Month: February 2009

Get real

As promised, even more beard-stroking on the question of arts funding.

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (It’s also Charles Darwin’s birthday. It’s also my wife’s birthday. Coincidence? I think not.) Last night, President Obama made these remarks at the rededication of Ford’s Theatre:

We know that Ford’s Theatre will remain a place where Lincoln’s legacy thrives, where his love of the humanities and belief in the power of education have a home, and where his generosity of spirit are reflected in all the work that takes place.

This has been an extraordinarily fitting tribute to Abraham Lincoln that we’ve seen and heard from some of our most celebrated icons of stage and of screen, because Lincoln himself was a great admirer of the arts. [MG: ceremonies included the awarding of the Lincoln Medal to Sidney Poitier and George Lucas. George Lucas? Anyway, back to Lincoln:] It’s said he could even quote portions of Hamlet and Macbeth by heart, as we’ve seen here this evening. And so I somehow think this event captured an essential part of the man whose life we celebrate tonight.

Not far from here stands our nation’s capitol, a landmark familiar to us all, but one that looked very different in Lincoln’s time. For it remained unfinished until the end of the war. The laborers who built the dome came to work wondering whether each day would be their last; whether the metal they were using for its frame would be requisitioned for the war and melted down into bullets. But each day went by without any orders to halt construction—so they kept on working and they kept on building.

When President Lincoln was finally told of all the metal being used at the Capitol, his response was short and clear: That is as it should be. The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, the future was being secured; and that on that distant day when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in the land still mending its divisions.

There’s your stimulus priorities: education in the lede, construction in the main story. No doubt this is reflective of political realities, and Obama is nothing if not a political realist. (Who knows? Maybe trying to sneak $50 million in arts funding back into the stimulus while doing one’s best not to mention the subject counts as pragmatism.) But let’s bounce something unrealistic off of that.

As part of a proposed transition to a society in which self-organized groups contribute more to what he calls “high-energy democracy,” the legal/political philosopher Robert Unger suggests this:

An example of such a reform would be to reserve part of the tax favor received by tax-protected charitable gifts to independent social trust funds, administered by trustees drawn from different walks of life. Groups in civil society could apply to such funds for grants, as they now do to private foundations. We would have expanded the resource base of voluntary action.

—Roberto Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, from Politics (new edition), p. xcviii

It’s easy to imagine what this would look like in an arts funding context. Donations to arts organizations would still be tax-deductible, but on the receiving end, the NEA would skim off a percentage. Sound like a scam? Actually, it happens all the time—it’s not uncommon in colleges and universities, for example. If I give $100 to my alma mater’s scholarship fund, I’m really only giving a portion of that—maybe $85 to $95. The remainder is taken by the university to cover operating budgets and administrative costs. (In reality, they would levy the assessment on the payout side. But you get the idea.)

According to the the NEA, charitable contributions to United States arts organizations totaled $13.5 billion in 2005 (the last year for which there’s data). A one-percent levy on that almost equals the NEA’s current yearly budget. A five-percent levy—and here’s where things get interesting—would, in six years, collect enough money (just over $4 billion) that the NEA could maintain their current funding level on interest alone, making the Endowment an actual endowment. (I’m assuming a standard four-percent endowment payout.)

I can think of objections aplenty to this plan, though some of them are mitigated:

  • It won’t change anyone’s mind in Congress about arts funding. I don’t know, I think you could make a case: it’s money the government wouldn’t get anyway; it rewards private initiative; it could gradually wean the NEA off of budgetary appropriations. Try that one, Tom Coburn: give it six years, and you never have to worry about funding the arts again!
  • Donors would be ticked off. Yeah, probably. But that doesn’t stop them from giving to universities and colleges. Stanford levies 8 percent; Yale 12 percent; Harvard varies by school, but tops out at 20 percent. Harvard still raised $651 million last year.
  • Private donors would give less. That’s what traditional economics predicts, but as has been noted in this space, the available data suggests the opposite: that increased government spending on the arts creates more private philanthropy.

Here’s the fundamental objection to our funding plan, though. Is it realistic? Are you kidding? It’s not realistic at all. But what arts organizations and advocates should be asking—what they haven’t been asking for far too long—is why something like that is so unrealistic. Why do we take it for granted that such a scheme—any scheme that ambitious—isn’t likely to come to fruition? Because of governments? Markets? Both? Does it go against “human nature”? If so, is that nature unchangeable, or the result of societal structures that we assume are inherent and inevitable? The crucial question: what if they’re not?

