Arts arguments

In my last post, about going viral, I mentioned a skeptical Wall Street Journal piece I’d written about stimulus money for the arts. It appeared last Wednesday, and of course grew out of my skeptical posts about the arts stimulus (here and here).

In it, I said much of what you might have read in the blog. The economic argument for giving stimulus money to the arts is shallow, and easy for non-arts organizations to trump. It’s hard to argue for money for the arts when money for crucial social programs — public health, for instance — is lacking. It’s hard, politically, to give stimulus money for arts organizations like the Metropolitan Opera, which seem to be swimming in money. (Even if they’re hurting financially.)

And then I ended with something about the pro-arts arguments I wish we’d make, which would be based on the intrinsic value of the arts (or better still, of art itself). And which — this is the hard part for many of us — would reflect a world in which popular culture already supplies some of the depth and meaning we credit (and often so ecstatically) the formal high arts for giving us.

Which brings me to a book I strongly recommend, and the challenge it gives us. The book is Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing, by Robert Coles.Coles is a child psychiatrist, a Pulitzer Prize winner for a book called Children in Crisis, and for more than a generation one of the most humane voices in American writing. A very serious person, both in his own field, and nationally.

His Springsteen book is about why everyday Americans have loved Springsteen, and been educated and inspired by him. Encouraged by him. Taught about themselves by him. Caught in conversations — in their minds, but no less real for that — with him. With references to Walker Percy, a novelist who was moved by Springsteen, and by William Carlos Williams, the great poet, whom Coles knew, and who in the ’50s, living in New Jersey, felt how important, in that age, Frank Sinatra was. And who noted even then, prompted by his son, that Sinatra would have been even stronger if he’d been singing his own songs, his own thoughts, his own words, as Springsteen does.

This book does what arts advocates should do. We talk about the meaning of the arts, their depth, their transformative power. But most often I think we talk windily, in great generalities, without saying much about specific instances, specific things that we or others get from any work of art.

Coles does all that. Here’s book, more than 200 pages long, that tells how Springsteen brought depth, meaning, and transformation to many, many people. With the people talking about it in their own words.

That demonstrates, first of all, what I mean when I say that we in the arts have to acknowledge the artistic strength of popular culture. Whatever we think the arts do, popular culture does, too. (No, not all of it. But that’s an old debate, one most strongly carried on within popular culture itself.)

So we need to do for the arts what Coles does for Springsteen. Until we do, our advocacy, if you ask me, rings a little hollow. So let’s get to work. What depth, what meaning, what transformative urgency, did a production of Tosca at your local opera company have, in the words of people who attended it?

(And yes, I’m deliberately provocative by choosing that example. The question I’d love to provoke is: Do we really believe that everything that bears the label “art” has more artistic value than the best of popular culture? And if we do, can we demonstrate how this is true?)

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  1. says

    The problem with arguing ars gratia artis is that the people who most need to hear it are absolutely, intractably, convinced that the arts have no intrinsic value. They feel threatened by the arts and by artists (and by science, as well) and can only be reached (and even this is tenuous) by appealing to their baser natures — by explaining what’s in it for them in the way of economic impact on their constituents.

    They are unmoved by arguments that the arts bring “depth, meaning, and transformation” to people, simply because they:

    A: Don’t and won’t believe it’s true,

    B: Don’t and won’t believe that it’s important, and

    C: Don’t believe it’s the government’s place to do so.

    So…the economic argument may be the weaker one, morally, but it’s the only one that has a chance of succeeding.

    There’s no way to convince absolutely everybody of something you or I might believe in. Given that, I think you’re being way too black and white about something that really comes in shades of gray. Given that we can’t convince everyone, we can forget about the really hardcore opponents, and go for people on the fence. Which would be a lot of people, occupying various positions on that fence.

    But if you think about what you’re saying, the hardcore arts opponents won’t be convinced by the economic argument anyway, because they dislike the arts (and the claims we make for them) so much. And because the economic argument isn’t strong enough.

    So the only people — or close to the only people — we’re going to reach with the economic argument are those on the fence. The hardcore people you described shouldn’t be our targets for any kind of reasoning.

  2. Richard Mitnick says

    There is no question that the Arts, which some would say are the best precipitate of our culture, are worthy of public support of a financial nature at some level.

    But we as participants in that culture need to act on our own to financially support the arts.

    What can we do?

    Pick some artistic field or fields to support. Mine happens to be music.

    Decide on who or what we will support. My particular choice is living composers.

