Monday, January 30, 2012

Culture Matters

Originally written for my English 325 - Intermediate Composition course at Ashford U.

Among the most indelible images surrounding the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was that of Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich seated alone at the Brandenburg Gate, playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 for an audience of no one and of billions. Music, art, theatre, and dance were once emblems of erudition, education, and civilization for the ruling classes of monarchies; our culture, however, has come in recent years to see the arts as pretentious entertainment for the wealthy, who can afford to pay for their own art. School music and art programs, often a child’s only lifetime exposure to high culture, are slashed mercilessly, in spite of the tremendous growth of interest in these programs on the part of young people as a result of singing and dancing competition reality TV shows and of other entertainment outlets such as the TV show Glee.

Congress has recently voted to de-fund National Public Radio and PBS, again because they are seen as something that only the elite can enjoy, despite their being the only exposure many have to classical music and other educational programs not offered in their own communities. In viewing these entities as frivolities that the country can do without during tough economic times, government decision-makers commit the error of considering the intellectual and expressive needs of the nation to be unimportant, and they run the risk of creating a climate of malaise and cultural decline even as the country attempts to pull itself out of its difficulties.

In previous centuries, classical music and fine art, though funded by the ruling classes, were present in the immediate environment of most, to be enjoyed by all, regardless of class. Walking through a 15th century church in Florence, one may round a corner to find a wall filled with murals painted by some of the great masters of that day. Average people went to church each Sunday in early 18th-century Leipzig, Germany, sat down in a pew, and listened to new works by Johann Sebastian Bach, all for the price of a few florins in the collection plate.  While popular folk music has also always been present, the deep divide between what is entertainment for the educated and well-to-do was never as distant from the popular entertainment tastes of the masses as it is now. The quality even of pop culture has been in decline for decades now, which may be at least partly attributable to the lack of information the general populace has about the potential of art, music, theatre and dance.

Some of the antipathy toward state-funded arts and arts education may lie in the history of Western arts patronage. Support among the ruling classes for lower-caste artists dates as far back as ancient Rome, when the patrician Maecenas lent his economic support to the poets Virgil and Horace. (Ranocchi, 2010)  During the Italian Renaissance (1350-1600 AD), rulers and noblemen such as Lorenzo de Medici made sponsorship of art a mark of socio-political prestige and position (ibid.), creating a climate in which painters, sculptors, musicians, and other artists flourished; as a result of this patronage, Western culture received the works da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio, and many other of the great creative talents of their day.  (, n.d.) Throughout the era of powerful monarchies and Church hegemony in Western Europe, artistic patronage was a part of the ruling classes’ noblesse oblige, as well as an emblem of power, wealth and sophistication.

The association between Western high culture and the monarchs and religious despots whom our democracy overthrew may cause some to view classical music, fine art, and other high-culture disciplines as mere entertainment for the elite, and therefore somehow intrinsically un-democratic and un-American. In stating that, “It would be unconscionable for any politician to suggest we set aside tax money for even one more mural or one more sculpture until the state budget is back to where the fundamental needs of people are being met,” columnist Ken Schramm (2011) argues that the arts are a luxury that the state cannot afford to support in tough economic times. While he allows that, “By any account, the amount of tax dollars spent on public art is relatively modest,” he presses on to say, “Then again, toss a million here and a million there and pretty soon you're talking about real money.”  (ibid.) To Schramm and those who think as he does, the arts are something extra, something less intrinsically valuable than, for example, social services such as subsidized health care and food programs. To those on the left, those who advocate funding the arts are plucking morsels from the mouths of hungry children in order to finance some rich man’s entertainment.

 Those more to Schramm’s political right might go even farther, believing that not only the arts programs, but also the social services should be cut, in favor of balancing the budget or of giving tax breaks to the citizenry.  In recent weeks, a group of conservative Republican Congressmen has advocated completely defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as part of the group’s Spending Reduction Plan, which proposes to cut some $2.5 trillion from the US budget, including the NEA/NEH’s $167.5 million. (Trescott, 2011)   Some exponents of conservative philosophy denounce, across the board, any government spending on programs from which they do not personally and directly benefit: public education (for others’ children), social programs for the less fortunate, disabled and elderly, and publically-funded arts among them.  Many corporations contribute significant sums of money to arts organizations, public broadcasting, and other cultural institutions, as do many well-heeled private citizens. While not all Republicans (and wealthy Americans of other political persuasions) are fans of classical music or other high-art forms, some may feel that they already have given significant contributions “at the office” or privately, and that their tax dollars should not also go to support the same institutions. Moreover, they may balk at the notion of supporting art that generates too little interest for the free market to support it, while artistic programming such as film, television, and recorded music generate billions of dollars in revenue and do not ask for hand outs. Still others fear that state funding of art means state control of art, believing that art is only assured its freedom when privately funded or left to its own devices. To a Republican, funding for the arts is not taking food out of babies’ mouths: it is unjustly taking money out of their own pockets.

