Resuscitating a Culture of Culture

By Don Berner

We are at a time and place in North American history where the arts and the artists have never experienced greater suffering and marginalization. Entire industries, led by the music industry, have been decimated. Arts support MUST be heavily legislated and institutionalized on local, national, and international levels. This will not be a popular idea. That’s good. There are times when the will of the majority is most assuredly to be ignored, particularly when they speak from a place of ignorance. When discussion occurs surrounding the idea of “arts support”, people tend to have a highly opinionated, almost religious viewpoint. Usually, it seems, the loudest voices speaking with the greatest sense of authority are the ones most ignorant about the very thesis they argue. This is fine when it comes to a barroom discussion over a pint, not as much so when it involves matters of policy.

The idea that arts support is something new, created by governments and given as a hand-out to artists who can’t survive in the free market, is a myth… a myth that, in my experience, is generally most perpetuated by those who are either trying to make a buck at someone else’s expense or by those who resent anyone who enjoys their work. Government support of the arts is nothing new (although the concept of capitalism is, relatively speaking). As far back as pre-renaissance history, Royalty regularly employed artists and commissioned their work, understanding the value of such product.

What is the value? Beyond the obvious economic benefits, historical perspective, and aesthetic value, there are issues of national security and identity. In the day of globalized trade and communication, a sense of identity is vital to any country that wishes to maintain a set of values.

As this is not a historical research paper, there is, unfortunately, simply not the space allotted to discuss in-depth the waning and waxing of government support for the arts. So we’ll fast forward to the 20th century. Even the U.S.A., the greatest proponent of capitalism, at one point understood in greater depth the value of the arts. Under Roosevelt’s administration the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) was formed to create jobs and, specifically under “Federal Project number one”, works of art as well as the stimulation of the economy such boons provide. However this was a generation that understood that capitalism is a good thing, but also that extremist capitalism is a bad thing. It was not a generation that thought capitalism was about market shares and wiping out one’s competition, but that it was rather about how everyone should be allowed to make as much money as possible.

Fast-forward again to the ‘80s and ‘90s and the beginning of the end for the music industry, both live and recorded. In many ways it was inevitable that this would be the first arts industry to be threatened – live music gave way to both recorded music and changes in legislation. Recorded music is not a physical product. The CDs, mp3s, or albums they are recorded on are physical product, but the music itself is not. A person can buy a CD and use that intellectual property over and over and over again for any number of commercial purposes. There are laws and licensing bodies that monitor commercial use… however, good luck finding a North American police force willing to go after a business for intellectual property theft. So not only was there now an abundant supply of recorded music, but also legislation softened in many places regarding requirements for live music. My suspicion is that this was in large part due to the zeitgeist of the ‘80s and an enamorration with the idea of the “trickle down effect”, an idea most economists have long since dismissed.

By the ‘90s, the internet had entered most homes and suddenly an entire generation of “file sharers” came to the forefront. This is a nice way of saying a generation of thieves. The internet was a tool that made theft so easy that it didn’t seem wrong. Further, legislation was decades behind catching up with this technology. Why was music the first arts industry affected and why was it hit so hard? I have a few theories, mostly pertaining to the facts that it was a much easier medium to digitize and electronically transfer at the time than, say, a movie, which requires much less memory. We also have to remember the music itself is not a physical product, so playing music on your computer is comparable to a stereo. Unlike, say…downloading a painting and hanging your PC on your wall.

But, of course, as technology improved rapidly, other arts industries, including the movie industry, soon followed suit. The result? Suffering. Not just on the part of the arts industries and individual artists, but on the part of society as a whole. Besides the massive economic drain this has created, it has also resulted in a generation of ignorance, theft, and ennui. The indifference demonstrated by both citizens and governments to the destruction of their own cultures, economies, and individual citizens show, at best, a frightening lack of foresight, pride, and critical thought. I would recommend everyone read the book “The Cult of the Amateur” for further insights.

The solution, which would seem obvious, is that legislation to protect and fund the arts is necessary. Make no mistake, funding means money… lots of it. How much money? Well, in 2007 the country of Germany spent $20 per citizen on arts funding. Mexico has programs where artists can pay their taxes with works of public art. Contrast these with the U.S.A. where arts spending in 2007 amounted to a little better than 41 cents per citizen.

Many so-called “fiscal conservatives” will proudly rail against government hand-outs for artists and insist their taxes should not be supporting these activities. Another proudly ignorant claim is that if the artists were any good they could exist just fine in the free market without “help”. What these people have not bothered to research or understand is that no one is making a living off “government handouts”, and further, that many of the funds allotted to arts spending go into the administration of said funds. Beyond that, in many countries arts spending is not funded by taxes, but rather by lottery and casino funds.

Unless it is our desire to become a cultural dragon, eating its own tail, societally merged with everyone else on the planet in a miasma of “Law and Order” reruns on Netflix and ‘60s rock sold on iTunes, it is imperative that legislation is both introduced and strictly enforced to protect arts funding and creators’ rights. Unfortunately, it is the view of this writer that a more likely scenario, in this day and age of internet babble, is that in a society of narcissists fighting for their 5 minutes at the mic, people will actually come to believe that their YouTube video really is equal to anything created by Scorcese, Beethoven, Journey, Jack Kirby, or Picasso. Despite what your brain addicted to the internet tells you, not everyone deserves a turn on the soapbox. If everyone’s talking, who’s listening?

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