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Marketplace of Ideas: But First, The Bill

A Personal Commentary On American and European Cultural Funding

By William Osborne

As an American who has lived in Europe for the last 24 years, I see on a daily basis how different the American and European economic systems are, and how deeply this affects the ways they produce, market and perceive art. America advocates supply-side economics, small government and free trade – all reflecting a belief that societies should minimize government expenditure and maximize deregulated, privatized global capitalism. Corporate freedom is considered a direct and analogous extension of personal freedom. Europeans, by contrast, hold to mixed economies with large social and cultural programs. Governmental spending often equals about half the GNP. Europeans argue that an unmitigated capitalism creates an isomorphic, corporate-dominated society with reduced individual and social options. Americans insist that privatization and the marketplace provide greater efficiency than governments. These two economic systems have created something of a cultural divide between Europeans and Americans.

Germany’s public arts funding, for example, allows the country to have 23 times more full-time symphony orchestras per capita than the United States, and approximately 28 times more full-time opera houses. [1] In Europe, publicly funded cultural institutions are used to educate young people and this helps to maintain a high level of interest in the arts. In America, arts education faces constant cutbacks, which helps reduce interest.

The Rise of Neo-Liberalism As a Cultural Paradigm

The divisions between American and European arts-funding models are best understood if one briefly considers the changes that have evolved in U.S. economic policy over the last 30 years. Except for the military, there has been continual political pressure to reduce government. Even though the government’s budgets have continued to increase, arts funding has been particularly vulnerable to cuts. By 1997, the NEA’s funding was close to half its former high, and has only slowly regained some of its lost ground.

University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman stressed the value of limited taxation and unregulated global markets in the 1970s. Many influential members of the political and economic elite embraced his views. With Ronald Reagan’s election, Friedman’s proposals became established U.S. policy. Friedman’s philosophy of limited government and free trade was seen as an extension of Adam Smith’s 18th century market-liberalism, and is technically referred to by many economists as neo-liberalism. [2]

Some of neo-liberalism’s most important tenets are cutting public expenditure for social services such as health insurance, education and cultural programs. This is consistent with its other policies, such as the deregulation of the market to allow the free flow of capital and limit restrictions caused by issues such as environmentalism and job safety; privatization of state-owned enterprises such as schools, parks, toll highways, hospitals, utilities, and water supplies; and the replacement of traditional concepts such as “the public good” or “community” with values emphasizing “individual responsibility.” (We thus see that in its technical economic meanings, neo-liberalism differs from the common American political usage of the term “liberal.” Neo-liberalism refers instead to the historical meanings of market-liberalism as freed from government intervention or involvement.)

In its purest form, America’s neo-liberalism would suggest that cultural expression that doesn't fit in the marketplace doesn't belong at all. For the arts, the alternative has been to maintain a relatively marginalized existence supported by gifts from corporations, foundations and the wealthy. A system similar to a marginal and elitist cultural plutocracy evolves. This philosophy is almost diametrically opposed to the tradition of large public cultural funding found in most of Europe’s social democracies.

The Hip-Con Argument

Through the influence of neo-liberalism, it is becoming increasingly common in America to suggest that classical music must enter the market place in order to survive. One of the most interesting and nuanced proponents of this view is Greg Sandow, who writes for The Wall Street Journal. He argues that classical music must creatively accept the structures of the marketplace. He notes that even the fringes of the mass market are enormous. If artists can't fit into America’s relatively unmitigated capitalist system, they are to be blamed, at least in part, for their lack of imagination and relevance. Alternatives, such as public funding for the arts, are left largely unmentioned. [3]

The general correlations between Mr. Sandow’s ideas and neo-liberalism are fairly obvious. Government is to be reduced and an unregulated market furthered. His view could also stem from his musical background. He worked as a pop music critic for Entertainment Weekly before moving to The Wall Street Journal. In his writings, he moves freely between pop and classical.

The approach of leveling pop and classical into the marketplace is both aesthetically hip and financially conservative. The younger Wall Street might even define business as an extension of the freewheeling, libertarian ethos of rock and roll. In this sense, they might be referred to as hip-cons. Rock and roll and its many pop variants are the mainstay of the corporate music industry’s income. Rock also accurately reflects something of the American business spirit of enterprise and freedom.

The Danger of Conformity in Mass Markets

From its beginnings, rock revolted against stifling convention and hypocrisy. Rock, however, is a form of rebellion carried by the mass media, which leaves it characterized by internal conflicts. Up front we might have a socially rebellious Bruce Springsteen, but behind him stands a massive music industry deeply rooted in the Wall Street establishment, whose purpose is not to formulate social criticism but to make money.

