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Democracy and Culture
More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America:
I do not believe that it is a necessary effect of a democratic social Condition and of democratic institutions to diminish the number of those who cultivate the fine arts, but these causes exert a powerful influence on the manner in which these arts are cultivated. Many of those who had already contracted a taste for the fine arts are impoverished.... The number of consumers increases but opulent and fastidious consumers become rare.... The productions of artists are more numerous, but the merit of each production is diminished.... In aristocracies, a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones. [Emphasis added]
These Delphic remarks, inscribed after a visit to our shores in the early years of the Republic by a foreigner who is still among the most prophetic commentators on American life, in effect defined the problems that serious or high culture would henceforth encounter in an increasingly massified and industrialized society. What Tocqueville prophesied was that among the sacrifices a political democracy might be forced to make on the altar of egalitarianism would be a civilization of real importance. American culture, in his view, would become flooded with unimportant forms of expression, genuine works of art being rare and often unacknowledged, and artistic standards would be determined not by the intrinsic quality of the art but by the extrinsic size of the audience. Put another way, the evolution of American culture would be based on a continuing tension, and later on a state of hostility, between the minority expression called high art, embraced by a decreasing number of "fastidious consumers," and what constituted the culture of the masses.
Tocqueville, though an aristocrat himself, was highly partial to the new political experiment being tested in this country, but he yearned for a system that could join a democratic politics with a meritocratic culture. He correctly saw that, without access to the civilizing influence of great artworks, the voting majority in this country was bound to remain benighted. Only art and education could provide the synthesis needed to evolve a more enlightened and cultivated electorate. There were times when this synthesis looked achievable. In the nineteenth century, certainly, high art and popular culture seemed to coexist in healthy, if often separate, compartments. Not only were Hawthorne and Emerson traded in the same bookstalls as penny-dreadful novels, but also traveling troupes performing Shakespeare, admittedly in bowdlerized versions, attracted wildly enthusiastic audiences from the most primitive frontiers.
For a period in the twentieth century, high art and popular culture were even to enjoy a brief honeymoon. Certainly, serious American artists in the first half of this century drew great infusions of energy from indigenous American forms. Try to imagine Gershwin without the influence of black music, or Copland without access to Mexican and Latin American dance rhythms, or Bernstein without the influence of jazz, cabaret, and rock. T. S. Eliot's metrics, like those of e. e. cummings, owe a lot to vaudeville and the music hall: His dramatic fragment, Sweeney Agonistes, even climaxes in a minstrel show. It is also true that most twentieth-century American novels, beginning with those of John Dos Passos, have been deeply indebted, in their episodic structure and cinematic sweep, to Hollywood movies. And of course Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein, indeed virtually everyone associated with the Pop Art movement, have been indebted to such popular visual forms as cartoons, comic strips, newspaper print, and advertising.
The channels of exchange have flowed the other way, too. Neither American advertising nor the world of fashion would have been able to generate many original ideas without open access to the iconography of high art. No sooner does a new visual artist emerge in this country than his or her breakthroughs are appropriated by Madison Avenue and Seventh Avenue. Similarly, the history of the movies would have been sadly impoverished had studios been unable to feed off contemporary literature and theater. So intimate were the relations between high and popular culture, in fact, that it was sometimes difficult to determine whether an artist like Andy Warhol belonged more to bohemia or suburbia, whether his true home was a Greenwich Village factory or the creative department of Batton, Barton, Dustine, and Osborne, a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Then again, such respected figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Nathanael West, among countless other American writers not to mention such expatriate Europeans as Bertolt Brecht and Aldous Huxley spent almost as much time huddling in script conferences in Hollywood as bending over writing desks in their studies.
The interdependence of popular and high art in our country had both positive and negative effects. One obvious advantage was economic. The commercial system subsidized a lot of needy artists whose royalty incomes would have normally been insufficient to pay for typewriting paper. It is true that this system also distracted these artists from their real work, though not as much as commonly assumed. Fitzgerald wasted his time writing such third-rate movies as Winter Carnival, but his motion picture studio experience also inspired a glorious Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon (which in turn inspired a bad movie). It could be argued that working with such popular forms as the detective novel, science fiction, and the screenplay provided a stream of energy that kept high culture hardboiled, vigorous, and vital. Still, the relationship between the artist and the commodity culture was always uneasy. And it soon began to sour, curdled by a number of intellectuals who were to regard the participating artist as a sellout or, worse, a collaborator in a mass art that was having a brutalizing effect on American minds.
