I think he does not have a grasp of this core issue.

  4. Bob Gilmore says

    Just a little detail – was it really Satyagraha that catapulted Glass to international fame? I recall (as though ‘t were yesterday) the summer of 1979, the year before Satyagraha, when as a lad of 18 I went to London and sought out records by Reich and Glass, finding them to be the coolest cats on the scene. So his international fame had already reached my tender ears even before Satyagraha – admittedly it, uh, has continued to grow since then.
    KG replies: Well, it was Satyagraha that got him out of driving a cab. I shouldn’t speak for his international fame, I guess, but he was suddenly taken seriously by European institutions. As ‘t were.

  5. says

    Much like the current health care situation, it is gov’t involvement that got us where we are now. More gov’t can’t possibly help!
    You are so right. Americans simply hate their government-run health care, like Medicare, say. Any US politician campaigning on a platform to abolish Medicare would surely be elected in a landslide!

  6. Peter Lawless says

    Kyle – What’s wrong with driving a cab until you make it big? It allowed Glass to write, rehearse and play concerts, even when he wasn’t hugely popular.
    On another note, I must add that Paul Krugman’s economics will ruin this country. I am an armchair economist and have read some of Krugman’s work. He belongs to the Keynesian school and believes that wealth can be magically created by a gov’t printing press. In my opinion, a better economist to read is F.A. Hayek. He was from Austria and was around to see first hand the rise of socialism and fascism in Europe. Like Krugman, Hayek won a Nobel Prize. His book “The Road to Serfdom” shows the clear link between economic freedom and personal freedoms. History shows that socialists rarely redistribute wealth the way we artists would like anyway.
    KG replies: Well, I’m out of comments about economics. But I don’t like to see the necessity of day jobs for artists romanticized. As someone still heavily oppressed by his dayjob at age 53, I try to avoid thinking about all the music I could have written, that I wanted to write and is now gone, because I have had to work my ass off for money almost every week of my life. I’m essentially still driving a cab, and I don’t want to start going into what’s wrong with it. I’d say the link between economic freedom and personal freedom, or lack thereof, is something I’m already an expert on.

  7. Ernest Ambrus says

    Stagnation is what I fear most, above and beyond any paranoid “Gov’t artistic control”. Corporate control is far more worrisome in that we’re already used to it with popular music, film, writing.
    If an infrastructure can be created that allows public support for the arts more than we have now, I’d be all for it. What people seem to miss is that instead of a soviet-style clampdown, our government is completely disinterested in controlling the arts. I don’t think politicians, and bureaucrats would debate funding “serialist” composers, but funding period. The freedom to do as one would like, in the arts and elsewhere, is not constrained by authority so much as one’s peers.
    On health care, the administration is content to acquiesce to big business, offering the illusion of progress, while health care companies still come out on top. A truly universal system is completely worth trying, there are far too many uninsured to keep doing what we have. For-profit will always place care dead second, a means to an end.
    The reality of the situation has to be taken into account; this is why the right fails in offering any solution beyond the-already present. Can’t forget the centrists, either. They only offer tweaks.