    Finally, do something about it. In music, that means either attending concerts or buying music or both. I am claustrophobic, so I do not attend concerts.I choose to buy music, these days in mp3 download from Amazon.

    Certainly my choice can be criticized. Downloads of music are probably not very enriching to the artists. But, that is not my fault, that is a problem for the music industry. If a person still wants to purchase CD’s, why that is fine. But it does not diminish what I do or the meaning behind what I do.

    Hi, Richard. Good to see you here, as always.

    Your reasoning is impeccable, but even so, if music organizations know that you want them to succeed, they’ll target you for fundraising, explaining (whether you ask them or not) that they can’t succeed on purchases alone.

    I’m not saying you have to give them money. It’s entirely your choice. But they’re likely to come after you in any case.

  3. Bruce Springsteen says

    NUMBER: 7782

    QUOTATION: Music was my way of keeping people from looking through and around me. I wanted the heavies to know I was around.

    ATTRIBUTION: On writing his own music, ib

    SUBJECTS: Communications & the Arts: Music & Dance: Artists & Entertainers

    BIOGRAPHY: Columbia Encyclopedia.

    If we take Bruce Springsteen as a role model, and there is no reason not to in my opinion, we had better use the quote above.

    I administrate the Central Connecticut Civic Youth Orchestra, and I provide a Weekly Newsletter. In that newsletter I cite a quote from a famous musician- and this one is so strong and relevant to young people that I will repeat it. The message is true throughout the spectrum of the Arts and should be extolled whenever artists start talking about why the Arts exists and should continue to exist.

    “Music was my way of keeping people from looking through and around me. I wanted the heavies to know I was around.” Bruce Springsteen

    Thanks, Katrina. Springsteen, among much else, provides a strong example of someone who wasn’t afraid to look for success. When the record company gave him a lot of money (to paraphrase a line from one of his earlier songs), that gave him freedom to do what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t have minded winning a Macarthur Prize (if that was around in the ’70s), but he wouldn’t have been considered for one, so commercial success was all he could aim for. Nobody would dispute that he’s used it wonderfully, and kept himself very far from selling out to any heavies with money.


  4. mags says

    “Do we really believe that everything that bears the label “art” has more artistic value than the best of popular culture?”

    No, I don’t. And I think one of the reasons we don’t see writing about “high art” that is like the book you reference is because the attempt to prove its superiority leaves commentary bogged down in the formal and technical aspects which prove that superiority.

    Allowing for depth of connection and movement is to open up the possibility that art and Art can sometimes exist on the same plane.

    Pleasure to see you here, Mags. Brings me back two decades…

    And of course I agree. I like your point about how we stress the formal and technical things that supposedly prove high art’s superiority. God knows, we do that in classical music. But what merit do all those fine technical points have — and, by the way, I get as involved with them as many others do — if they don’t have charity? Sorry to get biblical here, but the famous lines from the bible apply. I can have all sorts of virtues, but I’m like sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, if I don’t have charity. Art has to make some kind of human contact (which doesn’t have to be populist).

    And if it does, we can find examples of that contact, and demonstrate the power of the art without fine technical points.

  5. Kit Baker says

    I’m sorry, Mr Sandow, but your arguments are the most flagrant red herrings I have come across since arts funding started surfacing again as a matter for public debate.

    Yes, even worse than the Republicans who have been calling arts funding “wasteful”. At least we can recognize that as a wedge tactic which has yielded rich political dividends in the past, and can understand why right wingers, with so little else left in their arsenal, are going to be flogging that dead horse for all it’s worth until the tide finally turns and washes it away. Yet Mr Sandow is trying to tell us that he wants to help the arts, when he’s actually hurting us.

    Look at Britain, where the tide did turn. Thatcher was battling to cut arts funding in the late eighties, and the arts were at first overmatched. Had he been true to form, Mr Sandow would have been blaming all those windbag arts leaders who were crying foul as they watched their theaters and concert halls dragged towards the abyss by monumental political forces. Yet by the time the discredited Thatcher left office, the economic argument was poised and ready, government arts funding soared, and London began eclipsing New York as an arts Mecca (and, in a not unrelated development, as a financial center).

    And why exactly should arts funding be seen as taking money away from, say, public health in a zero sum game? Obama told us he wouldn’t be making blanket budget cuts, but rather look at the merits and fund what works and cut what isn’t working, and build a fiscal strategy line by line. No need to stray into Sandow’s either/or trap.