The fear that popular culture would absorb high art had always worried social commentators, from Tocqueville on, but that fear intensified during the culture wars of the 1950s. At that time, some may remember, such crusading highbrows as Dwight Macdonald began protesting the power of "Masscult" and "Midcult" to debase and overshadow "High Cult" (even Macdonald's terms were influenced by the mass media), while their opponents, usually representatives of the value-free social sciences, were defending popular or mass culture as the more democratic art. And more democratic it was if measured by statistical instead of qualitative criteria as were the commodities most often consumed by the masses.
A great poet like Walt Whitman was also capable of believing in the possibility of a democratic American art, but somehow it was more conceivable in the nineteenth century to imagine democratic vistas with unclouded horizons. In our time, this has become increasingly difficult. The cultural wars of the 1950s, raging in such periodicals as Partisan Review and Commentary, resulted in a hostile backlash against intellect, art, and high culture, eventually spreading, as we shall see, to include the whole construct of Eurocentric civilization and its "dead, white, male" artists and intellectuals, as they were scornfully identified. It was a time when competing special-interest groups demanded recognition for their own forms of cultural expression, often identifying traditional and avant-garde art as "elitist," to use the populist epithet that was henceforth to control the terms of the debate. This action culminated in a major retreat the surrender of most of the standards and values that make a serious culture possible. I do not suggest that inspired artists were no longer able to function in America, but what was once a hospitable climate for their work was turning mean and indifferent. Native talent may be as abundant as ever, but never in recent years has it been so inadequately evaluated, published, produced, disseminated, and supported.
Although the ongoing war on the arts contains important economic components related to the business cycle, its thrust has been mainly political. Antiart forces advance by means of a three-pronged incursion from the right, left, and center of the political spectrum, all claiming endorsement from the majority. One of the homes for these incursions is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and that is curious and sad, since in its early years this agency did a lot to maintain and encourage artistic standards. Under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, when the NEA was run first by Roger Stevens, later by Nancy Hanks, and the total budget never rose above $100 million, the agency was not yet significant enough to be treated by Congress as a political football. After the Carter administration appointed the populist Livingston Biddle as chairman, however, the emphasis of the NEA shifted from the support and encouragement of serious American art to its "dissemination," which is to say from the artist to the public. Simultaneous with this change, after the NEA budget began to inch toward the current $176 million mark (where it has been flat or shrinking since 1980), Congress began to make serious inroads into NEA decisions. Biddle explained his populist stance by announcing that "the voice of the constituent is the one most clearly heard by Congress," which was his way of saying that instead of supporting the artist, the NEA was now courting the voter and those who represented him.
In short, the National Endowment for the Arts, in company with its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, was now in the process of being "democratized." But that process went deeper than the intervention of pressure groups, vested interests, and meddling politicians. It was the very politics of consensus American democracy that began to influence the policies and appointments of these federal agencies. Once fully professional and oriented toward the artist, these agencies were beginning to spread their relatively meager monies to educationalists, audiences, and amateurs as well. This change was inspired by the essentially political assumption that any resources generated by the people should directly benefit the people, as if there were not enough precedents in medical, space, and scientific research for identifying and subsidizing those best qualified to make advances in specialized fields. The concept of excellence and expertise Tocqueville's meritocratic achievement within a democratic society was perfectly in harmony with our founding ideals. Indeed, it informed the constitutional notion of an electoral college, a group of presumably qualified intelligent people who were elected by the voting majority to select the chief executive. It was a concept now being abandoned in favor of such extra-artistic concerns as advocacy, arts appreciation, geographical distribution, dissemination through the media, and, later, multiculturalism and cultural diversity.
