Among the Philistines

The Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based foundation, strode into the middle of the culture wars last summer and got mugged. Pew proposed spending some $50 million over the next five years in an effort to answer what seems, at first blush, like a reasonable question: Is the United States doing all it should to foster the arts?

In certain ideological quarters, however, simply to ask the question is to commit an outrage. The New Criterion, the curmudgeonly conservative cultural journal, speculated that Pew's intention was to install a Stalinist "ministry of culture" in Washington. The journal could not even find it within its heart to endorse one of Pew's most innocuous notions--that the media should devote more time and space to the arts. It argued that the arts would be best served if the press ignored them completely. (This had something to do with maintaining their purity, although the purity of empty museums seems a dubious ideal.)

Amid the attacks, it was easy to miss the substance of the Pew plan. The New York Times reported that Pew wanted to help create a "national cultural policy," but that's a little misleading. What Pew says it's trying to foster is a national discussion. The foundation will spend its $50 million on an array of projects. For starters, it's giving the RAND Corporation $1.25 million for an analysis of the economic health of arts organizations, large and small, across the country. Pew is looking for a way to get a cultural-news show onto television or radio. It wants to train spokespeople for the arts who can pop up on Nightline the next time a Mapplethorpe or Holy Virgin Mary tiff erupts, in order to provide context. And it would like to help arts groups improve their ability to make their case to foundations, private donors, and the government. Throughout the culture wars, Pew contends, the response of the arts community has been disorganized and data-poor.

The most obvious subject for a debate about government policy on the arts would be the National Endowment for the Arts, whose $98-million budget, thanks to the Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley flaps, is 55 percent of what it was at its peak in 1992. Whether that's the right amount, and whether it is spent in the right way, would certainly be on the table in the discussions that Pew wants to spark. But Pew officials stress that much more goes into the promotion--or stymieing--of culture in America than direct federal subsidies. One inspiration for the culture project was an attempt by the foundation, several years ago, to compare Philadelphia's support of the arts to that of other cities; Pew staffers couldn't find the information they needed. An early goal of the new culture project, therefore, will be to look in depth at the arts policies of 10 cities, to see if some do a better job of keeping their arts institutions more vibrant than others. Even obscure tax policies can affect the health of cultural institutions, Pew notes. If Frank Stella were to give one of his paintings to the Museum of Modern Art tomorrow, for example, he could deduct only the cost of the frame, canvas, and paint, as opposed to the market value. That doesn't make much sense.

The foundation seemed taken aback by the attacks that greeted its announcement. "It's hard to respond to criticism of things you aren't doing," complained Stephen Urice, the staff member in charge of the national culture initiative, when I visited Pew's offices in Center City, Philadelphia. "You start to sound like Richard Nixon." Yet if there's one thing that anyone who intervenes in the culture wars should know, it's that unfair slams and ideological posturing are part of the territory.

A real problem with Pew's approach, in fact, may be related to its surprise at being seen as a combatant. With its guise of neutrality, Pew, to put it bluntly, is pussyfooting. With its arts project, the foundation is taking an approach it has adopted in other public-policy arenas lately, one indebted to theories of deliberative democracy: Encourage everyone to calm down, give citizens the basic information about some policy challenge, provide a forum for debate and--voila!--the result is sensible policy. This philosophy has been evident in a series of town hall meetings that Pew has sponsored on Social Security, in a retreat for Congress to promote "civility," and in Pew's efforts to generate self-reflection in the media. On some highly polarized issues, however, the political lines are so sharply drawn, or one side is so intractable, that talking quickly degenerates into shouting. Remember the effort by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a few years ago, to spark a "national conversation" about American identity? (Didn't think so.) That project was undermined from the start by Republicans, who charged that the NEH's true goal was to browbeat America into accepting multiculturalism. It was a lesson to would-be deliberative democrats that sometimes a conversation is a waste of breath. Sometimes, you just need to put your head down, ignore the Philistines, and do what you think is right. Pew obviously shares the perspective of many in the arts community that they are underfunded, so it is frustrating to see the foundation pretending to stand above the fray, posing as an objective mediator.

