Just as I began to put my mind to this commentary, the results from the first of this year’s old master sales, The Scholar’s Eye: Property from the Julius Held Collection Part I, at Christie’s began coming in—a most gratifying confirmation of the time-honored forces of the market in the arts: 85% of the modestly estimated works sold, a good many of them for above their high estimates. (Ben Hall, Head of Department, said: “We are pleased with the excellent results achieved for Part I of The Scholar’s Eye: Property from the Julius Held Collection. It is a fitting tribute to Professor Held’s connoisseurship that over 90 percent of the works were purchased and at prices that soared beyond estimates in a number of cases. We are particularly delighted by prices achieved for Joachim Beuckelaer’s Market Scene and for Lovis Corinth’s Self Portrait, which sold for more than four times its high estimate. In all, a healthy mix of private, trade, and institutional buyers were active participants in today’s sale, yielding very strong results for the Old Masters category.” Of course this is the work of dead artists, most of them well-known to connoisseurs and some to the public.)
However we view the arts today—as domestic ornament, political statement, pornography, or object of meditation—they owe their existence to a fundamental economic mechanism of consumption: the artist is an entrepreneur who, in order to survive, must create works which people who can afford them will buy, or write and produce a play or concert enough people will attend. On the other hand, public interest and public patronage have played an equally strong role in supporting the arts, inasmuch as the extraordinary expense of works of art, especially large-scale works for public spaces, theatrical productions, and other spectacles are affordable only to the head of state, and, to a lesser extent, those surrounding him in government and wealthy religious organizations. In either case the product must please the buyer, and usually this means that it must express the patron’s values and position in society (eg. Edsel Ford vs. Nelson Rockefeller). The often tortured relations between artists and their patrons was very much on the table during the 2008 Bard Music Festival, in which scholars, musicians, and the audience pondered Prokofiev’s life in Stalin’s Soviet Union. This past weekend I rushed over to Lincoln Center from Sotheby’s viewing to hear Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra play music from “the other Germany,” (review forthcoming) that is, the GDR. Based on past knowledge and the excellent music I heard on Sunday afternoon, it seems that East German composers, while having none of the liberties of their Polish, Czech, and Hungarian colleagues, could flourish by adhering to the highest principles of German music: solid harmony and counterpoint and a profound knowledge of the great composers of the past. Simple Ernsthaftigkeit proved doctrinally sufficient. Hanns Eisler, whose contributions to the program dated from the late 1940’s, when East Germans were energetically and systematically attempting to put the cultural policies of the Third Reich behind them, was the most obviously doctrinaire of the group. Because high culture, above all national culture, was accepted as an ideal, the GDR of the 1950’s and later, like the Soviet Union, which was turning out virtuosi for the world market at the time, was not like the cultural world of Stalinism. It was more important to please Goethe and Liszt than the People, who were to be educated. Were Myaskovsky and Prokofiev were as good as they could have been in an open society? Were they better? In any case they lived and worked in societies that enjoyed the blessings of cultural ministers in their governments, most notably Andrei Zhdanov and Johannes R. Becher.
While Zhdanov is remembered with fear and trembling, it is customary to ridicule Becher, perhaps to a large degree unjustly. Nonetheless, when I recently read an op-ed piece in the New York Times, in which William R. Ferris, chairman of the NEH in Clinton’s second term, urged that President Obama “should create a cabinet-level position—a secretary of culture—to provide more cohesive leadership for these impressive programs (NEA, NEH, etc.) and to assure that they receive the recognition and financing they deserve,” I cringed, not so much because of imaginings of an American Zhdanov as because I cannot believe that the arts in this country will be served better by the existence one more ultra-bureaucrat. And Ferris’ proposal that this functionary’s term should last for ten years and be renewable makes this one cushy sinecure indeed. To think that a cultural commissar could serve out the terms of five presidencies, preserving the policies he or she brought in! No one in such a position can be wise or flexible enough to evolve with the times—unless, of course, it happens to be you, or me, or William R. Ferris. What a terrible idea! The arts in this country are over-institutionalized as it is. Even earlier the pop music promoter, Quincey Jones, made a similar proposal, telling John Schaefer of WNYC’s “Soundcheck” that “One of the next conversations I have with President Obama is to beg for a Secretary of the Arts.”