The democratization more accurately, the politicization of the NEA exploded with full force after President Bush appointed John E. Frohnmayer as chairman. It was then that controversial grants to Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, among others, aroused the fiery wrath of such paleolithic conservatives as North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, who took the position that the government should not fund any artistic work offensive to the majority. Such was Helms's power that he even persuaded Congress to impose content restrictions on grantees in the form of a new obscenity clause that all applicants were obliged to sign. To his eternal credit, the late Joe Papp declared that he was willing to sacrifice NEA funding rather than endorse this document. And a successful class-action suit by Bella Lewitzky resulted in the provision being struck down as unconstitutional.
The attack on the arts from the right of the political spectrum was basically moralistic. "If someone wants to write nasty things on the men's room wall, the taxpayers do not provide the crayons," said Helms, whose disdain extended to all forms of modern art that did not resemble the pastoral North Carolina scenes on the walls of his office. A letter signed by twenty-seven senators and written on the stationery of Senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York endorsed Helms's position: "This matter does not involve freedom of expression. It does involve whether `taxpayers' money should be forced to support such trash."
"It is not the function of art," another political critic affirmed not too long ago, "to wallow in dirt for dirt's sake, never its task to paint men only in states of decay.... Art must be the handmaiden of sublimity and beauty and thus promote whatever is natural and healthy. If art does not do this, then any money spent on it is squandered." This comes not from the senatorial chambers of Jesse Helms or Alphonse D'Amato but from a speech made in Nuremberg by Adolph Hitler, inveighing against "degenerate" modern art. Clearly, those who pretend to speak on behalf of the "people" eventually end up telling the people what they should think.
Frohnmayer not only punished those institutions responsible for the Mapplethorpe and Serrano shows. He canceled a grant for a New York art exhibit because he found the brochure too political (it was blistering in its criticism of legislators like Helms). Then an odd thing happened. As Frohnmayer matured in office, he was converted into a born-again civil libertarian, defending the rights of beleaguered artists so vigorously that President Bush, yielding to pressure from Pat Buchanan, fired him. Frohnmayer's temporary successor, Ann-Imelda Radice, was, if anything, even more responsive to right-wing pressures on the arts. But despite her need to placate the conservatives, it was under her brief regime, paradoxically, that populist policies gained the greatest purchase at the NEA. First, she declared that the agency would henceforth be more responsive to majoritarian or popular demands when handing out money, thus tainting the originally countermarket strategy of the NEA with marketplace values. Then, she made it official policy to fund every species of ethnic and racial expression, regardless of its intrinsic value as art.
The attack on the arts from the politically correct Left proved just as disturbing in its way as that from right-wing minions of moral correctness. And it is significant that both sides claimed the endorsement of the democratic majority. For the Right, this usually meant those clean-cut Americans who sip vanilla sodas in Norman Rockwell paintings and Thornton Wilder plays, when they are not walking a dog named Spot down a brightly lit Main Street. For the Left, the majority was represented not by white Protestant Anglo-Saxons but by those previously excluded from the cultural banquet, a diverse mixture of racial, sexual, and ethnic constituencies summed up by the catchwords "multiculturalism" and "cultural diversity." What often occurs under the umbrella of these terms is less a widening than a narrowing of artistic possibility "a violent turn," as Roger Kimball noted in a Partisan Review symposium, "against Western liberalism and its tradition of rationality, respect for individual rights, and affirmation of a common good that transcends the accidents of ethnic and racial identity."
The cultural product of this tribalist approach could sometimes be regarded as art. More often, it was a form of handicrafts. An NEA brochure proudly boasted of its financial assistance to "Hmong needlework, coastal sea-grass basketry, southeast Alaska native dance, American Indian basketry and woodcraft, Pacific Island canoe building and Appalachian banjo playing." I am surprised it left out Yoknapatawpha County bear hunting, Venice Beach snorkeling, and hillbilly belly scratching.