This is a quibble, however, when you consider the good that may come from Pew's drawing attention to the financial challenges faced by the arts. With the RAND study, Pew hopes to update and build upon Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, an influential book by William Bowen and William Baumol, published in 1966. That book, still a bible to many arts officials, documented the precariousness of the performing arts in a market economy. Technology makes almost every consumer product cheaper every year, Bowen and Baumol noted, but the efficiency of the performing arts never changes: It will always take at least as many people to stage an opera as it did in Verdi's time. The relative cost of the performing arts, therefore, can only increase. The Pew study will no doubt make plain that CDs and cyber-innovations have not changed the economics of live performance since Bowen and Baumol.

Pew's studies will also highlight the limits of the so-called arts boom, which is often cited as a reason public support of culture is unnecessary. Polemicists like the economist Tyler Cowen (author of In Praise of Commercial Culture, published in 1998) insist that the free market spurs the creation of good music and dance just as it does good cars, and that never have the arts been in better health, anywhere, than they are now in the United States. But the boom theory is only sustainable if you fudge the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit culture, and if you stress the raw numbers of performing-arts groups in the country and ignore their financial health.

Opera is often Exhibit A in the case for the arts boom. It certainly is thriving by many measures. There are some 113 opera companies in the United States, according to the industry's main advocacy group, OPERA America, fully a quarter of which have sprung up since 1980. The opera audience grew 12.5 percent from 1992 to 1997. Nonetheless, "every time the curtain goes up on a sold-out performance, our companies lose money," says Marc Scorca, the president of OPERA America. On average, ticket sales cover only 43 percent of the cost of putting on a performance, he points out. Classical music faces similar challenges, but with far less robust attendance figures. Dance struggles the most. Moreover, arts groups are notoriously undercapitalized, living year to year (or even week to week). As a result, even mild economic downturns can be devastating. In this era of free market fetishization, it may be difficult for many people to grasp, but the arts don't come close to paying their own way. They need welfare--public or private.

Even less appreciated than the financial exigencies within the arts world are the creative compromises those fiscal pressures induce. It's a common conservative argument that public money saps the creative spirit--poverty as a spur to genius, and all that. And perhaps we could worry about fat, complacent artists if a single American city spent nearly $1 billion a year on the arts, as Berlin does. But that's so far beyond the current situation, it's a joke. What we have instead is a vicious spiral: Money woes force orchestras to cycle endlessly through Beethoven, in order to bring in the gray-haired loyalists--which leads a wider potential audience to conclude that orchestras are stodgy and irrelevant, which only increases the dependency on older listeners and unimaginative programs. Money from private donors, moreover, can be at least as inhibiting as public money. It's not unheard of for a big donor to tell a music director to put a lid on that twentieth-century crap, lest the checks dry up.

It may be enough of a public service for Pew to show that a growing economy has not "solved" the dilemmas of the performing arts, and that lack of money poses a threat to creativity. Far more complex questions involve who should pick up the slack--local or federal government, foundations, or private donors--as well as the mix of "high" and "pop" culture that deserves funding, and whether institutions or individual artists make the best recipients. But those are secondary questions that flow from the recognition of the central problem, and can be hashed out later.

Some liberals may well decide that increased public funds are not worth fighting for. Bruce Ackerman, the constitutional theorist at Yale Law School, argued last summer in Dissent that the state should not put its resources behind a "specially privileged culture." To do so, he suggested, was as unhealthy as subsidizing a particular religion. "The State," he wrote, "should get out of the business of bribing its adult citizens to adopt an official version of high culture." The idea that the United States should set aside some money for the arts seems to me about as dangerous as devoting some of its resources to the preservation of public parks and green spaces. It's a hollow sort of liberalism that avoids all choices about what the good life, or a good state, might be. (The Constitution treats religion as the exception, not the rule.) But Ackerman might persuade people he is right. And artists may have their own reasons for eschewing public money; they may conclude that the funds are not worth the inevitable fights over content. If these views triumphed, then Pew's research could still provide the basis for a fresh appeal to foundations and corporations.

