ART FUNDING or ARTS FUNDING

January 16, 2010 – 4:11 am


Instead of funding multi-million-dollar operas and museum programmes, even if they feature long-dead masters, the state should fund music and art in schools. Funding future creativity is a real investment - there’s a chance these kids will build, write, draw or play something that will fill theaters, clubs, stadiums, web pages… As singer-songwriter and former Talking Head David Bryne says, the dead guys won’t write more symphonies.

The LA Opry production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” is budgeted at US$32 million. 32 million! Jeez, Broadway shows don’t cost that much; U2’s concert tour might, but then that’s a stadium show… and in those latter two instances the people who wrote them are still living! (And presumably get paid, which is part of the cost.)

Wagner has been dead for a long time last I heard, so one assumes it’s not the composer or the librettist whose agent is charging the moon. Granted, it is a four-part epic so that budget might be divided in four. A recent article reported that they are worried about being able to cover $20 million right now. I shouldn’t wonder they’re worried, especially in LA, not known for its arts funding.

Here’s a production picture. Who knew that Wagner anticipated the light saber?

Or that he was into profound silliness:

A $14 million bailout for the opera is coming from the county, as the LA city government is called. The Opry folks need that $20 million this week… so, reach into your pockets, opera fans. What makes this situation notable is not the amount of money - movies often cost a lot more than $32 million to produce - but the fact that the audience will be so small, and that the state is footing part of the bill.

Simultaneously, a number of museums around the world have scuttled their plans for new buildings or expansions, some of them designed by starchitects. Part of these austerity measures are of course due to the economic downturn, but my guess is that most of these projects were underway well before the crash, and were going to result in a mess anyway - as these institutions simply thought that, like Bilbao, if they built a wildly impressive new museum in, for example, Milwaukee (Calatrava did the new entranceway and the car garage - the car garage!) or in Indianapolis, that folks from all over the world would come to visit.

Take that money, that US$14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close - forgo some of those $32M operas - and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys.

I was in Indianapolis recently, and would have gone to the art museum, but as we only had one afternoon, we went to the Indy 500 museum instead. Never was there ever any mention of what amazing and innovative shows would go into these future spaces, which were regularly featured in magazine articles with lovely renderings attached - that didn’t seem to be a priority.

Granted, Bilbao did work, in the sense that it gave tourists a reason to visit a place that many US citizens had never heard of before. It was truly amazing to behold how one building could change a whole town. The show that’s up there now is a Frank Lloyd Wright survey (previously exhibited in NY’s Guggenheim), and a permanent collection hodgepodge - not exactly reasons to make a special trip.

One can imagine how tempting it must have been for city councils and museum board members to hope that the Bilbao Effect could be replicated in their own town. LA’s Disney Hall looks almost exactly like the Bilbao Guggenheim. Everybody wanted one.

However this mess ends up, my thoughts are that maybe it’s time to rethink all this museum, opera and symphony funding - and I refer mainly to state funding. A bunch of LA museums just got a bailout from LA real estate king Eli Broad, and that’s great, but I suspect there will be county money involved there somewhere too.

I think maybe it’s time to stop, or more reasonably, curtail somewhat, state investment in the past - in a bunch of dead guys (and they are mostly guys, and mostly dead, when we look at opera halls) - and invest in our future. Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close - forgo some of those $32M operas - and fund music and art in our schools.

Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys. Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity - plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring - but funding for arts in schools has been cut to zero in many places. Maybe the balance and perspective has to be redressed and restored just a little. Plus, there are plenty of CDs and DVDs of the dead guys out there already, should one be curious.

Funding future creativity is a real investment - there’s a chance these kids will build, write, draw or play something that will fill theaters, clubs, stadiums, web pages, whatever. The dead guys won’t write more symphonies.

The problem of course, as far as private funding goes, is that what billionaire wants to fund school education? Where’s the glamour in that? You don’t get your name etched in marble on the outside of a hall for that, or get invited to amazing galas, so what’s the point? That’s why I’m focusing on public and state funding - let the private funders bankroll the opry halls, if that’s where they want to hang out.

I sense that in the long run there is a greater value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon, the great works and the masterpieces. In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare - to say nothing of opry.

In the long term it doesn’t matter if students become writers, artists or musicians - though a few might. It’s more important that they are able to understand the process of creation, experimentation and discovery - which can then be applied to anything they do, as those processes, deep down, are all similar. It’s an investment in fluorescence.