No sensible person denies that we live in a diverse society, or that works of art can be created by people of every color and persuasion. It is essential that talented artists be honored regardless of origins; intercultural exchange can be a source of great artistic refreshment. Identifying and encouraging such talent is precisely what Martin Luther King meant when he said that people should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. But he was talking about equality of opportunity, not equality of result or proportionate representation. Artistic achievement is not, like the right to vote, guaranteed to every American. It must be earned. Multicultural grantsmanship sometimes helps increase the visibility of deserving minority artists, especially in the performing arts, which is a highly welcome move. But indiscriminate awards, made without regard for quality, are an extension of our passion for social engineering. As H. L. Mencken wrote: "Every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease." Trying to compensate for the failures of society in an area least qualified to be an avenue of social change, the multiculturalists threaten to sacrifice hard-won achievements for the sake of evangelical gestures.
What accounts for this confusion of realms? I believe it results from our incorrigible tendency to muddle art and politics. For a number of years now, American culture has been asked to shoulder obligations once considered the exclusive responsibility of the American political system, which is another way of demanding that the arts be "democratized." This activist impulse in culture has increased exponentially in recent years, one suspects because legislative solutions to the nation's social problems have been largely abandoned or tabled. Instead of developing adequate federal programs to combat homelessness, crime, disease, drug abuse, and racial tension, our governing bodies have responded with depleted federal subsidies, dwindling programs for the poor and unemployed, congressional boondoggles, and other instances of systemic inertia. Aside from the debates over competing health care programs, and a welfare reform plan that has managed to reduce rather than increase support for the poor, the most significant action advanced for solving America's more urgent social needs has been to increase the cultural representation of minority groups.
This strategy for ignoring social problems clearly intensified during the Reagan-Bush administrations, with their neglect of economic inequities and indifference to social injustice. The powerful conservative revulsion against traditional liberalism led not only to a restructuring of national power but also to a redistribution of the country's wealth, while the burgeoning deficit and a growing taxpayers' revolt frightened lawmakers away from passing any incremental social programs. Add to these political and economic retrenchments a new ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure of communism discredited not only Marxist economic theory but also the related though considerably milder platforms of socialism, liberal humanism, the welfare state, the New Deal, the Great Society, and perhaps even the whole construct of traditional Democratic Party politics. For the first time in more than a hundred years, there exists no viable theoretical alternative to laissez-faire capitalism, with its unregulated greed and unequal income structure, no collective idealism to temper unrestrained individualism, no Marx or Keynes to dispute with Adam Smith or Milton Friedman, not even a national publication (if we discount the intellectually impoverished Nation and Village Voice) that still gives voice to opinion on the radical Left.
This is not the place to debate the strengths and weaknesses of opposing political ideologies. What I am arguing, rather, is that the weakening of the political Left and the absence of a genuine political dialectic have led to paralysis in an arena of social action usually serviced by legislation. It is because of this inertia that the nonprofit cultural sector, which is to say high art, is being pressed into compensatory service, as a way of sustaining hopes disappointed by the political system. The result is a scene that would be comical were it not so disheartening a limping gaggle of have-not geese honking loudly for the same small handful of feed. Not only is America's underclass crippled by poverty and hopelessness but also federal money for artistic projects remains pitifully inadequate by comparison with other civilized countries, while the NEA continues to stumble on the brink of extinction every time it invests $200 in a controversial grant. Staggering under massive deficits, and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, our nonprofit cultural institutions are nevertheless being asked to validate themselves not through their creative contributions to civilization but on the basis of their community services. Once again, Alexis de Tocqueville described this condition when he predicted that serious art in the United States would always be asked to justify itself on the basis of utilitarian criteria: "Democratic nations," he wrote in Democracy in America, "will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful be useful."
Current pressures on the arts to be useful cause funders to measure their value by outreach programs, children's projects, inner-city audience development, access for the handicapped, artists in school programs, and so on, in addition to demanding proof of progress in achieving affirmative action quotas among artistic personnel, board members, and audiences. This social view of culture has some undeniable virtues, and there are unquestionably deep humanitarian impulses governing the new philanthropy. Given the limited resources available for both social and cultural programs, the civic- minded agencies that disburse grant money no doubt sincerely believe that a single dollar can fulfill a double purpose, just as many contemporary artists would prefer their works to function not only as forms of self-expression but also for the public good.
