Art: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Account Executive

Mark is a starving artist. He abandoned the world of material comfort, a well-stocked refrigerator, and dance lessons at the Scarsdale Jewish Community Center to live in a rat-infested East Village loft with his starving artist friends. Using his video camera, he documents an aggressive protest against a real estate developer's plan to turn Mark's loft, along with the vacant lot next to it that is inhabited by a group of homeless people, into a high-tech cyber-arts studio. When in an unexpected twist his videos turn out to have commercial appeal, Mark faces an angst-ridden choice: Should he sell his work to a nasal-sounding executive with a cell phone and a beeper, leaving behind his self-imposed outsider status as an artist but gaining financial security and mainstream popular appeal? Or should he renounce commercial valuation of his work, forfeiting his chance for mainstream status and economic power but preserving his artistic integrity? The conflict crescendos with a triumphant take-your-job-and-shove-it to the executive.

If Mark's choice sounds overdrawn, it is. As a character in the hit Broadway musical Rent, Mark faces a dilemma staged in simple, dramatic terms. And there is no room, of course, for Mark to have any ironic awareness of the role he plays in a larger context: even as the show's denouement is a celebration of the artist's outsider status—his insistence on being judged and accepted on the basis of artistic worth rather than ticket sales—Mark's audience is full of middle-class teenage fans who shelled out $65 apiece to see him do it. On stage, artistic integrity wins. But as Mark's audience strolls out of the theater, no doubt uplifted by this championing of art's purity, they are confronted by lobby vendors hawking Rent t-shirts and posters, the sales of which fuel the ongoing production of the show. For all the noble artistic sentiment expressed in the musical, is the real truth a grimly materialist one? Will the market always succeed in co-opting, and perhaps corrupting, art in the service of Mammon?

In the heady prosperity of the early 1960s, it briefly seemed that the government might finally have worked out a way around this dilemma by establishing the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Founded in 1965, the NEA established a peer-review system to not only nurture young talent at a crucial, early stage in their careers, but also encourage the flow of other private and government funds toward artists' projects, regardless of whether they were "sell-worthy" or not. By protecting artists from the caprice of the market, the government allowed "important" or "difficult" art to be produced.

By the 1980s, however, artists were forced to concede that government funding was no panacea. Right-wing "culture warriors" in Congress insisted that art funded with public dollars pass a public approval test far more stringent than anything the market could muster. Controversy over individual works of "offensive" art—like Robert Mapplethorpe's photos and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ"—threatened to unravel the entire system of federal arts funding. And after the 1994 Gingrich revolution swept a Republican majority into Congress, the NEA came precariously close to extinction, ultimately surviving an assault on its existence with only 40 percent of its previous budget intact. Since then, the NEA has enjoyed a tentative renewal. President Clinton has requested $150 million for the agency for fiscal year 2000, a $52 million increase over the agency's current budget and the first increase since the Republican takeover of Congress.

No doubt the NEA's comeback has been partly abetted by a shift in the culture war to other fronts (the current battle is against Hollywood-generated violence) and by a general decline in the Republican appetite for the fight (perhaps GOP legislators were too busy impeaching dirty presidents to worry about dirty artists in 1998). But the real secret of the NEA's survival has been a wave of restructuring within the agency designed to make it less controversial.

Since 1994, grants to most individual artists have been eliminated, along with subgrants to third party organizations and artists. Tighter reporting requirements have been imposed upon recipients, and members of Congress have been added to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA chairman on policies, programs, grants, and procedures. The selection of a new NEA chief with strong roots outside of New York City completed the makeover. William Ivey, confirmed unanimously in May 1998, was formerly the director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, and he brings a new wave of optimism to the agency. Ivey is even hoping to convince Congress to reinstate the sorely missed individual grants. But it may be too late: these changes in NEA policy reflect a profound change not just in the way art is valued in our society but in the very set of terms by which we understand and define the artist.



Subscribe to The American Prospect



For Money's Sake?

The proliferation of economic impact studies, which attempt to justify the arts in terms of their value to the economy, is evidence of this new set of terms. Such studies have become a standard tool in the fight for both public and private foundation funding in recent years, and by some accounts constitute the most common form of arts policy research today.