    Let’s not forget that the amounts we are talking about are miniscule. Even if the NEA budget triples, as some would like to see happen, it would be negligible compared to what we need to spend on public health. In 2009, for example, the Met is receiving something in the region of $0.00033 – 3% of a single penny – from the NEA per US resident. Why then use the Met as an example, and not, say, the new study in Colorado that reveals a growing number of residents working in the creative industries, and estimates how much they are contributing to the economy?

    So who are we to believe? Mr Sandow, and his paper thin argument that the economic case for the arts just doesn’t fly (for what reasons, exactly?) or the people who have been working hard crunching the numbers that were no doubt crucial to the passing of the recent arts stimulus package, and will continue to be crucial as we take our arguments forward?

    Mr Sandow has done a disservice to these people. I applaud them, and thank them heartily for providing us with so much solid information to support our cause, and look forward to working with them to get the message out loud and clear at this critical time. They are right, and Mr Sandow is so wrong.

  6. Ellen Rosewall says

    While I do agree with the fact that we are a nation that does not seem to understand the intrinsic value of the arts, I strongly agree with those who have commented here that the “intrinsic value” argument has little chance of succeeding in the current climate. And, might I also say that I am tired of the need to justify the arts. At least the economic impact argument has earned us some respect. Other than the idiots who claimed on the floor of Congress last week that we should spend the money to create “real jobs,” and not give any money to the arts, the fact that the NEA is even included in a stimulus package like this is due to years of successful advocacy. Obama is the first presidential candidate in my lifetime to have issued a comprehensive arts policy and who seems to be prepared to treat the arts as an industry which provides significant benefits to the American people.

    And let’s not lump all “non-intrinsic” arguments into the economic impact category. Economic impact is only one of the practical, measurable benefits of the arts included in arts lobbying positions. Others include community revitalization, educational benefits, benefits to the 21st century workforce (by nurturing creativity), quality of life, human development, tourism and community pride. It is not just the economic impact (after all, hotels and football teams and conventions all have economic impact) — it’s the total package. After studying the impact of the Massachussetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, economist Stephen Sheppherd concluded that while other industries may provide economic development OR tourism benefit OR educational benefit, no other industry but the arts had the capability to provide a range of benefits, and not just to participants but non-participants as well.

    Intrinsic value is just a fancy buzz word which really means the shovel they’ll bury us with. Arts advocates who scorn the extrinsic benefits of the arts are asking us to go back to the days when we were accused of being, at best, elitist, or at worst (as Sean Penn so eloquently put it Sunday night) commie, homo-loving sons of guns.

    Ellen, this is wonderfully thoughtful and informative. Thanks.

    At the same time, I wish we weren’t assuming an implicit confrontation between people who understand the arts — us, I guess — and the yahoos that Sean Penn made such glorious fun of. I think things are subtler and more complex than that. I think there’s a range of reaction from a range of people to a range of different kinds of art. I’ve seen open-minded people without any arts background who can immediately grasp complex things about art. And I’ve seen closed-minded people who consider themselves part of the arts, but can’t understand anything but the kind of art they like.

    And as I said in my comments about Robert Coles’s book, I don’t think we’ve begun to make an intrinsic case for the arts. We haven’t talked about reactions of individual people to specific works of art. Henry Fogel, the former executive director of the Chicago Symphony and former president of the League of American Orchestras (and newly appointed dean of — hope I’ve got this right — the school of the arts at Roosevelt University in Chicago) tells a story about a bus driver on an orchestra tour, with no classical music background, who was overwhelmed by a Mahler symphony. We need to gather hundreds, thousands of stories like that, involving all forms of art, including the most contemporary, just as Coles (with far more modest goals, far less at stake) assembled stories of peoples’ reaction to Bruce Springsteen. If anyone has ever done this, I’ve never seen it or heard of it. How hard could it be to do?

    But about creativity. It’s interesting that you and others think that the arts can help foster creativity in our workforce, or elsewhere in our society. If you look elsewhere, you might get the idea that creativity is exploding on its own. For instance, read Wired magazine, which celebrates computer and computer-related technology, and does it very intelligently. If you believe Wired, there’s no shortage of dramatic new ideas. Likewise the annual “ideas” issue of the New York Times magazine.

    And these are just two of many sources we might cite. We in the arts preen a little, if you ask me, in saying that we represent creativity, while in the world outside our little bubble (forgive me), people think creativity has never been more explosive. Why does our president keep talking about the entrepreneurial energy that will be released, when the economy recovers? Because he knows that there are new ideas for creative new businesses just waiting to be acted on.