On both the right and left, then, the arts have acquired the reputation of something profoundly unnecessary, less important than social spending, to the left, or keeping the money for oneself, to the right.  Both assessments are short-sighted and self-contradictory.  Those who believe that funding art is less important than creating jobs seem to believe that artists do their work for free, and that the money simply vanishes into an imaginary whirlpool. On the contrary, artists make their living in their art forms: putting food on their tables, putting their children through college, and putting their earnings back into the economy. 

A typical opera production employs several hundred people, including leading singers, conductors, pianists, stage managers, designers, producers, directors, orchestra players, librarians, prop builders and managers, public relations professionals, artistic administrators, subscription salespeople, fundraisers, and stagehands.  The stagehands’ union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), is a subsidiary union of the AFL-CIO and has more than 110,000 members. (IATSE, n.d.)   The American Federation of Musicians, the orchestra’s union, has more than 90,000 members (AFM, 2011) Unions representing other performers also have memberships in the tens of thousands. All of these people – with their contributions to both the treasury and the economy – would be out of work if those who wish to eliminate all arts funding got their way.  Would those who want to eliminate funding for arts programs approve drastic cuts in assistance to other industries that support nearly half a million people?

Artists, moreover, have a highly specialized set of skills and may have a hard time finding jobs in the conventional economy, forcing the public which had just eliminated their livelihoods to spend social-service tax dollars on them.  Those on the right who gleefully trumpet their spending cuts might find that their boisterously proclaimed elimination of arts funding added an equivalent amount of expenditure to the unemployment rolls. In addition, the economy would lose these employees’ spending. To paraphrase Mr. Schramm, those employees’ lost expenditures might not amount to much, but when taken as an aggregate, the economy could ultimately lose millions, and the tax coffers corresponding millions in revenue.

What of the art itself, though? Some might ask what the government is doing, paying to keep alive the high culture of past times and foreign countries, which only the moneyed elite in America seem to care about. In fact, corporations and wealthy individuals give many millions each year to high-culture organizations, both for the tax credits and to ensure the survival of art forms which the donors appreciate.  In our modern day, the ultimate reason that government both funds and defunds art is the lack of interest in it among the general public. Government has taken on the role of the royal patron, providing a living for those who create and perform art, and who would have no other source of income.  That art, when produced for the public, attracts only a handful of spectators, most of them elderly and wealthy. Meanwhile, Britney Spears released an album of simple popular ditties that sold 10 million copies and that earned $25 million. Where else but in art (and perhaps farming) have the laws of supply and demand been so utterly defied?

 Western high culture has a great deal to answer for, having brought a good deal of woe upon itself. At the dawn of the 20th century, high culture ruled the recording industry, the concert halls, and the media. The 78-rpm discs of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso were played on mainstream radio. Paintings represented a view of real life, and were more than apparently random paint splatters on the canvas. No one had the gall to create a work of art simply to shock and inflame, as with photographer Andres Serrano’s 1989 photo of a crucifix placed into human urine.  (USC, n.d.)  At the turn of the 20th century, high art was beautiful, accessible, and elevating to the spirit.

From 1915 through the late 1920s, artistic movements began which would cause a serious and long-term rift between the world of high culture and the public. In Europe, composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and others of their school abandoned the gloriously beautiful composition of their early careers in favor of academically exalted but dissonant and inaccessible serial (mathematical) composition techniques. Melodies became something of the unenlightened past, with orchestras, opera companies, and other entities eagerly programming those works, expecting the public to embrace them as symbols of modernity and erudition. Audiences abandoned concert halls in droves, embracing instead the new art forms on the scene: rock ‘n’ roll, popular blockbuster films, and the Pop Art of populist new artists like Andy Warhol.  Just as many of the opera houses, concert halls and museums around America were being built, the new music and art being generated for them by academically and publicly supported creators was increasingly unpalatable to a public genuinely hungry for beautiful music and art. It was also at this moment that the US government created the organizations that funded such art and supported its programming in the United States. Ever since, those government agencies have been under attack – while Britney Spears made her millions.

In recent years, the pendulum in high art has swung back toward the realm of public acceptance. Opera companies have begun to show their productions in movie theatres, and have enhanced production values in order to please a film-savvy, opera-skeptical public; they are rewarded with record-setting audiences and a new generation of dedicated opera-goers. Popular musicians have become composers, while opera singers and classical instrumentalists have made rock albums. Even more tantalizingly, television programs such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and Glee have begun to give adults and youth alike a surrogate musical education, filling in for the elementary and high school music programs that have been eliminated or severely cut.

Thus, the culture has proved it has an interest in and can support art, even spending vast amounts of money on it.  The National Endowment for the Arts provides only a small fraction of the support needed to undertake a top-level, professional artistic production, with the rest coming from private donations and subscription sales. Maintaining the NEA’s leadership is vital, because without a national agency leading the way and showing other organizations that the arts deserve support, those other organizations may decide to invest in some other charitable interest to gain their tax breaks.  The NEA also funds smaller, less-prominent artistic exhibitions and performances, all of which enrich the cultural life of their communities.  It is a critical time in cultural history, a time when the reemergence of a popular high culture which relies less on patronage seems intriguingly near; if funded, the NEA and the NEH can provide crucial leadership, encouraging those who would create new, great works of art that most Americans find appealing.