  8. says

    After the E.A. R. Unit performed my piece Murphy-Nights at De Ijsbreker, in Amsterdam, I met a young Dutch composer. He told me how much he loved the piece and said “That’s the sort of thing we would like to write, but we can’t yet. The pressure is still too great to compose a certain way, if we want our stipends”. Words to that effect. That composer was living on Dutch government money, and could write whatever he wanted…as long as it was what they expected of him. His music was of a then-current style of minimalism, but very tame for that style, not the edgier flat-out rock-inspired stuff of Murphy-Nights and all that Bang-On-A-Can material we had so much of here.
    Around 1990 I was awarded an N.E.A. Composer Fellowship. I think it was one of the last fellowships from them to an individual composer. I wrote whatever I wanted, but it required me to invent and build some simple percussion instruments. In the next round of N.E.A. applications there was an added clause in the “What we do not fund” category, i.e. “new or original instruments”.
    That was also around the time of the “Piss Christ” fiasco, and the N.E.A. Four, who refused to sign a guarantee that they wouldn’t make any naughty or controversial art with their fellowships. They chose instead to give the money back.
    I like getting money for my art, even if it comes from the government. But I’m not prepared to believe that we can ever expect to get Federal arts money without strings attached, some of which will always be unacceptable to many of our best artists, and detrimental to our cultural health and well-being.
    Risk-taking, visionary artists, to do their best work, will probably always need their day jobs, even if they are lucky enough to get some government funding from time to time.
    KG replies: As Samuel says, the Dutch system is far from perfect, and there will always be outsiders to any system. But at least there’s a system to be outside of. In the “system” we have now, which is no system at all, the composers who get big commissions have to write a certain kind of modernist music with a certain kind of complexity (though the complexity now has more to do with notation than pitch, as it used to). The only official honor I’ve *ever* received as a composer was an NEA grant (and that was 1996, I think that was the very last year), and I got that because a Downtowner friend who was on the panel called me and told me to apply. At least in Holland, composers aren’t completely swamped and swept out of all public visibility by commercially produced music marketed to every segment of the population for maximum profit. Even the unknown outsiders in Holland who don’t fit into the accepted national style get more paid work than all but a few Americans. I’d far rather take my chances with the Dutch system, and get an occasional chance to write an ensemble piece that fits in. The style of the one piece I *did* get to write for a Dutch commission didn’t seem to disappoint them.

