Where a man sits often determines where he stands. Dana Gioia, who now sits as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), is living proof of this dictum. In the course of defending a bigger NEA budget, Gioia told an approving Frank Rich of the New York Times last June: “If you put the marketplace entirely in charge of the arts, you see them very endangered.” This statement would be unremarkable from someone chosen by George Bush to head the NEA. The Bush administration after all embraces the neoconservative agenda, which is suspicious of a completely unfettered cultural marketplace. The view that the marketplace debases high culture by catering to the lowest common denominator may have become passé among the academic left where it was spawned by the Frankfurt School half a century ago. Yet it retains a permanent allure for neoconservatism.
But Gioia is no neoconservative.
A former business executive and an internationally acclaimed poet, Gioia was once the literary editor of Inquiry, the now-defunct magazine of the Cato Institute, which readers of this publication will know has been fighting admirably to abolish the NEA (and the whole federally funded alphabet soup of special interests). And at a 1995 festival of Derriere Guard—a group of artists who reject post-modern rejection of artistic technique—Gioia’s poem “Money,” celebrating the effect of “the long green,/cash, stash” on the arts, was set to music and performed.
But most ironically, Gioia’s claim to fame (and consequently his current job) rests on a 1991 essay he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, “Can Poetry Matter?” In it he brilliantly reflected on why American poets, who have been liberated from the grind of dull day jobs by public universities, where they get paid just to practice and teach their art, have descended into banality and become irrelevant to the broader intellectual life of the country. “Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interest of the producers and not the consumers,” he wrote.
Yet now Gioia maintains, “If you put the marketplace entirely in charge of the arts, you see them very endangered.”
Apart from the substance, what’s most disturbing about this remark is its flavor, its bureaucratic hubris. Nobody “puts” the marketplace in charge of anything. It emerges from the free choices of individuals engaged in voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange. And that’s what bothers bureaucrats—that there should be an ordering principle that does not emanate from the nib of their pen.
Nor does the marketplace endanger the arts. There may have been some plausibility to the notion that the market’s quest for a mass audience obliterates high culture when the airways—thanks to government restrictions—were dominated by three networks whose exceedingly high capital and operational costs required huge economies of scale. But there is no plausibility to this thesis any longer.
One does not need an extra pair of eyes to notice the dizzying diversity in cultural markets these days. Thanks to the constant creation of newer, and cheaper, artistic technologies, there is almost no art form or genre that the market cannot—indeed, does not—sustain. Looking for classical music compositions by Aho, Pousseur, or Sclesi? No problem. In the unlikely event that your suburban music store does not have them, many Internet stores certainly will. And at the same place you are also likely to find “Rappers Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, Punjabi Bhangra music by Sukhbir, and klezmer music by the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
To be sure, by spawning such diversity the market thwarts the dominance of any particular art form. And if one equates health with dominance, as critics of the marketplace do, then the American art scene does appear to be terminally ill. But if the health of an art form is measured not by the sheer number of its followers but by the quality of its connection with those followers, then one could emphatically say that the marketplace nurtures the arts far better than the NEA.
For starters, unlike the NEA, the marketplace does not politicize the arts by coercively extracting money from the general taxpayer to indulge the taste of a cultural elite. Because members of the paying public can be sure that the market will direct their money to the artists of their choice, they would not have to worry that bureaucrats once spent $1,500 on a poem whose entire content was: lighght. (That’s no joke.)
The fundamental problem with the NEA is that it must fulfill two irreconcilable functions: It must liberate artists from the dictates of the public while holding them accountable to it. But as the controversy over NEA-funded artists’ besmirching pictures of the Madonna with pachyderm emissions and submerging crucifixes in urine eloquently demonstrate, it does neither well.
The marketplace, by contrast, is much better at drawing a balance between license and licentiousness: By freeing artists from bureaucratic babysitters, the market gives them room to explore the outside contours of their art. Yet to the extent that the audience is free to withdraw its support from an artist without having to explain itself to powerful interest groups first, a luxury the NEA does not have, the market also exerts salutary “control” over artists.
But there is another more subtle—and more profound—way in which the market keeps the arts healthy and vibrant: It does not require artists to court a mass audience. It does, however, require them to court an audience broad enough to sustain their art. Some regard this as an onerous burden, an unnecessary distraction, for artists. But in fact it is a necessary precondition of good art.
Contact with a larger world outside the narrow circle of fellow artists and embattled bureaucrats keeps artists grounded and real. It enables them to keep their fingers on the pulse of humanity and speak to its concerns. Without this nexus with the audience, art tends to wither and decay, as is the case with modern American poetry.
No one has made this point with greater clarity and delicacy than Gioia himself. Although he may rail now like a born-again Adorno (the founder of the Frankfurt School) that “our commercialized, entertainment-oriented television-based culture has cheapened and trivialized public discourse,” it was not too long ago that he was pleading for more “vulgar vitality” in poetry. Indeed, à la Adam Smith, he marveled at how Hollywood, inhabited by the basest of people with the basest of motives, still succeeded in producing genuine art while university sophisticates churned out empty pap. “Somehow that market—and the kind of dynamic relationship it [Hollywood] created with a real audience—created art,” he noted.
Marketplace endangering the arts? Will Dana Adam Smith please tell Dana Adorno that it just ain’t so?
Editorial Writer, Detroit News