How to advocate the arts (1)

It’s Arts Advocacy Day. I’ve complained before — here, here, here, and (in the Wall Street Journal) here — that common advocacy arguments for the arts have problems.

So to celebrate the day, here’s my two cents on how it might be done. What I won’t talk about is how people in the arts can’t disdain popular culture. I’ve covered that enough in separate posts, here and here.

1. Trust the public

I got some disagreeing comments to my earlier posts on this, and the two that made me sad said that we can’t advocate the arts directly — we have to use indirect arguments, like the suspect (to me) argument that the arts are good for the economy. One problem with that, as I said, is that many other things are good for the economy, too.

And another problem is that we don’t wholly mean it, when we use economic arguments. We really mean that the arts are wonderful in themselves, but since not everyone agrees (or doesn’t feel the urgency about the arts that we feel), we have to bring in other artillery. Others, advocating other things, will of course do the same. But in our case, the disconnect between real love of the arts and excitement about their alleged economic impact is so great that economic arguments, I fear, may end up sounding hollow.

Which is why the disagreeing comments made me said. Two commenters said flat out that the public — or else right-wing politicians — would never support the arts, so we have to use non-arts arguments. So, if I believe these people, I was right! The economic argument is what we use for the Muggles. Among ourselves — among superior beings like us, who understand the arts — we can say what we really mean.

One problem here is that there’s no point worrying about what the right wing thinks. As in all political maneuvering, you can’t hope to convert your enemies. Where you aim your efforts, most importantly, is at the people in the middle, the people who haven’t chosen sides yet, and could go either way.

So why assume those people are immune to art, and any need for its support? Why sell them so short? Some of them are into popular culture that’s just as smart as most of what we tout in the arts, so why assume they won’t care about what we do, if we make it real to them? There’s something very sad in this, and also (I think) smugly elitist. We know more than you do, so to get you on our side, we’ll have to descend to your level.

As I said, that’s sad.

2. The arts vs art

Here a line from a Public Enemy song (I think it’s “Fight the Power”) comes to mind. Chuck D (looking at the then-new Elvis stamp, from a black perspective) says: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

So I feel something similar about the arts and art. A lot of my favorite art doesn’t get advocated, in most of art advocacy. That’s because — and I wonder if some of the people who launch into me for my arts advocacy skepticism will be surprised — I like a lot of very difficult high art. Webern, as I’ve often said, is one of my favorite composers. In film, Antonioni. In poetry, Anne Carson. In novels and theater, Beckett. (And yes, Waiting for Godot distantly approaches being a repertory piece, but has anyone ever launched a defense of the arts by citing — not Tennessee Williams, not Eugene O’Neill, and not Tony Kushner, good as those playwrights are — but Endgame?)

And no, I’m not saying that everybody has to share my taste, that arts advocacy is worthless if it doesn’t touch the high-church realms I’m happy in. Nor do I dislike all the art that’s more normally cited — the familiar list of great composers, great painters, great novelists, and all of that. I’m reading Dickens right now, and loving him. (And also a dire, gripping thriller by Cornell Woolrich.)

But there’s a tendency, in arts advocacy, to go all middlebrow, to talk about the arts in rapturous terms, as a part of life that’s inspiring and elevating. Whereas art is so much more complex than that. Some of it isn’t pleasant. Some of it isn’t inspiring. Some of it paints the world in dire colors. Some of it is confrontational. Some of it is difficult. Caroline Levine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, read my previous posts on advocating art, and was kind enough to send me her terrific book, Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts, in which she argues that one main role of art is to be confrontational.

Arts advocates most often skate right past that. For them, the arts might as well be a Johnny Mathis song: “Wonderful, Wonderful.” Which shows that the arts, properly understood, aren’t at all the same thing as art. Essentially, the enterprise known as “the arts” functions as an interest group, one that’s certainly involved with art, but which also doesn’t tell (not nearly) the whole art story.

3. What we should do

Not to be a tease, but for time management reasons (once again), I’ll have to wait a few hours to get to the meat of my argument.

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  1. Steve Soderberg says

    So far, I agree pretty much with everything you’re saying (but will wait for the rest before giving you a famous civilized Washington everyone-is-standing-so-I-guess-I-better-stand-too ovation).

    Where we may disagree is: this is politics, which makes much of what you are saying (and that with which I agree most strongly) pretty irrelevant. This is a bottom-line society, not a top-line culture (this is not a pop-classical “elitist” distinction … top is top whether basketball or ping pong). The result of NOT arguing (honestly) the economic benefits in this particular situation (ESPECIALLY right now) is that you give your decision-making advocates nothing to say.

