Today I want to make an argument about the rise of arts culture. In the 1950s, at the dawn of TV, the medium’s pioneers believed that television would be the great democratizer – exposing culture to the masses. The best of the world’s culture could be brought into the living rooms of America. The early shows were full of high-art culture – symphony orchestras, plays, high-minded debates.
Of course we all know it didn’t stay that way, and TV became the ultimate engine for gathering up huge audiences for something considerably different than the “high” culture originally envisioned.
But the fact that anyone thought that high culture would be the best use for this mass medium is interesting. When the National Endowment for the Arts was set up in the 1960s, its founders were thinking along the same lines. The biggest problem in American culture, they thought, was making great art available to everyone. Forty-plus years on, I think we can say that the arts-for-all crowd has succeeded spectacularly.
In 1950 there was only one full time orchestra in America. In 1965, there were only three state arts commissions. Now there are 18 full 52-week orchestras, and more than 3,000 arts commissions at the local and state levels. The 1990s were the biggest expansion of arts activity in American history; we went on a construction binge, building more than $25 billion worth of new museums, theatres, concert halls and cultural centers. Since 1990, almost one-third of all American museums have expanded their facilities. Major American museums such as the Met and the Museum of Modern Art are now so crowded the experience of visiting them has degraded.
The number of performing arts groups is up 48 percent since 1982. Last year American music schools graduated more than 14,000 students, and new fine art academies are popping up all over and overflowing with students. There are more than 250,000 choruses in America – that’s choruses, not people in choruses. That means that more than four million people a week are getting together to sing. There are at least that many book clubs. Opera attendance is up 40 percent since 1990. Band instrument sales are at an all-time high, and in cities like Seattle, where I live, the youth orchestra program is so crowded, more and more orchestras have been added. Culture is a $166 billion industry, accounts for 5.7 million jobs and is America’s top export.
Okay – a whoosh of statistics, and cherry-picking them as I have doesn’t give a real picture. Going to the ballet or opera or museum is hardly an everyday experience for most Americans. But then, what is? Baseball might be experiencing record attendance, but wide swaths of the population are indifferent to it. TV may still dominate the average America’s entertainment diet, but what they’re watching has diversified.
I’m not making an argument that the arts are the new mass culture. I’m not even arguing that the audience for classical music rivals that for the pop star du jour. My point is this: Since most culture is defined in part by its relationships with the other cultures around it, if mass culture is losing its ability to gather huge audiences, and arts culture is growing, the relationship between the two needs some redefinition. In a crowd of pygmies, the arts have a different relationship to commercial culture and, I believe, the ramifications are significant.
UPDATE: Several readers have asked that I supply sources, so I’m going back through this piece and adding links to sources. The figures I’ve cited come from various arts studies I’ve accumulated over te past several years.