Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Arts Funding in Europe and America

A lengthy excerpt from a much longer article by William Osborne, all of it worth reading

As an American who has lived in Europe for the last 24 years, I see on a daily basis how different the American and European economic systems are, and how deeply this affects the ways they produce, market and perceive art. America advocates supply-side economics, small government and free trade – all reflecting a belief that societies should minimize government expenditure and maximize deregulated, privatized global capitalism. Corporate freedom is considered a direct and analogous extension of personal freedom. Europeans, by contrast, hold to mixed economies with large social and cultural programs. Governmental spending often equals about half the GNP. Europeans argue that an unmitigated capitalism creates an isomorphic, corporate-dominated society with reduced individual and social options. Americans insist that privatization and the marketplace provide greater efficiency than governments. These two economic systems have created something of a cultural divide between Europeans and Americans.

The divisions between American and European arts-funding models are best understood if one briefly considers the changes that have evolved in U.S. economic policy over the last 30 years. Except for the military, there has been continual political pressure to reduce government. Even though the government’s budgets have continued to increase, arts funding has been particularly vulnerable to cuts. By 1997, the NEA’s funding was close to half its former high, and has only slowly regained some of its lost ground.


In its purest form, America’s neo-liberalism would suggest that cultural expression that doesn't fit in the marketplace doesn't belong at all. For the arts, the alternative has been to maintain a relatively marginalized existence supported by gifts from corporations, foundations and the wealthy. A system similar to a marginal and elitist cultural plutocracy evolves. This philosophy is almost diametrically opposed to the tradition of large public cultural funding found in most of Europe’s social democracies.


In culturally isomorphic societies, thought is less and less likely to move outside a pre-configured set of paradigms. In the 20th century, for example, we saw a culturally isomorphic essentialization of art in the "Gleichschaltung” of the Third Reich, in the Social Realism of the East Block, in the “Cultural Revolution” of Maoist China, and to an increasing extent in the mass media commercialization of culture in America. [7] Like the political divisions of the 20th century, these aesthetic orthodoxies reduced human expression to systemic concepts that tend toward the formulaic and reductionist. Since narrowed perspectives make it difficult to confront aspects of reality, a culture of self-referential rationalization evolves.


In the spirit of their mixed economies, Europeans would argue that many forms of artistic expression cannot be positioned or relativised within the mass market or its fringes. For them, culture must be communal and autonomous. They often see American culture as hegemonistic -- a totalizing and destructive assault on the humanistic, cultural and social structures they have worked so long and hard to create.

A general sense of the different perspectives concerning communal identity can be illustrated with an example now widely discussed in the States. Many Americans have seen how corporate-owned strip malls and Wal-Marts have deeply affected their cities and towns. The old downtown areas are abandoned as customers move to corporate businesses on the edge of town. Communal identity and autonomy, which are an important part of cultural expression, are replaced with a relatively isomorphic corporatism.

Europeans struggle to maintain a different model. Most cities and towns have thousand year histories that are reflected in the architectural and other cultural treasures of their various municipal centers. They employ zoning laws and other regulations, as well as public education, to protect their cities from the Wal-Martization that would be caused by embracing American-styled neo-liberalism. Europeans have large department stores and the occasional K-Mart, but their influence is kept within balance. They would consider the losses to their cultural identity caused by corporate uniformity to be too great.

.... Far from making music even more commercial, the European response has been to create a balance with public arts funding. In Germany, for example, cities with more than about 100,000 people often have a full-time orchestra, opera house, and theater company that are state- and municipally owned. A good deal of funding for these groups is set aside for new music. Europeans also administer this arts funding locally, and not from a remote Federal organization such as the NEA.

