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Arts Myopia

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Here’s my piece in today’s “American Purpose,” Jeff Gedmin’s daily online magazine which valuably charts a centrist position not only with regard to government and politics, but also pays due attention to the arts.

The condition of the arts in the United States has never been more chaotic or confusing. The pandemic revealed – if such revelation was necessary – a general indifference to “saving our cultural institutions.” This priority was swiftly heeded in Europe with respect to orchestras, opera houses, theaters, and museums. Meanwhile, a new emphasis on social justice either buttresses our institutions of culture or maims them. 

One thing is certain: More than ever, the arts need money. But from whom, and for what purpose? The traditional American model is laissez-faire: private sources, including corporate and foundation gifts. But private giving to arts and learning after the fashion of Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, and Rockefeller is not practiced by Gates or Bezos. The big charitable foundations, meanwhile, are no longer arts-focused. To understand this sea change, just watch, if you can, Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. The European model of robust government arts subsidies is one obvious fix, but there is no political will to repeat anything like FDR’s WPA, with its ambitious arts and literacy projects.

The current stress on diversity and inclusivity, however warranted, endangers or distorts a cultural canon that we cannot (in fact, must not) wholly jettison. Indeed, the canon is newly pertinent. Think, for instance, of how Herman Melville, Charles Ives, and William Faulkner reference the African-American experience in words and music. Melville’s Benito Cereno, about a Black slave rebellion at sea; Ives’ “The St. Gaudens in Boston Common,” conjuring the stoic heroism of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s Black Civil War regiment; Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in which Black servants humanize and instruct a dysfunctional white dynasty, and Light in August, about a man who cannot tell whether he is Black or white– these are not instruments of social reform. Rather, they inexhaustibly ponder American racial inequities. If they are part of a common cultural inheritance that we must claim and refresh, they’re also incorrigibly elitist – not for everyone. What is worse, if you’re woke, Ives quotes Stephen Foster songs once sung in blackface. Faulkner’s personal take on segregation – which, as revealed in Michael Gorra’s exemplary The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, does not diminish his fiction – was a product of its time. Melville’s lineage in Moby-Dick honors William Shakespeare, king of the white cultural patriarchs.

Enter Ask the Experts, by Michael Sy Uy. This new book, by an assistant dean of Harvard College, explores “How Ford, Rockefeller, and the NEA” (the National Endowment for the Arts) “Changed American Music.” The book’s central argument – that a “tight social network” has favored the advisory expertise and musical compositions of white males linked to “elite” and “prestigious” institutions, mainly in the northeastern United States – is both credible and unsurprising. Moreover, the book says, a disproportionate amount of money has gone to orchestras and opera companies to the detriment of folk and indigenous music, not to mention jazz.

Scouring public and private reports, Uy has amassed a detailed narrative spanning the years 1953 to 1976, an “explosive” period of arts and music funding. Ford’s music grants grew from zero to $3.4 million by 1974, with a peak of $81 million in 1966. Rockefeller’s music grants peaked at $7.8 million in 1957. NEA music grants rose to $25.1 million in 1977.

The Rockefeller Foundation prioritized university music centers that espoused serialism and other “advanced” non-tonal styles — what Winthrop Sargent, in The New Yorker, caustically dubbed “foundation music.” This music’s scientific patina resonated with the Rockefeller ethos. It was male and modern, insular and self-perpetuating. To Cold Warriors, including some in the CIA, it signified artistic freedom in contrast to lockstep Soviet Socialist Realism – in retrospect, a risible claim because serialism exerted its own tyranny. Uy names names: Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, and Milton Babbitt repeatedly appear as Rockfeller “experts.” “It is “difficult not to pause and note,” Uy writes, “the gender and racial background of these ‘wise men’ who essentially served as gatekeepers.” He adds that “by ‘the arts,’ what the Rockefeller Foundation . . . had in mind were the high arts of the Western European tradition, and those located primarily in New York.”

The Ford Foundation, in comparison, was a bastion of traditional practice. Its experts were “not only non-practitioners but also conservative advocates of the status quo.” Ford’s signature arts initiative was its 1966 Symphony Orchestra Program: $80.2 million ($626 million today) gifted to 61 American orchestras in 33 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. This was the brainchild of McNeil Lowry, Ford’s activist arts and humanities head. He called the gift an “unprecedented act of philanthropy in the artistic and cultural life of a nation,” one that would help “the most universally established of cultural institutions.” A Ford annual report called it the “largest single amount ever given to the arts by any foundation.” Uy reports that Lowry was “initially concerned that federal entry into the arts field,” via the NEA, would “take away publicity from his own . . . program.” Uy also observes that “no one challenged the ‘universality’ of orchestras as a basic historical fact.”