"You Gotta Have Art!," a 1997 McKinsey & Co. study commissioned by the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, is typical. Carried out in conjunction with the New York City Alliance for the Arts, a nonprofit organization devoted to arts advocacy, the report's aim was to "push the public arts funding debate beyond artistic content and general societal benefit to tangible, quantifiable returns on the state's investment." Researchers for the project measured the "yield" of public spending on the arts in terms of tax receipts, job creation, support for other industries (tourism and service for example), and increased real estate values—and the report describes the arts as a "low-risk" investment and a "wide-open" investment opportunity. McKinsey's conclusion was just what the study's sponsors were looking for—a tool for generating arts funding. But the terms in which the study was couched seemed to go too far. Sure, "art for art's sake" must be a difficult slogan to raise money on. But is "art for money's sake" really the best approach to take?

A second study, "Information on Artists 2," produced by Columbia University's Research Center for Arts and Culture as a follow-up to a similar study conducted ten years earlier, is perhaps even more revealing of our changed understanding of the artist. The Columbia study, published last November, documented the living and working conditions of 7,700 artists in four major cities—their incomes, workplace and community activities, political affiliations, professional status, and health, pension, and welfare benefits. The statistics in the study are interesting for their own sake (for example, more than 45 percent of artists earn less than $3,000 per year from their art), but the most interesting part is the study's conclusion: "While some people still cling to the 19th century myth of the starving artist, marginalized from society and living in isolation (which many confuse with freedom), today's artists are involved in their communities, vote in elections, use computers, and are planning for retirement." The idea is clearly to persuade the outside world—or at least potential funders—that artists have solidly middle-class values and that artistic rebelliousness, disruption, provocation, radicalism, avant-gardism and Christ-pissing are things of the past.

The tactic—to relegate Bohemia to the dustbin of history—is suggestive. Bohemians and marginal artists are not, in the language of the bond market, "investment grade." But while Bohemians may be a bad investment, history has shown them often capable of creating great art; living on the edges of society can provide the artist with a more penetrating viewpoint from which to create artwork. The arts funding community appears to be borrowing the language and tactics of Wall Street—a sound strategy, perhaps, for attracting money, but is it a sound strategy for nurturing art? If the priorities by which we justify art (and by which funding is secured) begin to seep into artistic content itself, will artists have any alternative but to reduce their "adversarial" imagination to Rent's fashionable commodity?

What Is Art Worth?

While concern over the effect of commercialism on art is not new, there was a time when it seemed that the market would actually be the artist's great liberator, freeing artists from their servitude to aristocratic patrons and allowing them to rely more directly on their audience for income. In 1762, the growth of the publishing industry led the playwright Oliver Goldsmith to remark, "At present the few poets of England no longer depend on the Great for subsistence, they have no other patrons but the public, and the public, collectively considered is a good and generous master." But despite Goldsmith's Enlightenment optimism (which in fact was premature; the market did not displace patron subsidies for nearly another century), the market's early promise of artistic and financial freedom has not been entirely fulfilled, as the plot of Rent suggests. Indeed, the question of what exactly is gained and lost in "selling out" has been a perennial debate in the arts community for years. Which will it be: Starve in your garret or compromise your art for commercial success?

The larger question is how we should measure the value of art to society. The market provides one framework for valuation; government sponsorship offers a somewhat broader one. Economic impact studies have their benefits; they make clear that government monies devoted to public arts are at least partially recouped in taxes on tourist spending and related arts-patrons' expenditures. Jan Denton, executive director of the Washington-based Alliance for the Arts, says that when her group explained to anti-NEA members of Congress the effect of a successful arts sector on their districts' local restaurants, their opposition to arts funding began to soften. But the extent to which economic thinking has infected arts advocates is worrying.

At last January's conference of the American Association of Performing Arts Presenters, I joined leaders in the arts community in a workshop entitled "What Do You Want Out of Politics?" in which we simulated meetings with public officials. My group's mission was to convince an arts-neutral—as opposed to hostile—state legislator to earmark $100,000 for our fictional arts group. In a five-minute brainstorming session the first idea the group came up with was to emphasize tax returns: "A $100,000 outlay will produce an increase of $1.5 million in tax revenues!" they imagined. The advocates believed it, the political consultant playing the legislator bought it, and we all congratulated ourselves on successful political outreach.