Mass media pop is thus distinguished by its ability to create a ready, packaged (and often benign) form of social criticism that raises protest only within the strictures the mass market will accept. This characteristic, however, must be carefully disguised or the impression of hipness is weakened. Big business is the dirty secret in the background. The current crisis with file sharing is an example of the troubles the music industry can have when its business side becomes too visible.

The best argument for pop music actually leading a social rebellion would probably be found in the '60s, but even then elements of conformity were apparent. The massive criticism of John Lennon’s comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ was a clear illustration. Antiwar songs and drugs were socially acceptable, but presumed insults to Christianity were not. Some recent examples of how pop must conform to the strictures of the mass market are Springsteen’s backdown from his criticisms of the New York police for brutality, the attacks on Sinead O’Conner after her criticisms of the Pope (which contributed to the end of her career), the delayed release of Madonna’s antiwar album in spite of her carefully parsed image as a fearless rebel, and the boycott and burning of the Dixie Chicks’ CDs after their criticisms of Bush and the Iraq war.

Mass pop thrives on controversy, but it must be carefully gauged to create notoriety and not shut down the show. More variation exists on the market’s fringes, but the degree is generally proportional to the size of the audience. The more unusual the stance or music, the smaller the market. The financial viability of the fringe markets thus depends on having a limited supply of artists and a specialized public for a particular view or aesthetic.

The dangers of artists being forced into conformity are apparent. Given the volatility of mass markets, Wall Street has a very particular ethos. This was clearly summarized by Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald's, who was angered by some of his franchises: “We have found out ... that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry. ... The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization.” The very nature of a mass market is conformity in both product and customer. [4]

Mr. Sandow’s suggestion that classical composers should tap into the fringes of the pop market is thus interesting, but of limited value. The fringes are indeed larger than the usual audience for classical music, but they could still only support a limited amount of experimental music. The industry is not in a stable condition, the audiences would be splintered, and the reactions of the public fickle and highly unpredictable, especially for kinds of avant-garde classical music they had never even heard before. Tapping into even the fringes of the pop industry would likely require elements of conformity that might not suit the wildly varied and experimental nature of modern classical music.

Even traditional types of classical music that have tried to be more commercial are often criticized for their bad taste. David Lister, Media and Culture Editor for The Guardian, created an interesting summary of some examples:

"The members of the string quartet Bond, who were trained classically, perform in skimpy tops, tight trousers and stilettos. Sometimes they are accompanied on stage by nubile dancers and a rock band, and play music with a dance beat. British chart compilers said their debut album was pop music and banned it from their classical chart but it went to the top of the American version."

"The 23-year-old violinist Vanessa-Mae can probably claim first rights on emerging from the sea in a suitably dripping outfit to promote her skills in performing a concerto. When still a teenager she used the wet look in one of her early promotional videos."

"One critic said of Russell Watson [a singer]: ‘His ability is reliant on massive amplification, and I very much doubt whether he has the stamina (or the desire) to sing an entire role in an opera.’"

"The 'Gregorian Babes' [to] whom Sir Thomas refers to [are] a desperate attempt to manufacture a classical version of the Spice Girls. The group went to the top of the classical charts, but their medieval madrigals were described by one critic as ‘estuary Latin’."

In America, the neo-liberal paradigm has already given a corporate atmosphere to our culture that is stronger than ever before in history, and stronger than in any other country in the world. So why are we being asked to go even farther in this direction? Generally speaking, if any one system of support for artists becomes isomorphic, artistic freedom suffers. Varied systems help guarantee freedom of artistic expression. This is why Europeans have a vibrant and healthy system of decentralized public funding to provide an alternative to the commercialization of culture.

The Rise of Crossover and Its Hip-Con Public

Even though the yuppies of the late '70s and '80 never represented a clearly defined movement, they might be seen as interesting examples of the hip-con spirit. They were regarded as politically conservative and preoccupied with moving toward the centers of power – often with little regard for the implications. They were a counter-reaction to the far more extreme “tune-in, turn-on, drop-out” philosophy of the '60s. The yuppies of Manhattan were often well educated, ambitious and intelligent. The “downtown” classical music scene became one of the chic places for the more sophisticated to be seen. The stiff, incestual establishment serialism of the uptown may have been square and alien to many hip-cons, but some of the downtowners were incorporating elements of popular music that they could relate to as cool.

