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The Uses of Culture


  1. Andras Szanto says:

    It would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine Dvorak today, filling out a grant application.
    How would he have couched the project to “teach Americans how to understand themselves” in today’s philanthropic lingo? How, a grant officer might wonder, would he measure success? When would the foundation or grant agency know that the goal had been fulfilled and the program could be terminated? How could he be convinced that the programming, delivered in symphonic halls, is not reaching only elite Caucasian audiences? And why would listening to music by a European, it would likely be asked, be a more efficient way to achieve American self-understanding, than, say, educational seminars or networked interactions on the web?

  2. After reading this blog entry and the Szanto article, I find my thoughts coming alarmingly close to notions currently in vogue about the pernicious influence of big money. Much of this sounds like the nervous hand-wringing of those who move in the circles of these big cultural institutions. Will the Whitney find the hundreds of millions it needs for a new location? How big is this year’s Philadelphia Orchestra budget deficit? How is the Met Opera’s funding affecting the planning of new productions? What about the decline in attendance at the Brooklyn Museum? Let’s not conflate culture with the mega institutions of culture and worry that because the millions and billions that sustain them are not flowing as freely as they were in 2008, that somehow our cultural vibrancy is in jeopardy. The money will return when the economy does, though perhaps a certain amount of scaling back will be required. How many high school American History courses routinely include Dvorak, Longfellow, and Church? Not many, sadly, though I suspect this is not new. Yet I think our cultural life still thrives, at least from what I see. There is surely more reckoning to come with new technologies, globalization, etc. But that’s not about money, or about the strength of any underlying support for culture. It’s interesting that you lament the absence from the curriculum of Dvorak, a Czech, along with an American poet and an American painter. Ugh. Over a hundred years later and Americans (i.e., me!) still bristle at the notion the Dvorak is going to tell us, or that we need to be told, who we are as Americans. He provides, perhaps, a good hook on which to hang the discussion about American culture at the turn of the century, but surely isn’t a significant player at the layers of culture that really matter (though admittedly I speak from nearly complete ignorance here). Well, I think your point is right on about the distorted focus on the political/social narrative. But again, hasn’t that always been true in America?

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