    For several years, I was part of a program that involved more than a dozen orchestras, which came together twice a year for three-day retreats. Creativity wasn’t a notable feature of the discussions. Though in fact it was one of the subjects discussed. There was quite a lot of talk about the need to foster creativity in this rather central area of the arts, and quite a few consultants were brought in to present their ways of fostering creativity. You’d never have known, from these meetings, that the arts — or at least this one area in the arts — could teach creativity to anyone else.

  7. Kit Baker says

    Good post, Ellen.

    I totally agree, it is the complete package we need to focus on. Here are a few notions I would like to see take hold in the public realm, now that the economic arguments seem to have successfully opened the door:

    – The educative potential of just experiencing the arts is extraordinary. Yet in this country it is too often mistrusted, under-appreciated and under-supported. The arts have an educational dimension that goes beyond the talks, seminars, and other public events which are currently a necessary but too often distracting precursor to attracting funding. In order to be effective with the decision makers, this argument must be expressed in terms of education rather than of “intrinsic value”, as Ellen rightly points out. It must also be expressed in the awareness that there are powerful opposing political forces which have been warping the dynamics of the arts world for a while now.

    – Arts education – in the widest sense of the term – is uniquely able to foster the creative, nimble thinking that will be a key component of a prosperous society – economically, socially and otherwise – in the 21st century.

    – The arts are an intrinsic part of society. Funding the arts doesn’t take money away from public health – it improves public health. Funding for arts organizations doesn’t take money away from small businesses (Peter King, This Week, ABC, 2/15) – arts organizations ARE small businesses. And so on.

    I’m tired of all this too, and frustrated that so many people just don’t seem to get it. The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky hit it on the nose when he said: “If the arts are not at the center of society, then something is wrong with society.” But I’m in no doubt that the fight is worth it, but we need to be smart and get things right.

  8. miguel gutierrez says

    god i hate blogs and worse, response threads on blogs. a friend of mine likens response threads on blogs to a form of desperate intellectual real estate prospecting, and i’m inclined to agree. but i feel so passionately about this issue and your article, with all due respect, mr. sandow, really pissed me off, so i did some google searching and found this! congrats on your work and on stirring the debate.

    i’m pretty down with the kit/ellen arguments here. i, too, felt that the pro-economic argument that arts advocates are using gets inexplicably dismissed in your article.

    i direct a small contemporary dance/performance group in ny and three years ago we received a 10,000 dollar grant from the NEA for a piece that ended up costing about 70,000. i know these numbers are peanuts in the “real world,” but in my world, and in the world of tons of other small arts organizations they’re major. that grant was 15 percent of our project budget and that was the first piece i was able to pay people an hourly wage for working (again, it was hardly enough money to live on, but in the world of contemporary dance in this country, an hourly wage is a big step forward). multiply this story times 100, 200 plus times across the country to account for small dance companies, and we’re talking about a lot of people embedded in the arts economy. i agree that 50 million dollars is not a lot of money in terms of the overall federal budget, but when you think about how the money that DOES make its way to arts organizations goes directly to the people they serve (i have yet to hear about any arts institutions issuing bonuses in 3 digits, let alone 6, nor have i heard about mismanaged federal monies paying for the company jet), you’re talking about a pretty solid investment.

    so yeah, the $$ argument works. and i’ve seen the benefits of what increased funding can do firsthand.

    i also have to say that the other main thing that upset me in your article was that there was NO analysis as to why the public health folks and the arts advocates are fighting for that same, meager slice of the pie in the first place. i find it irresponsible of you (in the wall street journal no less!) to paint an image of us rubbing our white gloved hands with glee while aunt millie keels over because she couldn’t get her prescription meds at an affordable rate, without looking at the broader, painfully obvious issue of where federal money DOES go to in vast, seemingly limitless supply. oh gosh, where should i begin? the war in iraq? the war in afghanistan? the war on drugs? defense spending? any of the the u.s.’ new corporate welfare programs? the list goes on.

    in the public health vs. the arts advocates scenario the answer is clear to me. the money should be going to BOTH places. the question is really, why isn’t there enough money to go around? where does the money go? who decides this and who benefits from those decisions? by not even making passing reference to these questions you uphold the logic that entrenches “community” vs. “art” into the binary of public good vs. personal leisure, without making any space for a more complex reading of the situation. wow we’re back in the early 90’s!

    you’re right that we need a better argument, mr. sandow. but i’m gonna need a better critique of the argument than yours.



    Thanks for the hug and kiss, Miguel. I’m sympathetic to your story, because I used to work for the New York State Council on the Arts, and got a lot of grants like yours approved (in music). I was also on the board of a small dance company, so I know very well what a grant like the one you got can do.