That artists should be reduced to defending their work in purely economic terms is of course anathema to aesthetic purists. Yet there is a belief among even the most passionate arts-loving economists that these studies are flawed even on their own economic terms. "[Economic impact studies] are being used because state legislators aren't necessarily the most sophisticated in economic terms, and they appear to have a certain logic," according to Charles M. Gray, a professor of economics at the University of St. Thomas's Graduate School of Business in Minneapolis and a member of the Association of Cultural Economics.

The studies claim foremost that the arts have the potential to be an income-generating industry for a community—that "investing" a certain amount of government revenue will result in much higher returns down the road, as arts "consumers" spend not only on the arts, but on related services such as meals before the show or cab fare home. It's the same logic used to justify building a stadium or a casino or a microchip factory: building will have "impact" far beyond the initial outlays, as employment leads to increased spending, increased spending leads to increased production of consumer goods, and on and on.

But in order for these economic multipliers to be valid, a study needs to show not only that the arts are a tourist draw, but that the tourists come to town specifically for the theater performance or museum exhibit and not on a business trip or to see grandma.

What's more, the simplistic cost-benefit analysis in these studies fails to address the significant economic questions: What would the state collect if it didn't support the arts? Would the summer stock theater really close down without government assistance? And so what if it did? How much more return on investment would a local government gain if it subsidized Disney, a stadium, or food stamps instead of the local ballet company? Even in New York, it's possible that other industries could be greater tourist draws, or have a greater export potential than Broadway.

The substitutability issue is rarely addressed in the methodology of economic impact studies; it's certainly never referenced in the public presentation of the results. In reality, given a macroeconomy that remains stable, consumers would be likely to shift their dollars to movie or sports tickets or even appliances if the arts "industry" went under. Dancers could be employed as personal trainers. The McKinsey study and others like it fail to take this into account. The problem is that as long as arts advocates rely on these sorts of purely economic justifications for arts funding, they are simply one higher-yielding investment away from losing their funding altogether. If financial return is the primary end of arts funding, art will fall by the wayside in favor of a casino or a convention center or even a mutual fund.

Art and Elitism

But let's say we could design a valid study showing that the arts have a higher rate of return than casinos and internet stocks. Would artists themselves remain immune to the influence of the priorities by which their financial support is justified?

Corporate and public funding that rests on functional valuation of the arts runs a clear risk of corrupting the oppositional role of the artist, who is forced to embody her sponsor's vision and values. It's back to the old patron system. NEA chief William Ivey sees this tension as fruitful. "If you look back over the history of art, a lot of the finest things and most lasting things have been created under just those kind of pressures, where some kind of severe limits are placed on the artists because they have to satisfy a patron or community in some way." But when that community consists primarily of corporate patrons and a government that funds the arts as a source of revenue, "severe limits" may result in severely limited accessibility to a broader community, and severely compromised creative integrity.

The right argues that a market justification for art would at the very least allow a populist sensibility to prevail. Better to adhere to the sensibility of the market, they say, than be at the mercy of the "elites" who evaluate grant applications through government and foundation peer-review programs. This is part of the logic behind the founding of the Creative Capital Foundation, announced in May. The organization, which hopes to raise $40 million over the next 20 years, was formed specifically in response to the NEA's abandonment of controversial art. The money, which will fund 50 to 60 individual artists each year, does sound like great news for freedom of expression, and the foundation has been cheered by both NEA-bashing conservatives and arts-promoting liberals. But Creative Capital's existence is a concession that artists can't expect support or artistic freedom from their government. Significantly, the grants require artists to spend money developing an audience for their work, with the help of producers, publicity agents, and others who specialize in marketing. The message is clear: We'll get you started, but ultimately, the market will decide your fate.

The most recent Louis Harris poll on public support of the arts shows that 79 percent of Americans favor government funding for the arts and that 61 percent would even be willing to pay five dollars more per year in taxes to support the arts. But it's one thing to say you're willing to have an abstract five dollars per year directed toward arts subsidy; the answer might be different if the question were whether that extra five dollars should go toward the arts or toward health care or food stamps or repairing public school buildings. These conflicts present a challenging mission to the arts community—to determine what it is about art's contribution to society that is unique, and therefore worthy of fiscal support. Can the market successfully nurture creative efforts that are conducive to those values? If the answer is no, then how much are we as a society willing to pay in taxes to shift the burden of arts support from the market to the government?