Go back to that last point in the list for a minute, which circles back around to Unger, in a way. Traditional economics often seems to malfunction when dealing with the arts; while one might think that there must be some other economic factors at work, Unger raises the possibility that economics itself is coming up short. While we like to think that institutions and their structures are responses to our beliefs, our nature, &c., Unger continually insists on the reverse—that human nature, the “natural” laws governing politics and economics are actually the result of our institutional structures. If the arts don’t follow economic “rules,” that may be because the structures of arts organizations are crucially different. And if that’s true, then economic or political “reality” may be malleable in as much as we make the corresponding institutions malleable.

Here’s what Unger has to say about realism:

Deriding both popular mobilization and ideological contests, this disenchanted idea of politics sees its work to strike compromises with powerful interests, the better to solve disparate practical problems. It imagines the existence of a range of “issues,” each of them calling for sober solutions that respect the constraints of political as well as technical feasibility…. Once established, this conception of politics in turn bestows a halo of realism on the arrangements and practices that made it plausible in the first place.

The votaries of this deflationary view of politics flatter themselves on their own realism. They believe that they have discarded the dangerous romantic illusions of an earlier age. They pride themselves on their practical attitude. Nevertheless, the outcome of their false practicality is to leave politics paralyzed, and the basic recognized problems of each society unsolved.

The reason for this apparent paradox is simple. The fundamental problems of a society—both those it acknowledges and those it does not—are entangled in its organization, and in the ideas that represent and sustain it. We cannot solve such problems until we reorganize some of the established arrangements and revise some of the entrenched assumptions. We do not need to reorganize them altogether, or all at once; in fact, we never can. If, however, we treat politics as no more than an exercise in interest-balancing, devoted to finding discrete solutions to separate problems, we never reach the presuppositions. We remain too captive to the limits of our situation to become true realists. From this captivity, calamity alone can release us.

Unger is, to be sure, embracing those dangerous romantic illusions with both arms—but he’s also reminding us that the basic right of democratic society is not having to take things for granted. If you believe in the importance of the arts to society, then why wouldn’t you think big? I feel like the whole discussion has reached the point of politely ignoring the possible, even the unlikely, in favor of the probable. Theoretically, at least, we have leverage over democracy—and not the other way around. But it takes practice to make that into reality.

I once was lost, but now am found

OK, enough whining. Back to this month’s Topic of Fun™: government arts funding!

First, an update: according to this summary, courtesy of Talking Points Memo (and seriously, if that crew doesn’t pick up an online-only Pulitzer, you’ll know the fix is in), the $50 million funding boost for the NEA, torpedoed in the Senate, has been restored in conference negotiations. Accurate? We’ll see when the actual bill gets filed….

More later.

Update (2/13): Still there (Title VII, page 11).

I catch the paper boy / But things don’t really change

Couldn’t call it unexpected, and I never had any real prospect of winning, but solely from an entertainment standpoint, this was totally worth fifty bucks:

Dear Mr. Guerrieri:

Thank you for your interest in the Pulitzer Prizes. We would like to accept your entry but it does not fit within our rules.

Submitted online material must have appeared on a Web site “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories.” In our guidelines, we urge entrants to ask themselves if they “genuinely fit the criteria” and we specify that an entry’s cover letter should provide “ample evidence” of an online-only news organization’s “primary devotion to original news reporting.” We do not find the requirements to have been met.

I am very sorry to disappoint you. Although entry fees are non-refundable, we will make an exception in your case because this is a transitional period for the Pulitzers. In due course, we will return your check.


Sig Gissler, administrator
Pulitzer Prizes

That turned up in my inbox yesterday, a response to my submitting a spiral-bound exhibit of Soho the Dog posts, seeing as how the Pulitzer board had made such a big deal about allowing “online-only” entries this year. Let’s look at the details, shall we? (Heck, if I was writing for The New York Times, I could do a six-part series, and that Pulitzer would be in the bag.)

Submitted online material must have appeared on a Web site “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories.”

Classical music has over a thousand years of history. That’s not “ongoing” enough for you?

In our guidelines, we urge entrants to ask themselves if they “genuinely fit the criteria”

Hey, self—do you genuinely fit the criteria? No, but my blog does.

and we specify that an entry’s cover letter should provide “ample evidence” of an online-only news organization’s “primary devotion to original news reporting.”