    It seems to me that the only option left after you do that is to throw it up to popular (economically determined) survival with the government out of the picture entirely. Then your examples of the other things art can be — ESPECIALLY the challenging, dark, frightening — will soon be trampled.

    As for the silliness I also have heard so often that assumes the right is anti-art & the left is pro-art… I have run into (almost literally) BOTH Nina Totenberg and Charles Krauthammer during intermission at the same opera at Kennedy Center. I think you agree, Greg, that particular nonsense should stop.

    I’m not saying there shouldn’t be government support. Or that the arts should be thrown entirely into the market. Although the market has done pretty well by pop music. And publishing! Somehow Proust and Joyce got published. And Nabokov. Would any non-profit, government-funded publisher (if any such thing existed back then) have put out Lolita in the 1950s? In our time, HBO is far more challenging — and more artistic — than PBS. By miles, I’d think.

    Anne and I have run into Charles Krauthammer at DC concerts. And we spotted Newt Gingrich at the Washington National Opera’s Peter Grimes. Justice Scalia, of course, is an opera fan. Though don’t the Republicans normally cut the NEA’s budget? Charles or Gingrich or Scalia might, for all I know, love the arts personally and sitll think that government shouldn’t fund art. Or that its arts funding should be cut.

    Do you know where they stand on this, Steve? I don’t pretend to know the answer. Does anyone else here know?

  2. Tim says

    What exactly do you mean by ‘advocacy?’ I thought it meant cultivating an appreciation in the general populace. But your statements about rightwing politicians only make sense if by ‘advocacy’ you mean ‘public funding.’ Because it is absurd to think that rightwing politicians by virtue of being rightwing oppose the arts.

    Good distinction, Tim. Arts advocacy, as I’ve encountered it, has many goals, including getting more government money, getting more generalized community support, and getting arts programs going in schools. And more.

    But recent arts advocacy has most publicly focused on the stimulus bill, and that of course is about government funding. My impression is that Republicans have generally not been friendly to government arts funding, or at least not as friendly as democrats. The most prominent public opponent of putting arts money in the stimulus bill was a Republican.

    Though here I was paraphrasing what some commenters here said, rather than stating my own views. I should have been more careful — both in my language and in my thinking — to make it clear to others and to myself that I shouldn’t uncritically accept what I read, in blog comments or elsewhere.

  3. says

    It’s Arts Advocacy Day?

    Not only do I have no idea what we’re supposed to be advocating – shouldn’t there be one very specific and unified message every year, or does it work to have every artist/organization advocating their own agenda? – but I didn’t even know there was a day for such things. Or that today was that day. Who’s responsible for telling the world (or even the industry) about this special occasion, let alone leading the effort(s)?

    Hey, Amanda!

    Arts Advocacy Day? I read about it on Twitter. So it has to be real!

    My friend John Shibley was wondering on Twitter yesterday why April is National Car Care Month. He also wondered who decides these things. As far as I know, they’re sometimes decreed by various levels of government, including the federal government, after (of course) lobbying by interest groups, including (just for instance) the National Association of Car Repair Shops, or whatever it might be called.

    Or we can just proclaim your own days. I say April 29 is National Appreciate Amanda Day (please send her money), and if we can get enough people to agree — and talk about it to everyone else — then it’s a fact. I wonder if that’s how Arts Advocacy Day got started.

  4. Randy says

    I think the arts depend too much on private funding and do not receive enough social funding from tax revenues, for example. A person that comes to mind is classical pianist Ronnie Segev. His non-profit Ten O’Clock Classics pairs up low-income youth in inner city NYC with Juilliard alumni to provide free of charge private music instruction and free instruments. What we need is powerful people to advocate “the Arts” and “Art” because self-expression comes in many forms, and just like one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, artistic expressions have a different value for different people.

  5. Richard Mitnick says

    3. What we should do:

    Why is this so hard?

    The only advocacy for “The Arts” is the advocacy of people spending money on that segment or those segments of “The Arts” that they peronally value and enjoy. Books, plays, concerts, recordings, whoever and whatever is one’s taste, that’s it.

    Who buys R.E.M.? Who buys Placido Domingo. Who joins MOMA or the Metropolitan or Whitney Museums or the Guggenheim? Season tickets to the L.A. Phil? Who doesn’t like Dudamel? Who buys that band, The Roots, on Jimmy Fallon’s new program? Or John Melloncamp’s new album?

    Or Philip Glass/Robert Moran “The Juniper Tree” finally on CD (mp3 pleeeze)?

    Is this another seeking of tax dollars? The only public who are responsible for “The Arts” are the people who respond to them. Otherwise we are what? Leading horses to water in the hopes that they will drink?