Questioning the logic of economic impact does not imply that there is no place for economic analysis or financial valuation in debates over public arts funding—in a society that explicitly or implicitly puts a monetary value on human life every day (with decisions about traffic regulations and health insurance provisions, for example), it would be naive to argue that numbers can never be attached to artists' work. But we mustn't forget that there are extra-market considerations in the production and appreciation of art. We need to bear these in mind if our understanding of art—and of human society in general—is not to become a desiccated Chicago School of Economics vision of rational choice theory, a view of life where everything has value only insofar as the market grants it.

Charles Gray has executed a "willingness to pay" study of arts-and-crafts festivals in Minnesota. He found that the "value" of the festivals wasn't the money coming into the region from outside or the jobs created for refreshment vendors. Rather, it was something much more difficult to measure—the sense of community among the local residents, a sense of shared history that can't easily be generated in other ways. This sense of community and history is not a gain that accrues only to certain members of the community; one person's enjoyment of it doesn't preclude another's. Thus the arts could be labeled a "public good"—to borrow from the economists' lexicon, there are benefits to the arts which are "non-rival" and "non-excludable," and therefore justify public expenditure.

Even as he supports economic valuation of the arts, the NEA's William Ivey believes the American public could be brought to embrace the arts on artists' terms. His hope is that when the arts community gets the language for explaining itself right, it will discover ways to bring disparate agendas together—around creativity, the importance of living cultural heritage, and the need for a new literacy.

In the 1963 report to President Kennedy, "The Arts and the National Government," which became the founding brief for the NEA, August Heckscher explained that national interest in the arts derives from the recognition that life is more than the acquisition of material goods. And Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued to President Kennedy that federal funding for the arts would help "in transforming the world's image of the United States as a nation of money grubbing imperialists." There is something in this notion—the idea that art raises us above the realm of subsistence and material striving toward higher (more philosophical, more moral) things, that art can force us to grapple with complex questions about identity, belonging, and meaning in a zone apart from political quarreling—that arts advocates will need to capture concretely in this new "language" of Ivey's. Art is not a social program in the traditional sense. More dance lessons would not have prevented Littleton. But as parents and educators deal with how to ease youth alienation, they might do well to remember that the arts can offer pride, self-discipline, a sense of community, and creative release.

On a broader level, art lovers should remind Americans that support for the arts is not in competition with, but rather is an extension of, basic democratic ideals. Public enthusiasm for widespread government arts support first grew out of America's pluralistic tradition, when great waves of immigrants brought their artistic traditions to our shores. German Americans were instrumental in establishing many of our nation's symphony orchestras, while Italian Americans helped boost the opera. At the same time, uniquely American art forms grew out of the merging of disparate traditions—like jazz or modern dance. The arts in America form a living heritage, a source of community—which may be why Charles Gray's willingness-to-pay studies reveal that people are, in fact, willing to pay for art.

The historical relationship between the government and the arts has never been simple, nor should it be. But the simple fact is that mainstream people—and particularly the poor—lose access to the arts when the government guts arts funding. Tickets to Rent will still be available at $65 a pop to the wealthy, but the opportunity to see a local theater company or experience the arts firsthand in a rural or inner-city public school will never be a market spillover effect. Thus advocates should emphasize the importance of equal access: with the cost of two tickets to the ballet, theater, or opera edging toward the triple digits in major cities, is it any wonder that conservative rhetoric about the "elitism" of the arts resonates? In addition, advocates must stand fast in defending the importance of creative self-reflection, for both individuals and communities—an endeavor that requires the artistic freedom to go against the currents of fashionable sensibilities and market demand.

Attacks on oppositional art will someday, inevitably, become a rallying point for the right again. The arts community and its supporters must have their new language ready, and it must be accessible and clear. Answering accusations of elitism and obscurity in elitist and jargon-filled language won't work. Granted, it is far simpler to measure the value of money spent on cab fare than the value of Gray's "sense of shared history." And it's unrealistic to imagine artists completely sheltered from the market; as Ivey says, there is some productive artistic tension to be derived from interaction with the market anyway. But the more reliant the arts community becomes on the market-loving right's economic framework for ascribing value—and the more the market framework and the government framework become indistinguishable—the harder it will be to make a case for the arts on any other ground.



You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement