You’ll Never Get Rich

Today is Super Tuesday in American politics: two dozen states are holding primary elections or caucuses to choose the parties’ nominees for November’s presidential election. The first Super Tuesdays were in the 1980s, held in early March. Now they’re a month earlier. This thing has been going on for the better part of a year, and it still has to drag on until November. Hoo-ray.

None of the candidates are composers—Mike Huckabee, still hanging on by the ribbon bookmark in his bible, comes the closest, playing a respectable garage-band electric bass. In fact, except for the occasional accidental tourist, there’s never been a composer that also made significant strides as a politician in the U.S. (A couple of rock and/or country songwriters in the Congress is as far as it’s gone.) Certainly not an avant-garde, non-pop-music composer. The reason, I think, is that the majority of American voters don’t take composition seriously as a job. And when it comes to picking leaders, we fetishize work in this country. Business experience is always a big plus. Made a lot of money? Good for you! Garry Wills once pointed out that the Republican establishment didn’t really respect Richard Nixon until he joined a high-powered New York law firm, i.e., until running for president meant giving up real money. He worked hard in business; he’ll work hard for you in Washington! (Note that it’s never necessary to indicate exactly what the candidate will work hard at. It’s oddly non-judgmental. I mean, I’m sure Hitler put in some long hours at the office.)

This sort of mindset is so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice it anymore. Here’s National Endowment for the Arts head and poet Dana Gioia, quoted the other day in Wall Street Journal:

“See, I’m an artist,” [Gioia] says, “and so my primary goal is really bringing the transformative power of great art to the broadest audience possible. And I’m a business person, and I had a day job for two decades, and it taught me that there are ways to take a good idea and make it more effective and more affordable.”

Because, of course, artists have no idea how to do this themselves. I’m certain there are millions of non-musicians out there who still think that composition consists of elegantly waiting around for inspiration, jumping up from the chaise, throwing on a velvet smoking jacket, and dashing off a Great Symphonic Theme. There may have been a time and place when that image could at least have hinted at the possibility of a Balfour-esque noblesse oblige. But nowadays, you’d better have earned that money. And everybody knows that composers don’t earn their money—they subsist on highbrow handouts.

This leaky dinghy of an argument against government funding for the arts has been going around the ether for a few days now. (I found it via a message from the Fredösphere.) I originally wasn’t going to bother writing about a hypothesis so patently absurd (taxpayer funding for avant-garde music was “unlimited”? In Germany and France? Just after World War II? Really?) but I realized that, were a composer of “modern music” to run for president, these are exactly the sort of specious insinuations that would be used to club him/her. Modern music is elitist; the public hates it; it’s a waste of government funds.

All these arguments can easily be framed as laissez-faire free-market capitalist boosterism. It’s elitist—it’s arrogant and foolish not to appeal to as large a segment of your potential market as possible. The public hates it—if a majority of the market isn’t willing to pay for it, then by definition, it has no value. Governments shouldn’t pay for it—if it can’t make it’s own way in the market, then it’s irresponsible of government to artificially prop it up.

That last one has been deployed against arts funding for years now. When the government funds arts that wouldn’t gain sufficient traction in the free market for survival, those making this argument see it as somehow cheating, bending the rules, gaming the system. What they can never let themselves admit is that the rules of free-market capitalism are bent all the time—if they weren’t, capitalism and any society based on it would collapse. When the Federal Reserve tinkers with interest rates and the money supply to ensure that the markets don’t slip into runaway monopolistic inflation or an insurmountable depression, it’s gaming the system. When Congress engineers tax credits and deductions to encourage corporate behavior that the market would otherwise unduly punish, it’s gaming the system. Medicare? Unemployment benefits? Face it—it’s government spending that keeps the economically disaffected from turning into revolutionaries. Any free-market capitalist system requires perpetual benevolent interference to protect it against its own potential for economic and political damage.

In receiving and expecting state support, the arts aren’t playing outside the rules, they’re playing by the exact same rules everybody else does. Of course, to say this in American politics is unthinkable—far better to blame government itself. Or individual incidents of corporate malfeasance. Or, yes, industries that unfairly leech off your taxes in violation of a magically self-sustaining market.

It’s too bad, because I think a composer would have a terrific sense of how to utilize and capitalize on the true nature of democracy. We like to think that democracy is all about choosing the best person for the job. Now, I’m not sure the best possible person has ever been chosen for the job, and frankly, democracy’s record at being able to pick out even the lesser of two evils is pretty spotty. But that’s not the point—democracy is less a process than a performance, a choreographed drama designed to give voters the satisfaction of feeling like they have some control over their own governance. It’s a formalized, orchestrated, arranged, conducted ritual. It’s composed, in other words. It’s incredibly dense textures. It’s irregular, sometimes unpredictable rhythms. It’s aleatoric—what is an election, after all, but chance operations within a tightly controlled framework? A modernist composer would find the levers of democracy awfully familiar. They know the job. The trouble is convincing the electorate that it’s a real one.


  1. Good post–thanks. I was struck by this sentence in Stove’s article:<>We know what forms such funding takes when a Goebbels or a Zhdanov directs it. <>This is clumsy–it isn’t the forms of the funding but its allocation that we care about–but the meaning is clear enough. But it undermines Stove’s case, because if Goebbels and Zhdanov’s cultural policies had anything in common, surely it wasn’t that they fostered “hypermodernism”–on the contrary, in fact. Stove wants to blame something he doesn’t like, namely Modernist music, on something else he doesn’t like, namely state support for the arts; the effort leads to incoherence.

  2. An oft-cited curmudgeonly canard from Stove’s article: >>>“Twentieth-century music,” Amis wrote in 1982, “is like pedophilia. No matter how persuasively and persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance.”It’s worth pointing out, however, that Benjamin Britten, who was enthusiastic about both subjects, is widely regarded as one of England’s greatest — and most accessible — twentieth century composers.These blanket condemnations of everything written after 1945 are just bizarre.

  3. Great post! If I have to hear one more person tout ‘the market’ like it’s some inerrant panacea, I might just throw up on staff paper and make someone play it.

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