Looked at in the long perspective, however, the push to transform culture into an agency of social welfare is probably doomed to failure. To demand that creative expression be a medium for promoting minority self-esteem may seem like a thrifty way to respond to the urgent needs of the under-classes. But whatever the immediate effects of such well-meaning civic experiments, they are not long lasting. Culture is not designed to do the work of politics; nor will promoting inspirational role models even begin to compensate for the unconscionable neglect of arts education in our schools. No wonder inner-city children prefer rap or salsa when no teachers have been employed by the system to expose them to serious theater, art, or music. No wonder the infrequent visit of a performance artist or a dance company on a grant often leaves these children baffled and sullen when no money exists to stimulate their imaginations. Anything short of daily arts education in the public school curriculum will register as little more than tokenism. Indeed, cosmetic procedures may even be exacerbating the problem by varnishing its surface instead of probing its roots.
Whatever the fruitless effect on education, philanthropy's insistence on administering nonprofit funding according to utilitarian rather than traditional aesthetic criteria is almost certainly likely to doom the arts as we know them. It is very ominous, indeed, that the word "quality," the standard by which art has habitually been measured, is now avoided in most funding circles, being considered a code word for racism and elitism. This is true not only in federal, state, and city cultural agencies, where politics dictates that the arts will be subject to populist and egalitarian pressures, but also in most private funding organizations. With a few lonely exceptions (most notably the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), large and small private foundations now give their money not to general support as in the past but overwhelmingly to special programs conceived by the officers of the foundation. Active rather than receptive in relation to the choices of artists and the programming of artistic institutions, the foundation world is now engaged in what I have elsewhere called "coercive philanthropy." Artists and institutions are obliged to follow the dictates of officious program directors or be exiled to an economic gulag.
The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, for example, which handed out $45 million to the arts in 1993, describes its three-year program for resident theaters in the following manner: "To expand their marketing efforts, mount new plays, broaden the ethnic makeup of their management, experiment with color-blind casting, increase community outreach activity and sponsor a variety of other programs designed to integrate the theatres into their communities" and to encourage "dynamic interactions between artists and communities ... to develop new audiences ... [and] to address the interests of children and families." These are all benevolent social goals, but they are also all peripheral to the true work of most theaters.
What the foundation fails to "expand" or "broaden" or "sponsor" is an artistic goal. As a result, the great preponderance of Wallace funds each year, to quote a few typical citations from recent grants, goes to increasing "the African-American audience" or "doubling the number of Asian Americans in the overall audience" or "increasing the number of Latino theatregoers to 40% of the audience" or deepening "the involvement of ... Latino immigrants, emerging Latino business and professional leaders" or attracting "new theatre audiences from ... Hispanic concert-goers and African-American concert-goers" or diversifying "through the addition of actors of color ... with the input of its new African-American artistic associate" or including "greater promotion within the African-American community" or developing "new audiences from New York City's Asian-American communities," and so on. In 1993, only one award went to an institution proposing a project with any artistic dimensions, and that one was designed to broaden the base of children's audiences.
Similarly, the Rockefeller Foundation, once among the most enlightened supporters of artists and artistic institutions in America, now disburses about $14 million annually, mostly to humanities programs but also to arts projects indistinguishable from its Equal Opportunity and Social Science Research grants. Rockefeller's Arts and Humanities Division describes its mission as encouraging scholars and artists "whose work can advance international and intercultural understanding in the United States ... extending international and intercultural scholarship and increasing artistic experimentation across cultures." It should be noted that "international and intercultural understanding" no longer includes any understanding of Europe. To judge by the grants, the phrase refers almost exclusively to African, Asian, and, especially, Hispanic countries and cultures. As a result, Rockefeller's three granting categories advance such noble objectives as "Extending International and Intercultural Scholarship," "Fortifying Institutions of the Civil Society," and "Increasing Artistic Experimentation Across Cultures," while the grants go almost overwhelmingly to African American, Native American, Asian, and Latino artists or institutions engaged in social objectives. (In 1993, Rockefeller's largest grant, amounting to $925,000, was awarded to the "Intercultural Film/Video Program" in order to enable visual artists not to experiment with new visions or to advance film and video techniques but, rather, to "create work that explores cultural diversity.") One is not surprised to learn that Rockefeller is considering a new play initiative designed to fund works that deal with an issue the program directors call "conflict resolution." Only heaven will help the playwright with other issues in mind.
