Arts Funding, Take 3: Learning from Springsteen

If this topic is worn thin for you, then pass by this posting. I continue to be heartened by the dialogue that has resulted from the arts funding discussion that was launched into the larger public consciousness during the Stimulus Bill process. I am heartened because I agree, with Greg Sandow (whose article in the Wall Street Journal I posted here a few days ago) that we need to do a better job at articulating the value and importance of this nebulous, oft misunderstood, easily undervalued and/or deaccessioned (as exemplified by Brandeis University’s now notorious decision to close the Rose Art Museum) thing called THE ARTS.

Here’s Sandow’s recent posting from his excellent blog, Sandow:

In my last post, about going viral, I mentioned a skeptical Wall Street Journal piece I’d written about stimulus money for the arts. It appeared last Wednesday, and of course grew out of my skeptical posts about the arts stimulus (here and here).

In it, I said much of what you might have read in the blog. The economic argument for giving stimulus money to the arts is shallow, and easy for non-arts organizations to trump. It’s hard to argue for money for the arts when money for crucial social programs — public health, for instance — is lacking. It’s hard, politically, to give stimulus money for arts organizations like the Metropolitan Opera, which seem to be swimming in money. (Even if they’re hurting financially.)

And then I ended with something about the pro-arts arguments I wish we’d make, which would be based on the intrinsic value of the arts (or better still, of art itself). And which — this is the hard part for many of us — would reflect a world in which popular culture already supplies some of the depth and meaning we credit (and often so ecstatically) the formal high arts for giving us.

Which brings me to a book I strongly recommend, and the challenge it gives us. The book is Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing, by Robert Coles. Coles is a child psychiatrist, a Pulitzer Prize winner for a book called Children in Crisis, and for more than a generation one of the most humane voices in American writing. A very serious person, both in his own field, and nationally.

His Springsteen book is about why everyday Americans have loved Springsteen, and been educated and inspired by him. Encouraged by him. Taught about themselves by him. Caught in conversations — in their minds, but no less real for that — with him. With references to Walker Percy, a novelist who was moved by Springsteen, and by William Carlos Williams, the great poet, whom Coles knew, and who in the ’50s, living in New Jersey, felt how important, in that age, Frank Sinatra was. And who noted even then, prompted by his son, that Sinatra would have been even stronger if he’d been singing his own songs, his own thoughts, his own words, as Springsteen does.

This book does what arts advocates should do. We talk about the meaning of the arts, their depth, their transformative power. But most often I think we talk windily, in great generalities, without saying much about specific instances, specific things that we or others get from any work of art.

Coles does all that. Here’s book, more than 200 pages long, that tells how Springsteen brought depth, meaning, and transformation to many, many people. With the people talking about it in their own words.

That demonstrates, first of all, what I mean when I say that we in the arts have to acknowledge the artistic strength of popular culture. Whatever we think the arts do, popular culture does, too. (No, not all of it. But that’s an old debate, one most strongly carried on within popular culture itself.)

So we need to do for the arts what Coles does for Springsteen. Until we do, our advocacy, if you ask me, rings a little hollow. So let’s get to work. What depth, what meaning, what transformative urgency, did a production of Tosca at your local opera company have, in the words of people who attended it?

(And yes, I’m deliberately provocative by choosing that example. The question I’d love to provoke is: Do we really believe that everything that bears the label “art” has more artistic value than the best of popular culture? And if we do, can we demonstrate how this is true?)


2 Replies to “Arts Funding, Take 3: Learning from Springsteen”

  1. Sandow writes as if it were uncanny that high art and popular culture mirror one another. Of course they do. Tosca was popular culture in its day, so were the symphonies of Mahler. Neither Puccini nor Mahler could have conceived of writing music that would leave out most people as somehow not up to handling it as an audience. Across the world, there are high art traditions that depend on the education and general refinement of their audience — Urdu ghazals, for instance — and high art traditions that are more direct and democratic. It is only in the last 100 years, since Puccini and Mahler, that serious music in the West became an affair for connoisseurs of the utmost refinement. Pitting Puccini against Springsteen is dumb, when you could be contrasting Milton Babbitt with Springsteen.

    A truly telling difference is not in the intention of the artiste of today as contrasted to that of the popular entertainer, but in the differing aspirations of present audiences for both forms. One hundred years ago, a milliner in Vienna would have wanted to go to the Vienna Philharmonic — she would not have perceived it as too high-toned an evening for her liking, and she would have known that Mahler set out to reach her. The price of a good ticket was a barrier, but she could have gone and stood for almost nothing. And she did do that. People earning a very humble living get to the opera today, but they’re rare and quaint and vanishing. It’s much likelier they’d splurge on Bruce.

    Who made that so? Well, it wasn’t Puccini. Look at the success of Rent — La Boheme for the 1990’s. There is something about the way the arts are pitched that separates the potential audience for both high and popular culture into two distinct heaps, with an iron rule decreeing crossover is fine from high to pop, but not from pop to high. Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman can sing gospel, but Shirley Caesar, beloved of Nelson Mandela, does not cross over from gospel to opera — oh, maybe she gets to sing a track of Ave Maria.

    This is not about culture, but about money, mobility and semiotics. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson can confirm you as a ravished aficionado of the Bach cantata, or you can be a working class stiff ennobled by Bruce — but which is likelier to cross over to the other? Don’t be fooled! This is not the doing of the artists, in either case, or in every analogous case. It’s not even the doing of the audiences, because branding, and a certain set of associations, occur before an audience makes up its mind.

  2. E, great points. I would add that this drift issue–up to down, down to up–the sort of No Brow conversation–continues. Gunther Schuller proposing his Third Stream was highly controversial back in the 50s. The claim has been made continuously that until Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and the likes of Steve Reich’s eclecticism, high brow musicians were just not that open to other forms.

    But many jazz and other non-“classical” practitioners have had a wider berth of interest in the more canonical forms. My classically trained sister has said that if you spend your entire life in the strict, disciplined study of that canon, it is harder to bust out and “hear” what else is going on. That’s a language you worked hard to learn and it isn’t easy to be a polyglot. Jazzists on the other hand, are committed artistically to being open and flexible, willing to experiment.

    So I don’t think it is just about money, mobility and semiotics. There’s a lot more involved.

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