The idea is that the United States should begin to emulate a European model—one which our British forefathers made obsolete in 1992 by creating a Department for Culture, Media and Sport under which alcohol and entertainment are wisely conjoined. After the French Revolution the revolutionary government understood the importance of maintaining high culture on an equal level as the ancien régime. Legimitization and nationalism were both served by a national cultural policy, and, later, the tourist industry.
American culture has reached its present admirable state through a combination of commercialism and regionalism, as well as the struggle and sacrifice of individuals. All one can say is that some American artists, like American businessmen, have starved while others have gotten rich on their creations. It is unfortunate that some hard-working people should lack while others prosper, and in many cases it is unjust, but a “Secretary of Culture” is not the solution.
Some of these economic inequities have been alleviated by private foundations. Only last summer Leon Botstein spoke to that issue in introducing the Bard Music Festival: the American way is not that of universal governmental support but of private funding through individuals and foundations, and of course someone has to work for that. Jan Swafford, who is busily at work on a biography of Beethoven and is peering deeply into the composer’s daily life, was struck by how much time he spent dealing with the business of art. Reality allowed Beethoven little time for those legendary walks in the Prater, scowling with his hands behind his back, themes rushing through his mind. Necessity was his inspiration, for better or worse, and the best Die Obrigkeit could offer him were occasional works we rarely hear today—unjustly, in fact—but still not among his greatest achievements.
Unlike the French, the United States government has relatively little experience in governing the arts. French cultural ministers, for example, have proven invaluable in promoting the egomania of outgoing Présidents de la République—much to the benefit of opera-lovers, scholars, and tourists, although the utility of the Pyramide remains debatable. Private and local support have made American culture as rich and diverse as it is. Art-loving Americans and American artists don’t need a cultural commissar in Washington to watch over them. The NEA has supported many excellent projects, some controversial, some pious, and some outrageous—to many, at least. We have our first amendment, but we have a democracy in which the people have a right to question how public monies are spent—however much of a joke that may have seemed a few weeks ago. There should most definitely be a means of support for good non-commercial art. On the other hand, the trend has created a crisis in nurturing art forms which have no value in exchange and can only be supported by grants. I have witnessed artists who were encouraged in this way to move from the creation of saleable traditional artworks to video and digital media, only to realize that they had abandoned their livelihood. But is it true that there is always a market for another competent traditional oil painting? Of course not.
We’re lucky that President Obama has more urgent tasks than the appointment of a Secretary of the Arts. It is the centralization and the involvement of the federal government I object to…and I sure do hate the sound of that phrase, “Secretary of the Arts,” a specious way to perdition. On the other hand, I believe that artists today in the United States or anywhere are just as much a part of society and the economy as they were in Renaissance Nuremberg or Florence. It is obvious enough that the arts create a center of conscious activity in a way that the multiplex in the local mall does not. People who enjoy the arts like to congregate and discuss their tastes and interests. Artists enjoy and need that as well. In this way a lively arts community has made Brattleboro what it is, and in the depressed towns of the Northern Berkshires—Pittsfield, Adams, and North Adams, have created material benefits from the arts, beginning with filling empty storefronts with attractive or at least interesting signs of life and progressing on to the first-rate exhibitions which can now be seen in each of those towns. What’s more, artists are used to getting the short end of the stick and they do not demand the sort of tax breaks and concessions that a traditional business would. They are a minimal burden.
Both the Commonwealth and Berkshire County support the arts as well as any state or county in the nation, but there is far to go. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Kathleen Bitetti, Executive Director of The Artists Foundation, speak about the organization’s advocacy of artists’ interests at the State House. Ms. Bitetti and her organization are providing focussed and intelligently planned support for the artistic community which play such a vital role in the prosperity of the Commonwealth. There is a lot to do for artists, craftsmen, and the entities which support the arts on a state level through health insurance reform and the sort of advantages businesses receive. Ms. Bitetti, herself an artist, understands this, and stays up late and drives many miles to do her job, and she does not expect a ten- or twenty-year sinecure in return. This is what the arts need, not a Ferris or a Jones in Washington.
There is a petition circulating on the Internet and via e-mail urging the president to create an arts minister—sorry, a “Secretary of the Arts.” Think before you sign it.