There can be no arts, of course, without early training for future artists.  Even as far back as 1983, I watched with dismay as my school’s music program received less and less support from our county, which had turned instead toward “hard academics.”  Such cuts in arts education have swept the nation, usually ordered at the school-board level, as cash-strapped school districts find places to slash in their budgets. The assumption, once again, is that the arts are something expendable and unimportant; however, studies have shown that school music and art programs can actually keep students in school. (NEMC, n.d.)

 The artists who create great art do not simply spring, fully-formed, from the ground, but must be educated and nurtured from the time they are very young, in order for them to be accomplished enough by their late teens to pursue careers in their chosen art forms. School music programs which have been cut must be restored. Children must be able to sing in their glee clubs, or to play in their school orchestras, which in turn give them even greater interpretive knowledge, discipline, and desire to pursue ever higher goals in their art. As popular culture and high culture move closer together once again, it is critical that young people have access to the same artistic tools that Haydn and Mozart had in order to create art that stands the test of time. If they do not, the quality of what they create will be diminished, and in turn, so will our national cultural heritage.

If that weren’t enough, the lifetime benefits of arts education are well-known.  According to the National Association for Music Education (MENC), “The arts can provide effective learning opportunities to the general student population, yielding increased academic performance, reduced absenteeism, and better skill-building. An even more compelling advantage is the striking success of arts-based educational programs among disadvantaged populations, especially at-risk and incarcerated youth. For at-risk youth, that segment of society most likely to suffer from limited lifetime productivity, the arts contribute to lower recidivism rates; increased self-esteem; the acquisition of job skills; and the development of much needed creative thinking, problem-solving and communications skills.”(MENC, n.d.)

MENC further supplies the stunning statistic that, “Nearly 100% of past winners in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology (for high school students) play one or more musical instruments.”  (ibid.) The organization also states that schools with quality music programs have a higher graduation rates and test scores than those who do not. (Ibid.)  School music programs not only prepare the next generation of musicians to enter the field, they also provide benefits for the entire student bodies of their institutions.

         Another access point to the arts is National Public Radio, which along with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, are often the only exposure the people of a community have to the arts in America.  The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, now airing in some markets on NPR rather than on commercial classical stations, have arguably exposed more people to opera over the decades than any other media outlet.  The House of Representatives recently passed a bill to eliminate public funding for National Public Radio’s programming, thereby demolishing the “public” element of NPR’s avowed mission. Ironically enough, when the Congressmen were looking for NPR programming to ridicule as part of their dismissal of NPR, they imitated a character from NPR’s program Car Talk – precisely the program for which budget-conscious programmers within the station had threatened to remove classical music programming to make room. (Cornish, 2011)

Since the 1960s, America’s access to high art and culture has depended on public outlets: school music programs, public radio and television broadcasting, and government-assisted cultural organizations such as those funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  The US gives more in foreign aid and pays more for a single attack aircraft than it provides for the entire budget of these programs, which enlighten and educate, improving the quality of life for all those who tune in.

However, even token public support, as well as the exposure of the great works of high culture to the masses via public broadcasting and government- funded performances, make a strong and clear statement to the masses that our society aspires to the best in art and entertainment, and that in turn the popular culture should use such cultural events as inspiration to elevate all of the culture. Supporting the arts gives millions of people who would not otherwise have access to the richness and beauty of great masterworks the opportunity to experience them.  Without high art as a touchstone, our culture will spiral downward into least-common-denominator oblivion, until we wake up one day and discover that we have become less as a people: less enlightened, less appreciative of beauty, and less able to create at the highest level. Defunding the public’s access to great art ensures that our culture will create none of its own.


AFM (2011)  “Benefits of Membership,” American Federation of Musicians (website). Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

Cornish, A. (2011)  “House Votes to Defund NPR,” National Public Radio (website). March 17, 2011. Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

IATSE (2011) “Welcome,” IATSE (website). Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

NEMC (n.d.) “The Benefits of the Study of Music,” National Association for Music Education (brochure). Retrieved from on March 28, 2011. (n.d.) “Perspectives: Chronologies,” Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

Ranocchi, M. (2010) “The future of art patronage in an evolving society: From the Roman Empire to the Sheikhdom of Dubai,” Tafter Journal.  September 16, 2010.. Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

Schram, K. (2011)  “Time to Eliminate State Arts Funding,”, March 28, 2011. Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

Serrano, A. (1987) Piss Christ (image). Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

Trescott, J. (2011) “Conservative Republicans Pledge to Eliminate Cultural Funding,” The Washington Post. 1/20/11. Retrieved from on March 28, 2011.

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