“A Fancy Type of Poodle.”
May 29, 2009
(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth.)
Given the special kind of hostility I usually reserve for the National Review’s web content, I was surprised by just how good Michael Knox Beran’s piece on the ideology of the National Endowment for the Arts is. As usual, there’s a nod to the to the standard “lazy artists on public dole” dreck, but the rest of the piece is great. Take a peek:
The NEA, in “bringing,” as it professes to do, “great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases,” is a $155-million-a-year import-export business. It exports art from places where it is made to places where it is not made, much as a businessman might export plastic toys from China to California or Connecticut. This is a palliative.
The NEA’s import-export approach to the arts derives from its flawed Romantic model of creativity. In the Romantic model the artist is an alienated, Byronic figure. He lives in a kind of artistic industrial zone, typically a bohemian neighborhood in a great city, and he mingles, for the most part, with other artists. He is not part of a larger community in the way Aeschylus and Sophocles were part of Athens; instead, the artist has, ever since the Romantic revolution, been estranged from civic life, his existence a kind of protest.
By trucking artists from their lofts in Tribeca or their garrets in San Francisco — a disproportionate amount of NEA money goes to California and New York — into “rural areas, inner cities, and military bases,” the NEA perpetuates the Romantic stereotype of the artist as alien, a circus performer who has only the slenderest relation to the non-artistic natives. Such an artist may be on closer terms with his metropolitan patrons: but they patronize him precisely because he is a weirdo, an expensive pet on par with a fancy type of poodle.
I’ve written before about how the decline of localized culture fits into small town brain drain, and Beran’s article highlights one approach to this on the policy front. The NEA is the largest of a group of institutions whose policies reinforce the idea of art as a thing undertaken in urban venues, by urban people, and in directions unrelated (if not openly hostile) to the cultures it is exported to. If localist Front-Porcher types are looking for ways to reverse the decline of Middle American small towns, this might be a feasible starting place, policy-wise: make the NEA’s goal to encourage culture in the places it already exists by shifting funding priorities to localized talent, and away from the export model that Beran describes. Making smaller towns viable places to launch and maintain a creative career could be an important component in making them viable communities in the long-term, though given the huge economic forces arrayed against them I hesitate to think that this (or any) policy is capable of really reversing their decline. Still, one must try, and the humanities are as good a place as any to start.