So how did things end up like this?

In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare.

Well, there is the aforementioned glory of getting your name on a museum or symphony hall rather than on an elementary school - David Geffen got his start managing popular folk rockers, and now his name is on art museums (and AIDS charities). But I think there are other factors.

Thomas Hoving, the former king of the Met Museum in NYC during the ’60s and ’70s, just passed away. He and his rival, J. Carter Brown, king of the National Gallery in DC, both felt that democratizing art meant getting everyone to like the stuff that they liked. It meant letting everyone know and feel that HERE, in the museum, was the good stuff, the important stuff, the stuff with aura and depth. Here is a promotion the Met did in the ’60s in LIFE magazine:

The idea was that even reduced to postcard size, reproductions of verified masterpieces still had enough power to enlighten the American heathen. It seems almost humorous - as if postcards of certified works of art had some mystical power to educate - or, more accurately, to indoctrinate.

Music is the same. Here’s an ad in today’s NY Times book review section:

This isn’t about learning to play for enjoyment, creation, expression or fun - it’s purely about valuing the classics more than anything you and your pathetic friends can make. It’s a little more expensive than the $1.25 the Met was asking back in the day, but then, times have changed.

Hoving and a couple of others, following this line of thinking, created the blockbuster museum show - which famously brought Tut to the masses, and made the Met and other like-minded museums into temples for all, instead of the dusty halls for academics they had become. Hard to remember, but the Met was once a fussy old place, and now it’s super popular - which is not in itself a bad thing.

Although the idea was loudly espoused that art was for all, and all could benefit from exposure to it (something like a flu shot), this idea was not exactly democratic, not as I would define it - though it was certainly portrayed as democratizing art and culture. What the movement was actually doing was letting more people know that culture was, and is, HERE, and you slobs, you hoi polloi, are over HERE. We want you all to look at it, and listen to it, but don’t even think you could ever make it, or that your feeble efforts are anywhere close to these Himalayan peaks we have on display.

I know it’s not exactly the same, but I would say: show someone three chords on the guitar, show them how to program or play beats, or play a keyboard (something I can’t really do), but don’t expect virtuosity right away. Everyone knows you can make a song with almost nothing, with really limited skills, so be satisfied and enjoy that, and don’t feel inadequate because you’re not Mozart.

I myself wish I’d learned keyboard, but I did find that on guitar, I gravitated to where my interests (and abilities) took me. Over time I learned a lot more chords, began to be able to “hear” harmonies and tonal relationships, and, of course, I learned a lot more grooves over the years - how to feel and enjoy them. But at first I found I could express something, or at least have fun, with my really limited means. When I made something, even something crude, I could momentarily discredit the feeling that if I couldn’t match the classical model, then I was less of a musician.

What the movement was actually doing was letting more people know that culture was, and is, HERE, and you slobs, you hoi polloi, are over HERE. We want you all to look at it, and listen to it, but don’t even think you could ever make it, or that your feeble efforts are anywhere close to these Himalayan peaks we have on display.

There are some classical musical works that I can groove with - but, for example, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven I never could get, and I don’t feel any the worse for it. There’s plenty left to love and enjoy. This whole rant, I guess, derives a little from the fact that I resent the implication, and sometime - feeling, that I’m less of a musician and even a person for not appreciating those works. It’s not true!

Ditto with visual art and literature - some of the classics I love deeply, but like many people, there are many Great Works of Literature that lie unfinished on my shelves, and thank God for that, as I was probably doing something more interesting instead… maybe reading something more inspiring, or even trying to write something myself.

It’s true that sometimes the newest thing on the block is 500 years old - and sometimes the way forward is through the past - but not exclusively! And we don’t have to stay there. It’s more important to encourage creativity than to imply that good work can only be made by professionals - your betters.

Hoving, however, did ride a bike, so he can’t be all bad. In fact, his stint as Parks Commissioner before his Met years was incredibly fruitful - and he was offered the job with no prior experience (so much for letting experts tell us what to do!). He closed Central Park to cars on weekends and established over 100 pocket parks around the city, using vacant lots and weird, unused parcels of real estate.

Note: The above article was posted at journal.davidbyrne.com and listed at Counterpunch.org.

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