“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.

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4 Responses to ““A Fancy Type of Poodle.””

  1. Tom said

    Thanks for highlighting this article. You make a very interesting point on the decline of small town culture playing a role in brain drain. In the discussion last month on Beer’s FPR piece on Meritocracy & brain drain, there was much focus on the economic reasons for the young to leave small towns. I think we all overlooked some of the cultural reasons. It’s no secret that small college towns fare better at attracting & keeping young creative people, for the reason that they typically offer more in the way of cultural opportunities than most rural communities. At the risk of sounding like a technocrat, I think that one of the few areas where computer enabled information technology has actually lived up to the hype is making creative work like graphic design, possible from anywhere.

    • H.C. Johns said

      Definitely agreed. One of the great unrealized possibilities of the internet is its capacity to make localized community a much more viable option for people engaged in information-heavy industries, though we have yet to see any major push to make that an option at the national level. (Though hopefully if we’re getting serious about dealing with our oil addiction people may start talking about that more and more. One can only hope.)

  2. […] one of the great heroes of American music and a powerful exemplar of the importance of small-town culture I’ve been harping at over the last few weeks.  Instead of up and leaving to pursue his […]

  3. […] (Cross-posted at The Other Right) […]

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