As for Ford, whose enlightened arts division under W. McNeill Lowry was largely responsible for the massive explosion of American nonprofit dance, theater, symphony, and opera companies since the 1960s (including many racially diverse institutions), support for cultural projects has now slowed to a trickle, and the lion's share of program budgets goes to urban and rural poverty, education, governance and public policy, and international affairs. This is entirely understandable, given such pressing needs at home and abroad. But once again a radically reduced arts budget goes to institutions devising projects similar to the foundation's civil rights and social justice programs. Ford describes its arts division as pursuing two goals "cultural diversity and strengthening creativity in the performing arts" and adds: "Both goals have become increasingly interconnected, particularly since mainstream arts institutions have become more interested in culturally diverse art and audiences in recent years. At the same time, much of the new performing art the Foundation has supported has been that of minority artists and arts organizations."
One might question whether this new "interest" on the part of mainstream arts organizations, genuine though it may be, is as obsessive as reflected in recent foundation grants. Has this passion for culturally diverse art arisen spontaneously, or is it the result of external pressures, notably a desperate need to qualify for subsidies? Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that a lockstep mentality is ruling today's funding fashions, in which the flavors of the year (or decade) continue to be cultural diversity and multiculturalism. Examples can be furnished from any number of private foundations, not to mention federal, state, and civic funding agencies, and from such private corporations as AT&T.
Even the John and Catherine T. MacArthur grants, originally devoted to identifying and rewarding American "genius" regardless of race or ethnic background, recently developed a largely multicultural agenda under its program director, Catharine Stimpson. As a result, of the four grants awarded to performing artists in 1995, three went to people of color, and not all four could be characterized as geniuses. Arthur Mitchell of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Bill T. Jones of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Company would be on anyone's list of deserving artists, and I suppose a case might be made for anointing Jeraldyne Blunden, who founded the African-American Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. But the fourth grantee, the white male, is listed as a "theatre arts educator," and his qualification for genius was that he founded "a theatre company for inner-city children of Manhattan's Clinton Neighborhood and the Times Square welfare hotels." This project is no doubt of significant value, and its director deserves support, recognition, and funding. But the question remains: Was this award given to a "genius" or to a deeply committed social worker?
It is difficult to criticize such philanthropy without being accused of insensitivity to minority artists. So at the risk of stating the obvious, let me once again emphasize my view that there is no shortage of truly accomplished talents of every race, sex, and ethnic background in the United States. At the same time, I believe I speak on behalf of qualified artists of every race, sex, and ethnic background when I question the criteria under which such grants are being awarded. It may be just another form of plantation paternalism to bestow largesse on minority artists regardless of their abilities, to use different yardsticks for artists of color, to reward good intentions rather than actual achievements, for self-esteem is rarely achieved by means of abandoned standards. It may also be a serious error to assume that all the foundation dollars being poured into developing inner-city audiences are successfully democratizing American culture. What we need is some rigorous documentation regarding the effect of these grants. And, indeed, a survey commissioned by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation suggests that what typically attracts minority audiences to the arts is not mass infusions of audience development money, or even special racial or ethnic projects, but the quality of the art itself.
Whatever its success in the community, the new coercive philanthropy is having a demoralizing effect on artists and artistic institutions. The entire cultural world is bending itself into pretzels to find the right shape for grants under the new criteria. In 1995 a report issued by the American Symphony Orchestra League threatened the constituency of this service organization with loss of funding if orchestra programs did not start to "reflect more closely the cultural mix, needs, and interests of their communities." To accommodate cultural diversity, in short, these institutions were being pressured to include popular, folk, and racial-ethnic expressions in their classical repertoire, as if there were not sufficient outlets (and acclaim) for this music in the popular culture. No doubt in response to this offensive ultimatum, a "Diversity Initiative Consultant," hired by the management of a major symphony orchestra, issued a memorandum to that symphony's "family" in the form of a questionnaire designed to induce "cultural awareness" and "to elicit your perceptions of the organizational culture and diversity of cultures in your work environment."