    Greg said that Wordless Music is a success. Only because people keep coming. It draws. Does it get public funding? Taxpayer dollars? That’s welfare. Does it get private grant money? That’s fine with me because someone with a charitable trust has decided to spend his or her money to support something.

    I think tax deductions for me if I support Wordless Music are O.K.; but I don’t want that support legislated to use tax dollars.

    I support Public Radio, mostly for music. That is how serious music spreads these days. I support living composers. They get my bucks. A MacArthur is for me legit. Welfare is not.

    O.K., rip me up.


    No need to rip you up. This is a legitimate debate. The arts really do ask for money, quite beyond what they can get in the marketplace. There can be good reasons for giving art (if not “the arts”) that money. There are plenty of things — schools, for instance, and health care — that we know the market can’t adequately support. Art, or some art, might fall into that category. That’s certainly the rationale behind government arts funding, although in the US, government supplies only a small percentage of arts institutions’ budgets. Still, that small percentage makes a difference.

    But it’s healthy to look at things another way, as you’ve done. How well could the arts do on their own? And to what extent might it be the responsibility of arts patrons to support the work they like themselves, rather than to ask people with no interest in the arts to support this work with tax dollars? I think people in the arts may well scream in protest, even to see this question asked. But it’s worthwhile asking it, if only to put the arguments for government support of art in stronger relief.

  6. Steve Soderberg says

    Sorry, Greg, I’ll have to go private for my response. You’ve raised a good point that needs to be addressed, but it’s a can of worms for me.

    This discussion — not between you and me, but the entire subject — is a can of worms. With a lot of emotion involved. Discussion can get very tricky. I’ll look forward to whatever you send me in private. It’ll very likely take the conversation into helpful places I couldn’t go by myself.

  7. Richard Mitnick says

    Two nights ago on American Idol, David Cook, who was last years winner, was presented with his platinum disc. His first album passed one million copies sold.

    We all know, or know of, composers and artists who have CD’s out or will have them out, and those guys have not got a prayer of selling one million copies.

    This example is not about “high art” (call it what you will) and popular culture. It is simply about money.

    I wonder how many CD’s Kyle Gann or Danny Felsenfeld have sold?

    They’ve sold very few CDs, as everyone knows. But it’s fair to ask how many they’d sell if they thought of themselves as having an audience, and went out to find — and sell CDs to — the people who’d be part of that audience. I was at a concert with a composer similar (in worldly fame) to the two you’re talking about — a classical concert packed with people from a brand new audience. This composer said that he was astonished to be at a classical concert where he didn’t know many people.

    Which is exactly the point! He’s used to new classical music functioning only in an in-group. The possiblity now exists to break out of that box, and find a true audience, filled with people you don’t personally know.

    And there’s no hard and fast financial line dividing the arts from popular culture, at least not in classical music. .At the Bang on a Can marathon two years ago, one composer had 2,000,000 hits on his YouTube video. Working classical musicians who aren’t stars in many cases make more money than their pop music equivalents. Some classical musicians — even if they’re not in Mariah Carey territory — make piles of money.

    And, for that matter, the vast majority of people in pop music — including some big, highly artistic names — aren’t selling CDs anywhere near the level of your American idol winner. How many CDs do you think PJ Harvey sells?

    To be honest, I’m always suspicious of comparisons in which the pop music entry is topping the charts. Especially if for the the classical music entry we pick people who hardly sell any CDs at all. Hardly anything in art or entertainment can compare with a chart-topper financially. Does Mad Men, as an enterprise on TV, make the kind of money a top-selling pop singer does?

    And if you compared James Levine with this American Idol winner, who’s better off? Levine, I’d say in a heartbeat. He might not make as much money this year as someone with a platinum album (plus touring) would, but he’s got longevity. Over his entire career, he’s likely to do a lot better. Most people who top the charts in pop music have relatively short chart-topping careers. Levine has been making headlines, and big money, as a classical music star for decades.

  8. says

    How many have had their computers crash because of viruses or Trojans loaded when we accidentally arrive at the ‘wrong’ web site or have had our teenagers do the same thing? How much pornography is available on the Internet? Are these questions that may be addressed by the FCC or Henry Waxman? Absolutely not! There are web sites that broadcast conservative, libertarian or Republican thoughts that need to be eradicated. The fact that people want to hear Rush Limbaugh a great deal more than that idiot Chris Matthews only indicates they’ve been brainwashed . . . but in the wrong way. Henry Waxman to the rescue! Matthews, Maddow et. al. need to be heard! We’ll whisper if need be. We’ll seek others with open minds and we’ll find each other. Neither Henry Waxman nor any other liberal will stop us.