My primary devotion is to my wife. Well, that and plagiarism….

We do not find the requirements to have been met.

By the way, here’s what I submitted as the bulk of my entry: reviews from last summer’s all-Carter Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. Until it was pointed out to me, I thought that I had actually gone out to Tanglewood for a week and reported on what I saw. Now I know I was at home the entire time.

OK, OK, I’m no Seymour Hersh. I’m no Woodward and Bernstein. I’m not even Walter Duranty. But if my focus is criticism (or if it was, say, commentary, to bring up another Pulitzer category), why am I getting penalized for not doing more “original reporting”—when, if I had submitted newspaper reviews, the original reporting done by the paper’s other reporters would be enough to get me in? Here’s what that Duranty-justifying press release says:

a Pulitzer Prize for reporting is awarded not for the author’s body of work or for the author’s character but for the specific pieces entered in the competition

And yet the specific pieces I entered in the competition won’t even be considered because apparently I didn’t sufficiently justify my body of work. Guys, warn me when you’re going to unleash that kind of cognitive dissonance—I need time to appropriately pair it with the proper mind-altering chemicals.

Like I said, I didn’t have any expectation of winning. (I figured that if forcing jurors to read my best stuff led to even one bit of freelance work down the line, that pays for the entry fee several times over.) But the Pulitzer Board’s passive-aggressive attitude towards online writing is the comedy gift that keeps on giving.

At least—

In due course, we will return your check.

That’ll pay for a few days of drinking like a reporter, anyway.

They shop around / Follow you without a sound

Hey, look! The United States Senate, that allegedly august body, went ahead and passed the Coburn amendement, which prevents any of the stimulus money currently being considered in our nation’s capital from being spent on the arts. By a 73-24 vote! Let’s party like it’s 1989! (Darcy, as always, has a good roundup of links and righteousness.)

Having been alive and reasonably mentally alert since the Reagan era (It’s morning in America! No, you can’t have any coffee) I can’t say I’m surprised, nor will I spend much time pointing out that, politically speaking, this is just standard demagogic crap. In fact, I wasn’t going to write anything at all about this, since anything I did write would just be repeating things I’ve already written. But since 1) according to the Senate, I apparently don’t have a real job anyway, and 2) we bleeding hearts do like to recycle, I will once again spell out why, if you’re objecting to the arts being included in a stimulus plan on economic grounds, your grasp of political economy might leave something to be desired.

So, some salient points. First off, It’s a stimulus plan. I saw recently where Greg Sandow, either out of disingenuousness, sloppiness, or ignorance—take three shots if you’re making this into a drinking game—kept referring to an arts “bailout,” an obfuscatory rhetorical trope I’ve been seeing lately from opponents of the current bill. So, just in case some of that is not simply cynical misinformation: a stimulus is not a bailout. The object of the bill at hand is not to bail out the arts or anything else—unlike the handouts that automakers, &c. were lining up for a couple months back. The object is to get the economy out of its current stagnation. The economic theories this is based on come from John Maynard Keynes. Keynes is not uncontroversial—I happen to think he knew a thing or two about the pounds and shillings, but there are very smart people who demur—but if you’re going to sniff at the stimulus, you’d better be prepared to say why The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is mathematically unsound, rather than just screaming bailout! on cable TV.

Now, it’s not hard to find assertions that the arts shouldn’t be part of a stimulus, because, unlike manufacturing jobs, jobs in the arts don’t produce anything concrete. First of all: have you ever tried to move a piano? Second of all: in this economy? Doesn’t matter. For over a century, the engine of economic health has been consumption, not production. The economy hums when people are spending money, and frankly, the economy doesn’t care where that money comes from. The idea that the hundred bucks I get for a few hours of accompanying has less spending power than the hundred bucks a factory worker gets for a few hours of assembling widgets is economically preposterous. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry about whether firemen are using filtered water or not.

A related foofaraw is that there are more important things to spend money on than the arts. Even if you think that (I don’t, but I’m biased), you’re still talking about things, and not about the economy. Remember, the whole point of a stimulus is to jump-start the economy by getting people to spend more money. Which is why I laughed out loud, with a little snort at the end, even, when I read the supposed purpose of the Coburn amendment:

Purpose: To ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and non-stimulative projects

Arts money is non-stimulative? Every arts organization I know spends money as fast as they can get it. Every artist I know lives paycheck to paycheck. Compared with the banks, some of whom are still sitting on their supposedly stimulative TARP billions, money for the arts would get pumped into the economy with the indiscriminate speed of an Yngwie Malmsteen solo.