The dopey questions were framed in a benevolent enough fashion ("Have you realized that your own upbringing was not the same as other races or cultures?" "Have you avoided people of a different or certain racial, ethnic, or cultural group?"). But I trust I am not alone in detecting a certain Orwellian cast to these diversity experts who roam the corridors testing everyone's sensitivity to racial slights. In the corridors of culture, they begin to inspire an atmosphere of fear, constraint, and mistrust. It may not be long before anxious employees, prodded by the batons of vigilant thought police, will be fingering fellow workers for neglecting to display sufficient "tolerance" or "sensitivity" as measured by such politically correct indicators.
It is not surprising, at a time when tribalism has begun to shatter our national identity, when the melting pot has turned into a seething cauldron, that philanthropy should rush to the aid of racial, ethnic, and sexual groups clamoring for recognition through the agency of creative expression. But in order for a group with special interests to achieve power, influence, strength, and unity, it must display a common front. And this often means suppressing the singularity of its individual members and denying what is shared with others, neither of which is a good condition for creating the idiosyncrasy and universality associated with great art.
What seems to get lost amid this separatist clamor for cultural identity is that the most pressing issue of American democracy today is not race or gender or ethnicity but what it has always been the inequitable distribution of the nation's resources, which is an issue of class. This makes our concentration on culture as an open door to equality and opportunity look like a diversion from the pressing economic problems that afflict our more indigent citizens. It reminds me of how, beginning in the 1950s, our attention was distracted from the depredations of an unregulated economy and focused on the evils of network television. As I observed thirty years ago in "The Madison Avenue Villain," since the whole purpose of the mass media was to peddle consumer goods, to hold the account executive or the television packager responsible for brutalizing mass culture put the blame on the salesman for the defective products of his company. In short, by concentrating on the "wasteland" of mass culture instead of the economic necessities driving it, we were effectively blocking a remedy, which could only be political.
Much the same seems to be happening today, except that while we are still blaming the failures of our mass society on mass culture (consider the debates over television violence), we are now asking what remains of high culture to compensate for the failures of our affluent society. Yet, by forcing artistic expression to become a conduit for social justice and equal opportunity instead of achieving these goals through the political system, we are at the same time distracting our artists and absolving our politicians. But it seems to be an American tradition to analyze a problem correctly and then come up with the wrong solution.
The right solution, I believe, will be formulated only when we recognize that we are all members of the same family and that the whole society bears responsibility for the woes of its more indigent relatives. This means responding to unemployment and its consequences in crime and drug abuse with a strong legislative initiative such as that employed in the 1930s by Roosevelt and the New Deal a new civilian conservation corps to turn gun-toting inner-city youth into skilled artisans repairing roads and building bridges, a reformed welfare system that emphasizes the dignity of work, a public education system devoted to teaching subjects and developing skills rather than promoting diversity and managing crowd control, and, yes, a federal works project to provide opportunities for anyone who seeks employment, including artists. All this, of course, takes pots of money, but we Americans, for all our complaining, are currently the most undertaxed citizens in the Western world, and we are in a deepening crisis that needs attention. It will not be resolved by demolishing the fragile culture we still have.
But perhaps that culture has already been demolished. Certainly, the High Cult and Mass Cult debates could not be held today. The once proud and confident highbrow has fled the field, pursued by a hail of arrows shaped in the form of derisive epithets. And the most cunning of these is the word "elitist," now shaped to mean aristocratic or exclusionary when its etymology simply refers to leadership. Without an elite in the arts, we have no leaders, which is to say we have no vision, which is to say we have no arts.
Is Tocqueville once again confirmed in his belief that a meritocratic art cannot survive in a democratic society? He is certainly right that the concept will always cause tensions. Each age chooses different weapons for its war on the serious arts, but the nature of the war remains the same. Have you ever noticed how the few remaining radio stations that broadcast classical music tend to be drowned out by the stronger signals of rock? That seems to me a metaphor for the fate of high art in our democratic society. It is not what our founding fathers envisioned when they conceived the American republic. It is not the way to celebrate American pluralism. It is not a healthy sign for American democracy.