  9. Luk Vaes says

    I cannot resist posting to this thread. My apologies for the length…
    As a pianist with a 25-year career in- and outside of the EU (99% contemporary music), concert organiser (I was director of the last North American New Music Festival as well as founder of the November Music Festival in Belgium and The Netherlands and of the ISCM section in Flanders), former artistic director of one of the two most heavily subsidized new music ensembles in Belgium (currently at 600.000$ a year), and having lived in the US for the sole purpose of getting to know composers (thereby learning a lot from the US system) I should know what I talk about with regards to the topic. And yet, I feel unqualified to come to any real conclusions, waiting for someone with the necessary numbers to really compare systems.
    By lack of accurate information on the part of the US situation, I’ll here post what Flanders spends on subsidies. Bear in mind that there is really no Belgian culture anymore since the state was federalised. There is a Flemish ministry for culture, a Walloon one and a Brussels one, each with independent authority on policy and budget. Since a subsidizing state does to a degree influence the cultural activities (by deciding how many opera houses, orchestras, etc. are maintained, how much money there is for commissions, etc.), there is no sense in talking about Belgium anymore, at least artistically speaking. (One orchestra, an opera house and an arts centre are remain Belgian, are in Brussels and subsidized by the Belgian federal government.)
    For 2010 to 2012, the Flemish figures of yearly spending for the arts are as follows. Figures are in euros (multiply by +- 1.5), in brackets are the numbers of organisations.
    Architecture (8) 560,000
    Audiovisual arts (22) 2,239,000
    Visual arts (museums) (21) 4,715,000
    Dance companies (13) 6,755,000
    Arts-education (12) 3,225,000
    Multidisciplinary (39) 19,975,000
    Music (79) 20,622,000
    Music theatre (10) 6,535,000
    Publications (11) 505,000
    Arts promotion centres (4) 3,185,000
    Theatre (47) 26,825,000
    Total (278) 97,996,000
    As said, this is for Flanders, i.e. some institutions that are still Belgian (see above) are not part of this overview. These subsidies are yearly for a period of 3 years. Next to them, there are subsidies for projects on shorter term (3.4 million of which +300K for music), international initiatives,stipends, etc. And, of course, there are the cities and the provinces that subsidize. In practice, an organisation will always get money from these two lower governments once the top has decided favourably. These two do not have budgets anywhere near that of the Flemish governement. (Difficult to give an average, perhaps somewhere between 1 and 5%)
    With the music money, the government supports 6 ensembles that play mostly to exclusively contemporary composed music.
    This is for a population of about 6 million people. The amounts for Brussels and the Walloon part of the country are much less. In Flanders, there are no further “funds”, as in The Netherlands. The culture of private sponsorship is non-existing when it comes to new music. If there is any for classical music, it is almost entirely “in natura” (transport, communications) and not cash.
    The government money is allocated on the basis of applications that are reviewed by commissions (changing every four years) as well as by the administration of the ministry; these two advise the secretary but there is interaction with the applicant before the final process. There is a distinct aim for diversity and the advice of the administration weighs as heavily as the committee’s, preventing outcomes that are based purely on aesthetics. Flanders subsidizes hard-core modernists as much as the most persistent post-modernists, all types of cross-over experiments, musical, jazz, impro, DJs, etc.
    What I regret in discussions about subsidized art, is that “socialist” practices such as the above are compare to Nazism and Stalin. On any forum about subsidized art and health care I come across this ludicrous association. I think Western European policies show that artists can be supported by their community without imposing aesthetic restrictions. Sure, I can name Dutch and Flemish composers that feel they have to write in a certain way to get money from the government. But I have seen that in the US as well. And I have seen as many scores in the US that were only played once (often to get money) as there are those paintings in the cellars of the Dutch ministry of culture that never see the light of day (those that were handed over by artists needing to produce X paintings every X months to get their stipend). And for every composer in the EU that I know “plays” the system to obtain money, I know an American equivalent who masters the art of getting grants more than anything else. One aspect of the scene I learnt, though, does not have an equivalent on the other side of the ocean: composers like Cage and Feldman made their money and careers with commissions and attention that came from Europe. And I wonder how long Glass could have continued driving cabs before giving up on music or before looking for a teaching position that would have allowed him the time he dreamed of.
    The problem is these comparisons is that these examples of the bad and the good are all just generalisations. The question would be in which system there is the best ratio between the success of a policy and the rate of abuse. To answer that, one needs to determine what a society needs to do with its artists. Does it want a productive scene of composers, or does it want to create the classical music of the future, or should it give audiences what they want (and give it if they do not seem to want it?), etc. At this time the Flemish policy is something like “composers must be allowed to compose” (and “whether or not composers produce great art can only be decided by history”), much like the idea that, if society decides to train musicians to play music (subsidizing conservatories and universities), then they must have opportunity to play, otherwise we should not train them.
    From my personal experience, the Western EU is a great place to be living for one who is involved with new music. For a number of years, I could support myself by giving solo concerts with new music programs allowing me to concentrate fully on that work. But governmental policies easily change. Already the radio stations (once such a big motor in the promotion of new music) have mostly abandoned ship, and organisers that are confronted with the lack audiences start talking about this music as Research & Development, i.e. better hide it in laboratories of universities. It looks very much as if Europe is growing towards the US system.
    Oh yes, all the people that work for these subsidized organisations have government subsidized health care and pensions.
    KG replies: Thanks for the analysis and putting the questions so clearly. I know it’s a really contentious issue and many people just hate and despise the concept of government-subsidized art. You’re right that it’s all about what a country wants to do with its artists, and I would prefer to live in a country where contemporary art is valued and its creators treated with dignity. The Americans who think making art is somehow just a self-indulgence make me want to leave America.