... In Germany, classical recordings compete strongly against pop. This is not merely a matter of history or coincidence. Europeans use their local public cultural institutions to educate their children and this creates a wide appreciation for classical music. The popularity is also based on a sense of communal pride. They support their local cultural institutions almost like they were sports teams. European society illustrates that music education leads to forms of creativity and autonomy that are often antithetic to mass media. The European view is not based on elitism or a dismissal of popular culture, but on an understanding that an unmitigated capitalism is not a seamless, all-encompassing paradigm - particularly when it comes to cultural expression.

...Germany, for example, has one full-time, year-round orchestra for every 590,000 people, while the United States has one for every 14 million (or 23 times less per capita.) Germany has about 80 year-round opera houses, while the U.S., with more than three times the population, does not have any. Even the Met only has a seven-month season. These numbers mean that larger German cities often have several orchestras. Munich has seven full-time, year-round professional orchestras, two full-time, year-round opera houses (one with a large resident ballet troupe,) as well as two full-time, large, spoken-word theaters for a population of only 1.2 million. Berlin has three full-time, year-round opera houses, though they may eventually have to close one due to the costs of rebuilding the city after reunification.

If America averaged the same ratios per capita as Germany, it would have 485 full-time, year-round orchestras instead of about 20. If New York City had the same number of orchestras per capita as Munich it would have about 45. If New York City had the same number of full-time operas as Berlin per capita it would have six. Areas such as Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx would be nationally and internationally important cultural centers. The reality is somewhat different.

If America’s Northeastern seaboard had the same sort of orchestral landscape as Germany, there would be full-time, year-round professional orchestras (often in conjunction with opera houses) in Long Island, Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Providence, and Boston. California would have about 60 full-time, year-round professional orchestras. Like Germany, the U.S. would suffer from a shortage of good classical musicians. There would be little unemployment for these artists. With that much creativity, it is unlikely Americans would stick to European repertoire and models. Even with half the German ratios, a starkly American musical culture would evolve that would likely change history.

It is also essential and informative to place these numbers in the context of the dismal social conditions in almost all major American cities, since these are areas where classical music would normally thrive. A recent article in The New York Times, for example, notes that Philadelphia has 14,000 abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and has lost 75,000 citizens in recent years. [10] Regions such as the south Bronx, Watts, East St. Louis and Detroit, just to name a few, show that Philadelphia is hardly an exception. The populations living in our dehumanizing ghettos are measured in the tens of millions. It seems very likely that the problems with arts funding in America are closely related to the same social forces that have caused the country to neglect its urban environments. This naturally leaves many Europeans wondering why America is so intent on exporting its economic and cultural models.

The problems of arts funding are seldom the topic of genuinely serious and sustained political discussion. The cultural and political system has become so isomorphic that most Americans do not even consider that alternatives could be created to institutions such as network television and Hollywood. With only one percent of the military’s $396 billion budget, we could have 132 opera houses lavishly funded at $30 million apiece. (That much funding would put them on par with the best opera houses in the world, and as noted, likely lead to forms of expression more distinctly American.)

The same sum could support 264 spoken-word theaters at $15 million each. It could subsidize 198 full-time, year round world-class symphony orchestras at $20 million each. Or it could give 79,200 composers, painters and sculptors a yearly salary of $50,000 each. Remember, that’s only one percent of the military budget. Imagine what five percent would do. These examples awaken us to the Orwellian realities of our country and how different it could be. Given our wealth, talent, and educational resources, we are losing our chance to be the Athens of the modern world.


Another example of the loss of intelligent discourse is the discussion surrounding the current proposed $18 million increase for the NEA. This sum represents only seven-thousandths of one percent of the proposed 2005 U.S. budget, a number almost too infinitesimal to comprehend. And yet the topic is once again being opportunistically exploited as a political battering ram.

In Europe, by contrast, funding for the arts is a central platform of every major political party. Lively and varied artistic expression is considered one of the most important forums for national discourse. Politicians literally search for opportunities to speak about the arts because it is politically advantageous. The dialog is generally intelligent, meaningful, and carefully considered.

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