But who am I kidding? Arguments like this are never about economics. They’re about scoring political points. And the Coburns of this country can always score political points by whacking the arts. Why? Because we let them.

I heard a talk by high-level diplomat once—the Chatham House rule prevents me from saying who, but this is someone who’s carried more than one difficult brief—and that diplomat had this advice for negotiating with tyrants and dictators: get in their face, and stay there. Because if you’re not in their face, someone else will be in their face, undoing any progress you might have already made. If you want to know why the NEA is still getting shafted over a $50-million supplement—an amount of money that would fund four hours of the Iraq War—there’s your answer. Artists have been playing nice. Someone else has been in the government’s face.

What those people dismissing cabinet-level arts representation don’t get is that—forget an acknowledgement of cultural and economic importance—even benign neglect requires constant advocacy. (Would you like to lay odds that the tax-deductibility of philanthropic donations to arts organizations comes under renewed scrutiny in the next few years—without a corresponding boost in governmental support?) The engine of American politics runs on money and false zero-sum mentalities. If you want to change that: get in their face.

Look: maybe the Coburn amendment is just the usual grandstanding. Maybe the thin slice of the stimulus in the House version will be restored in conference. Maybe Senator Coburn, once the economic crisis begins to pass, will happily vote for a substantial increase in arts funding as part of the normal appropriations process. (Whoops, I snorted again.) Maybe the administration has a master plan for making sure that the best artists and the arts can expect from their representative government is something more than ignorance. You know what? They better.

Introductions and Goodbyes

A master of music’s complexities. Remembering Lukas Foss.
Boston Globe, February 7, 2009.

The Globe asked for an appreciation of Foss, so this is kind of a slightly more formal version of last Monday’s post (but only slightly). It’s a testament to Professor Foss’s entertaining nature that there’s not very much overlap—though I reserve the right to tell that Katharine Hepburn story for the rest of my life.

We are still here

The protest movement that took to the streets of Athens last December—partially sparked by the police killing of a Greek teenager, and partially a vanguard of the wave of economic discontent sweeping across Europe—has finally set its sights on the bourgeois excess of opera, occupying the Olympia Theatre of the Greek National Opera. From the protesters’ blog-posted manifesto:

In response to those who understand the rebellion as a brief spark, and undermine and dismiss it by simply saying “life goes on”, we say that the fight not only continues, but has already redefined our life on new foundations. Nothing is finished, our rage continues. Our agony has not subsided, we are still here. Rebellion in the streets, in schools and universities, in trade unions, municipal buildings and parks. Rebellion also in art. Against art as entertainment consumed by passive voyeurs. Against an aesthetic that excludes the “Different”. Against a culture that destroys parks and public spaces in the name of profit.

Current performances of Tannhaüser and upcoming performances of the ballet Giselle have been postponed. In the meantime, the protesters are having an “Open General Assembly of the Liberated Opera” every evening, which, Critic-at-Large Moe was pleased to see in the above picture, means open to dogs, too.

Other opera news, apart from the revolving-door tenor casting in the Met’s Lucia, which I gave up trying to follow:

When the Six Nations Rugby Championship gets underway this weekend, the English squad will have an extra advantage: opera singers, courtesy of the sports-betting company Betfair.

The country’s top opera sopranos—led by Christine Rice, one of the biggest stars of English National Opera—will be strategically placed around the stadium to activate the vocal cords of England’s 82,000-strong supporters and inspire the national team to glory.

Betfair, the official betting partner of the England rugby team, has trawled the nation’s top opera houses to recruit a crack team of sopranos who will elevate the singing standard of traditional rugby anthems such as “Jerusalem” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to give England a competitive edge over their opponents.

As a Betfair spokesman puts it: “[T]he opposition won’t know what’s hit them when they hear the opera singers belting out the most beautiful chants Twickenham has ever experienced.”

Elsewhere, magnificently immodest director William Friedkin has backed out of the operatic version of An Inconvenient Truth, citing the inevitable “irreconcilable creative differences” with the librettist.

And finally, La Cieca’s far-flung web of correspondents return reports that Renée Fleming has gone all Rita Streich with her wardrobe.