    And I didn’t, certainly didn’t, say I was against arts funding.

    But you, with all respect, don’t make much of an argument. First — and look carefully at what you wrote, if you don’t believe me — you say that you and your company got some good things from your grant. Of course you did. Who would dispute that? But you need to go another step, and ask how you’d explain to someone who didn’t care about you, or your company, why the grant to you is a good thing for them. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But you haven’t done it.

    I really seem to have touched a nerve here, because people attack me as if I’d attacked the very notion of art itself. That’s sad, and also silly, at least for anyone who knows me, my history, and my taste. Nor am I opposing the idea of arts funding. I’m saying that we in the arts aren’t doing a good job in telling people why they should support us.

    Then, your second point. Sure, I could get up on a soapbox, and raise the proverbial roof shouting about what’s wrong with our present politics. All of which will get me nowhere, if my shorter-term goal is getting more money for the arts. I was talking about a specific situation in San Francisco, where, I’m afraid, the situation you so lightly made fun of actually took shape. When the Board of Supervisors was debating whether to cut opera and ballet or public health, I can just imagine you getting up and telling everyone that on a national basis we’re spending money on horrible things. Everyone would agree with you. But you wouldn’t have solved the problem they were discussing. What do you expect them to do, march on Washington that minute, overthrow the government, end all wars, and then put the money into things that you and I would love to see funded?

    That’s not going to happen. So they’d listen to you, applaud, and then go right back to the problem they had to solve — and which you didn’t help them solve. You sound, quite honestly — and even though I know you’re 100% sincere — like somebody who’d rather be right than get results. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and be practical, and just deal with the reality in front of you.

    Which in the end comes down to this. You’re an artist. So you want money spent on the arts. Who could blame you? I’m an artist myself, so I want the same thing. But the mere fact that you and I want it isn’t going to persuade the rest of the world to give it to us.

  9. Kit Baker says

    Nice post, Miguel.

    I’ll just weigh in with a counter-example to Mr Sandow’s story of a sterile retreat with orchestra members proposed as evidence that the arts aren’t good at fostering creative thinking. A few years ago, I was working with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra when they were giving Orpheus Process seminars to businesspeople in Japan. Japan was experiencing a systematic problem with middle managers, who were stuck on the corporate ladder and languishing. The Japanese were so excited about this new way of addressing the problem that it was the lead feature on the evening news.

    Some are good at it, some aren’t so good at it. And no-one here has claimed that the arts are the only source of creative thinking, just that it’s a source which is important enough to deserve considerably more government support.

    Actually, Kit, my example was meant to show something else. Maybe I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I’m trying to show that the arts first have no monopoly on creativity. Second, I want to suggest that the arts may not even be leaders in the creativity that’s currently sweeping our society. I think that leadership is coming from above all from technology. And also from popular culture, but I’m sure I’ll get in a huge argument if I say that here, without a lot of time to explain why I’m saying this. (The short version would simply be: Rent the first season or two of The Wire, and ask me who in the arts, short of Angels in America, is doing anything with that much depth and scope.) (Which doesn’t cover non-mainstream art, found both in the formal arts and in popular culture. That’s another discussion. Rent any of Wong Karwai’s best films, even “My Blueberry Nights,” the last one I’ve seen, which isn’t one of his best, but has some breathtaking artistic moments. If you’re going to rent one, try “Fallen Angels.”)

    As for Orpheus, I know they do those workshops, as does at least one other orchestra I know of. (Or, more precisely, a conductor, who brings an orchestra along. Not sure whether it’s one he works with regularly.) As I understand it, these workshops serve to foster good management, good working relations, and not specifically the kind of creativity we find in the arts at their best.

    But, you know, the whole argument gets complicated when we start making distinctions between the arts and art. The arts is a business, an interest group. Art is the unrefinable, one of the most important things in life, which is found where it happens to grow, which might be in the arts, and might not.

    Just so you know what I think art is (besides Wong Karwai), the most delightful art project I’ve heard of recently was done by a contemporary art museum in California, which for a number of days had staff members giving individual performances of John Cage’s famous silent piece, 4’33”. That’s the kind of art that can really make you stop and look into yourself, and while it’s hardly the only way in which that can happen — I’d also tout the serious study of any of Webern’s later pieces — it’s the kind of artistry that, sigh, I really miss in the arts.

    And now what kind of firestorm have I ignited? Even from, so to speak, the left, since 4’33” is so familiar by now that it’s almost a cliché…(if a corporation brought that museum in to work with its managers in performances of the silent piece, now we’d be talking…)