  10. Peter Lawless says

    Before I add a final comment on this topic, I must reiterate my respect for your work as a journalist, composer, and teacher because this could get nasty … You must consider where gov’t money comes from. They don’t produce anything (except cars now, I guess), so all their money must come from the labor of others. This includes everyone from super-wealthy bankers; to hard-working doctors, lawyers, college professors, journalists, and small business owners; to their secretaries, nurses, orderlies, and admin assistants; not to mention the gas station workers, teachers, salesmen, cashiers, repairmen, etc. These people may not have even heard of Kyle Gann, or care about art music at all, but, geez, if we could only take a little more of their cash and give it to those poor composers so they could bestow just a few more works of greatness upon the masses from on high … You may want to cover up a bit, Mr. Gann, your elitism is showing.
    That’s why I brought up John Zorn. He never had to resort to a day job or gov’t grants (except maybe a bit in the late 80s). By and large, he made his money without resorting to money extracted from the working class. Instead, he spent years living the time-tested life of the starving artist. He did it because he loved it and he couldn’t do anything else (and isn’t that what we all say). Now, through Tzadik, he has helped support hundreds of artists get their music out, and he pays for it largely through the Masada and Filmworks albums that he is constantly putting out. Some accuse him of selling-out, but the way I see it, he never took money from anyone who didn’t want to give it to him.
    (One caveat – if some brave Congressman were to introduce a bill that would fire all the the military personnel, officers, soldiers, weapons designers, CIA operatives, FBI agents, DHS spies, etc, and use their pay to hire a legion of pay-rolled artists, composers, musicians, dancers, actors, playwrights, and directors, I could get behind that for sure.)
    KG replies: It is not being elitist to notice that Canadian, Dutch, and Australian composers are given far more chances to spend their lives doing the work they need to do than American composers are. What’s elitist is to say “What’s wrong with driving a cab until you make it big?” when most composers, even many of the very best ones, will never “make it big.” The glamorization of the starving artist is like something out of a bad movie, and most artists I know cringe when someone brings it up, finding it rather insulting that people assume they should make work that other people enjoy without being paid for it or even being given support for the materials they need. I gather you’re either not an artist, or living on a trust fund (as some of the most successful composers indeed are).
    I know composers older than myself, people I’ve written about frequently, who have CDs out and have performed at Lincoln Center to critical acclaim, who can barely make their rent, who eat as frugally as possible in their 60s, who have no health care, whom friends take up collections for to keep them from being evicted. To cheer on this situation because starving artists are building up integrity is deeply offensive to those of us who know and admire these people. It may seem cuddly and romantic to you that the multi-talented Julius Eastman ended up sleeping on a bench in Tomkins Square Park, but the actual living-through is not a noble, feel-good PBS special, it is a tragedy.
    I do put my money where my mouth is: I’ve been applying for jobs in these other countries for decades, because I’d love to live somwhere where composers aren’t so abandoned to their own devices, but it’s difficult to get an out-of-country job. Difficult enough getting an in-country job.

  11. says

    Socialized art? I’m for it! (And consequently socialized medicine as well, but that’s just because I think it’s the right thing to do… but I digress…)

  12. says

    Most efficient health care delivery system in the U.S.: the V.A. Government run.
    No such thing as a free market. The roads are subsidized, the money with which people purchase goods is regulated by the government. The government doesn’t produce anything? How about roads, education, scientific research? What about monetary regulation, food safety enforcement, public safety?
    I’m glad to have socialized roads, education, and law enforcement. Socialized medicine would be much more efficient too.
    Private health insurance is broken. I forget who said it, but it rang true: Private health insurance doesn’t work because everybody uses it. Home insurance works because, thank goodness, only a few people lose their homes to fires, while everybody is happy to pool the risk in exchange for the protection that insurance provides. Ditto with car insurance. Health insurance, it’s just not true — everybody uses it.
    Socialized medicine would make it easier for artists to find free time, because people wouldn’t have to worry about health insurance, which often comes with full-time work. A Canadian writer friend tells me that — his artist friends can more comfortably live on very part-time work because their health care is covered.
    As for direct funding of the arts, well, we do it already, and what does the public get in return? The public subsidizes big theaters and orchestras (and professional baseball, football, and basketball teams), and what do we get for it? Tickets that part-time workers can afford? Not hardly! In Seattle, we’ve spent over a billion dollars subsidizing professional sports. Our culture is depraved.
    Gov’t funding of arts must be accompanied by cheap public access to the art (or professional sport); otherwise it’s public promotion of economic elitism.
    Sorry to go on so long.
    KG replies: Oh, please do continue.