For the most part, the downtown artists who incorporated elements of pop were not anything like hip-cons. They were (and still are) solidly on the political left. They knew they had been able to take advantage of the fringes of the mass market, but given the diversity of avant-garde musical expression, they generally recognized that this model was limited and suited to only a narrow spectrum of modern classical music. It was only much later, after neo-liberalism had become more established, that their work was used to support an argument that classical music should be moved to a stronger market paradigm.

Some of the most notable crossover artists were the Bang-On-A-Can All Stars, who rose to prominence with programs that included works emulating elements of the tasteful, semi-popular new-age music of Brian Eno. Programs by Laurie Anderson, such as “Home of the Brave,” were modeled on the format of rock concerts. Her song “O Superman” reached No. 2 on the British pop charts. John Zorn created collages using television cartoon music that was almost iconographic to a generation of young Americans. And the repetitive, rhythmic qualities of minimalist composers such as Reich and Glass attracted a generation brought up on rock. [5]

During the '50s and '60s, pop music had developed a central place in the American psyche. For the young people of the late '70s and '80s, a crossover with experimental forms of classical music was simply part of a quintessentially American milieu they did not even have to think about. And even though it was not a very conscious idea for the young hip-con public, the idea of widening the cultural influence of the marketplace fit the neo-liberal spirit that was a growing hallmark of the Reagan era. The musicians also seemed to be influenced. One of the most important aspects of cultural isomorphism is that artists often unconsciously adapt to and employ the larger social forces surrounding them.

One of the first writers to note the crossover forms being developed by the downtown composers was The New York Times music critic John Rockwell, who described some of the work in his 1983 book All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century. He later became a program director for Lincoln Center’s summer festival. Partially through his influence, some members of the downtown began reaching more established midtown publics and a wider international audience.

Rockwell noted that once again the desire and ability to merge the aesthetic structures of classical and commercial was something distinctly American. What neither he nor anyone else anticipated, was that the crossover would eventually be used to support a claim that classical music and its modern composers should be more strongly shifted to the marketplace. Few understood the aesthetic, social, and economic implications of the evolving neo-liberal paradigm that was making American society and culture more isomorphic than ever. [6]

Europeans rejected most attempts in their own societies to merge commercial and classical music. Their cultures are not dominated by the mass media as in America, and they do not have the same innate relationship to pop. Given their more extensive cultural history and public arts funding, it is not surprising that Europeans hung on to (and were burdened by) more complex and historically continuous ideas of classical music. And above all, they continued to view forms of culture associated with the American mass media and corporatism as hegemonistic and potentially isomorphic, regardless of how hip they might seem.

The Increasing Political Division of Europe and America

In many respects, neo-liberalism is a manifestation of the suspicion toward government traditionally held by the American right – an ethos that contrasts strongly with Europe’s tradition of social democracies. During the '60s and '70s, however, a number of Republicans were still relatively strong supporters of the newly founded NEA. Support for the arts was still considered a part of traditional, conservative values. As the Republican Party moved increasingly to the right, the old cultured libertarian conservatives like Nelson Rockefeller or William F. Buckley moved to the background. By the '90s, mainstream libertarian conservatism seemed far less sophisticated. A new populist version with an openly bigoted crudeness along the lines of Rush Limbaugh had evolved. Rock, country western, and a kind of neo-liberal cowboy social Darwinism replaced Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

Populist rightwing attacks on controversial artists such as Karen Finley, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe were used to rationalize funding reductions for the NEA. Between 1992 and 1996 the agency’s budget was reduced by almost half – from $170 million to $97 million. Twenty categories of grants were abolished between 1990 and 1995. The Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati was indicted for pandering obscenity hours after the opening of the photography exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. In question were seven portraits, mostly of sadomasochistic acts. The partisan rhetoric of conservative politicians such as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms raised suspicions of intimidation and censorship. And perhaps more important, the elimination of entire government agencies was a continuing theme of congressional rhetoric under Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The neo-liberal agenda of reducing government became part of the rationale for shutting down Mozart and Shakespeare along with Serrano.

Popular music also moved to meet the demands of a newly forming market on the right. Following on types of punk that incorporated a kind of tribal masculinism, by the 2000’s Eminem even metastasized black male anger into a hip-con white male anger. He endorsed, for example, extreme violence against women, but given the backlash of the '90s, this was within the strictures of the mass media’s pre-packaged forms of protest. These social statements were embraced by the music industry because the swing to a crude and somewhat bigoted form of libertarianism had made them widely accepted and provided the basis for a mass market. The racist implications in some of Eminem’s most recently revealed statements, however, are not widely accepted. We thus saw the industry that supports him quickly backpedaling.

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