The NEA itself, founded in 1965, was more egalitarian. Its “large and comprehensive system of panelists,” Uy writes, represented a “different approach to employing experts.” Its most proactive leader, Nancy Hanks, was a woman. Her music chief, Walter Anderson, was “the most powerful African American in government arts grant making.” Still, the NEA overwhelmingly favored “Western European high art organizations.“ Jazz and folk music constituted “only a fraction of its overall budget.”

Observing the grant-making process up close, Uy also documents an assortment of inevitable vagaries and inequities. What mattered was not only who sat on the panel but who happened to be in the room, since attendance could be erratic. And it mattered whether an application was reviewed when the panel was fresh or tired. Amid the mountain of statistics Uy has culled, notably impressive is the “Top Ten Foundation Recipients in Music, 2006-2015.” The Metropolitan Opera placed first, with $176.3 million from 2,059 grants. The Metropolitan Opera Association placed third, with $88.4 million from 1,327 grants. (The New York Philharmonic, by comparison, landed $67.6 million from 1,380 grants.) “One cannot emphasize enough,” Uy says, “the magnitudes of disparity. The Metropolitan Opera alone received more than six times what went to all folk and indigenous music groups combined.” He adds that donations from individuals whose household incomes were greater than $1 million exceeded foundation giving to arts and culture. It was all “profoundly undemocratic.”

Is Uy’s critique just? Finger-waving at Rockefeller and “foundation music” ignores what it felt like to engage with “contemporary music” in the 1960s. Tonal music was not respectable; to imply that Rockefeller could have somehow defied all conventional wisdom seems naïve. Also, Uy underrates Rockefeller’s Recorded Anthology of American Music, which made available the first recorded performances of historically important works by composers like Anthony Philipp Heinrich and Arthur Farwell under the supervision of music historians who knew something about Heinrich and Farwell. I wish that Uy had more to say about Rockefeller’s critique of Ford’s “deliberate rejection of academia as a vehicle for arts development in the United States:” In stark contrast to the museum community, the orchestras so lavishly supported by Ford made no attempt at liaison with scholars. This is one reason why orchestras failed to curate the American musical past, a defect – the topic of my forthcoming book, Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music – that mattered then and matters even more today. Classical music in the United States remains chronically Eurocentric; it lacks New World roots.

If the drift of Uy’s critique – that music funding was undemocratic and elitist – is undebatable, it leaves more important questions undebated. Do we still need a canon? If so, what should be included, what left out? Beethoven is an elite composer and opera an elite art form, but I cannot think of a more therapeutic art work right now than Fidelio. And what is Fidelio? The vast majority of educated people under the age of 30 probably cannot say. Are the arts therefore “dying?” Or, as I am told by members of the foundation community, are they newly “thriving,” empowered by a communal ethos that does not discriminate by gender, race, or class?

Orchestras are the elephant in the room. No other institutional embodiment of American culture has fallen so far or seems so clueless today. Here, the Ford Foundation is also an elephant. According to Uy, its massive Symphony Orchestra Program supported the status quo – but not really, I would say. Rather, the story resembles one of those foreign policy disasters in which good intentions ignite unanticipated consequences. One starting point for McNeil Lowry’s grand initiative was his accurate perception that symphonic musicians were grossly underpaid. Another was his thought that orchestras should, for the first time, offer full seasons of concerts and employment. These goals seemed to conjoin. By 1970-71, six orchestras had agreed to 52-week contracts; another five had contracts of 45 weeks or more. The new frequency of performance, however, was not audience-driven. True, many symphony musicians had now attained a respectable living wage for the first time – but at a hidden cost. Performing as many as 150 times a year, orchestras scrambled to devise concerts for which no listeners existed. Their budgets, including rapidly expanding departments devoted to marketing and development, mushroomed. There was also an artistic cost: fatigue and boredom. In retrospect, the musicians should have been paid more per service, not paid for more services.

The Ford Foundation was surprised and disappointed to see expanding orchestral deficits notwithstanding their largesse. Paradoxically, it became harder than ever for orchestras to “innovate.” For this failure they were duly punished: Foundations grew increasingly reluctant to help out. In the 1990s, when I was running the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at BAM, the BPO was accepted into the Knight Foundation’s “Magic of Music” program, created to support artistic experimentation. We were truly experimental – our programing was thematic and cross-disciplinary – but other orchestras in the group were not. Knight responded by terminating “The Magic of Music.” Today, the only major charitable foundation funding artistic innovation in the symphonic field is Mellon.

Orchestras are mainly to blame for these troubles. By and large, they have failed to rethink the concert experience, failed to explore native repertoire, failed to revisit issues of purpose and scope. But foundations are not blameless. Knight’s “The Magic of Music” failed to engage informed consultants. Susan Feder, Mellon’s long-time arts and culture program officer, is an exception; when she arrived in 2007, she shrewdly discriminated between recipients who were coasting and those with something on the ball.

In sum, orchestras have been left unprepared for the current cultural moment, with its changing audience demographics and shifting political, social, and arts mores. It will not be enough to simply engage more Black instrumentalists, soloists, and composers. 

The story I have just told about Ford, Knight, and Mellon will not be found in Ask the Experts. Rather, Michael Sy Uy’s book is captive to the myopia of a precarious cultural moment, one that we today – all of us – mutually inhabit.


  1. Larry Fried says

    Is there any mention in the book about the Ford Foundation’s “Composers in the Public Schools” program, which ran from 1959-1969. Composers were placed in residence for one year in towns all across the country and composed pieces for the student ensembles. My district — Herricks Public Schools in New Hyde Park, New York — had Russell Peck for the year and he worked with elementary, junior high and senior high groups. I was in the ninth grade at the time, a budding percussionist. We did one of Russell’s pieces for multiple percussionists with orchestra and taped sounds. I vaguely remember performing with an earpiece so we drummers could follow along with the tape. I may be wrong but I believe that Peter Schickele and Philip Glass were also among the other composers placed in school districts.

  2. Kathleen Hulser says

    Insightful, urgent commentary. Uy’s book sounds fascinating, as an array of historical facts about funding which seems to not grapple with the fraught questions of audience. Horowitz’s smart analysis of orchestras and the fatal “error” of paying musicians for long seasons (without cultivating such a vast expansion of listeners) instead of just paying more per concert is highly pertinent.

  3. Mark Stryker says

    Thanks for this, Joe.

  4. Thank you for writing about these things. A rarity in arts journalism. A few hasty thoughts:

    + The “experts” did more than exclude racial minorities and non-dominant groups from inclusion. I would guess that the number of excluded white males who didn’t follow serialist concepts was even greater. As Uy notes, this also had a geographic basis. (I, for one, refused to accept the Northeast’s serialist aesthetics and suffered greatly as a result.) In the 1980s, postmodern ideals began to breakdown those aesthetic walls, but the social elitism shaped by elite schools remains.

    + Postmodernism has become the new academic orthodoxy. The ironic and self-contradictory orthodoxy of pluralism.

    + Noam Chomsky notes that the principal function of elite schools is socialization in elitism itself. Most of the Ivy league schools do not even have performance programs for instrumental music majors. The rationale is that it would lower academic standards. Yale is a rare exception, but they made sure that the music department (composers, theorists, musicologists) is a separate entity from its School of Music which is for performers who are viewed as proles who would lower the intellectual standards of the music department.

    + Europe has continued an exclusive adherence to high modernism to this day. “Foundation culture” in the USA is “Civil Servant Culture” under Europe’s system of public arts funding. (In Germany, it is called Beamtenkultur, but some try to pretend it doesn’t exist.)

    + How do we define the parameters of myopia under question? How widely shall we expand the framework? Was it just a reliance on elite academics serving a white male elite? Or is the myopia created by much larger forces, such as the form of radically unmitigated capitalism which sets the USA apart from all other developed countries? Is it correlated with the fact that we are the only developed country without a comprehensive system of public arts funding, national health insurance, paid maternity leave, or even adequate spending to maintain our public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water systems, and power grids? Is our narrow definition of what we are myopic about, another aspect of our myopia? What are the similarities and differences between our myopia (unmitigated capitalism) and the European system (social democracy)?

    + It is difficult to understand the situation of the arts in the USA and Europe without reading philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s work about elitism and cultural hegemony. He notes that in a radically unmitigated capitalist system, which inevitably creates a quasi-feudalistic method of arts funding by and for the wealthy, an arts world that serves the elite is an inevitability. Is that where our myopia is truly revealed? Elitism lies in the very marrow of what the USA is. For all practical purposes, Madison, Hamilton, and others wrote elitism into our constitution. It has thus defined American history. Ironically, the problem is just as bad in Europe’s social democracies. Until we stop being myopic about elitism and its relationship to capitalism, we will never solve the problems with cultural elitism in the USA or Europe.

    + These concepts also affect journalism, which is why your thoughts are so rare.

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