The public-money debate aside, Pew also wants to help out with the nitty-gritty of arts management. Many arts groups want more information about their audiences. They don't know whether they are attracting devotees who will fill seats year after year or if they are shuffling one-timers through. That's the sort of information any selfrespecting movie producer would have at his or her fingertips; Pew wants to help the less-profitable arts catch up.

Pew clearly hopes to recreate the synergy between research and advocacy that characterized the social movement in the 1960s, which culminated in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. In that earlier era, the stature of the business leaders, academics, and policy makers who spoke up for the arts showed politicians and the public that funding the arts wasn't a subterfuge for subsidizing communists and homosexuals. One difference between the campaign in the 1960s and Pew's nascent efforts, however, is that cultural advocates in the 1960s weren't afraid to defend the arts on philosophical and spiritual grounds. While Baumol and Bowen's book was for the most part an exercise in nuts-and-bolts economics, the authors also invoked "the inherent value of beauty and the ineffable contribution of aesthetic activity." Unfortunately, Pew doesn't seem to think that kind of talk will cut it anymore.

This is another disturbing aspect of the Pew proposal. Pew seems to believe that some sort of objective, utilitarian calculus can be concocted to demonstrate the worth of the arts, thereby once and for all proving arts opponents wrong. A major part of its proposal, Pew says, is to help arts groups adapt to the new "outcome oriented" attitude that government and foundations have embraced. Understandably, legislators and donors want evidence that their money is producing results, and in most fields this move to "accountability" is welcome. But in the arts, the attempt to marshal empirical data may not exactly be a step forward.

Pew argues that it did not create the new "outcome oriented" standards; it is just helping arts groups deal with them. "This is going to happen whether arts groups try to tap into it or not," says Marian Godfrey, Pew's director of culture programs. "The question is whether they are going to be able to affect their own destiny."

"Probably the first attempts to really measure such a qualitative thing as an arts experience are going to be bumpy and imperfect," she adds. "But it is going to happen anyway. The era of accountability is upon us."

In Philadelphia, Pew's hometown, there has been some sniping about the culture initiative. Some of the bitterness may come from a belief that the national cultural program will take money away from Pew's local efforts. (In fact, Pew says that it has always spent roughly 60 percent of its culture budget on Philadelphia-area groups and will continue to do so.) The major arts service organizations, though, are all on board. "It's an excellent use of money, and long overdue," says Ben Cameron, the executive director of Theatre Communications Group. And OPERA America's Marc Scorca hails the focus on "outcomes." "At Lincoln Center, on a summer evening, I have felt proud to be a human being alive in New York City at the end of the twentieth century," he says. "The collective impact of thousands of people proud to be in New York at the end of the twentieth century is something we should be able to talk about better than we do."

Given how hard it is to demonstrate the effectiveness of, say, Head Start or small classrooms in elementary schools, it's hard to imagine incontrovertible evidence showing the social benefits of the arts--whether by "benefits" we mean higher IQs, revitalized communities, or just feeling glad to be alive. In fact, it's possible that the data Pew unearths, used in a gradgrindian way, could provide ammunition to the opponents of additional arts funding (public or private). Pew will talk about the money that cultural groups bring into cities. Businessmen will counter that sports teams bring in far, far more. And the business interests will be right. In a sense, Pew is trying to play the game by its opponents' rules.

Overall, however, the topic of art and culture offers liberals a great opportunity to expose some of the glaring contradictions of modern conservatism. Some conservatives have argued that the free market supplies a wealth of every possible kind of culture, and that any cultural product that can't support itself probably doesn't deserve to exist. Other conservatives--sometimes, in fact, the very same people--argue that pop culture, with all its sex and violence, is foisted on a hapless public by a libertine entertainment industry. It's the market, however, not the hidden hand of liberals, that breeds the pop culture despised by conservatives. And the market is demonstrably not doing enough to keep opera companies, theater groups, and jazz ensembles financially healthy. The marketplace drives them, in fact, to become more staid than they should be.

The left should never tire of pointing out just how lame the conservative arguments on culture are. If Pew helps to make that case, then, whatever the flaws of its culture project, it will have done the arts a great service. ยค