28 November 2004

Mencken Was Right

There was an interesting confluence among Ann Althouse(!), the Perfesser, and the NYT's ombudsman of late regarding the arts. Just bear with me for a moment; I'm going to simultaneously praise and denigrate "democracy" while using the term in inconsistent ways. Sort of like Professor Kramer did… and, after the reading the first half of his book, I think Professor Tribe was too easy on him.

In any event, Althouse muses on popularity as a measure of artistic value. The Perfesser responds that given a choice, he'll stick with popular taste over government/bureacrat-imposed taste. (Note that "democracy" has already changed.) On a completely different issue, the NYT's ombudsman describes a recent reduction in the paper's formely extensive arts listings without ever admitting what is really at issue: perks and advertising revenues.

Mencken once noted that nobody has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence (or, presumably, artistic taste) of the American public. If anything, Mencken was understating the problem. The Perfesser rightly points out that art cannot be limited by politics, and most particularly realpolitik, in its scope. One cannot simply state that art should be apolitical, either; Orwell rightly noted that "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." I can imagine nothing worse than allowing a government to determine exclusively what art will be allowed.

However, as Althouse implies, allowing a "market system" the exclusive right to determine what art will be allowed isn't much better. The examples she chose are rather unfortunate, because they don't really go to the heart of the problem: the ephemeral nature of market judgment of art. Consider that Mozart is reponsible for almost everything we now know about J.S. Bach—because, without his reinvigoration of interest in Bach, a substantial part of Bach's corpus would probably not have survived past the last 18th century. Bach was virtually unheard of in Vienna and what is now eastern Germany by the late 1700s. Only Mozart's personal interest kept his works alive as part of the Western musical canon. I shudder to think of a modernism based on Händel and Haydn with no reference to Bach!

Okrent's weaselly column in the NYT really does no better. Although one might argue—and Okrent tries to imply, although his examples actually undermine his point—that the petition against the "new, improved" arts listing (that amounts to 10-11% of the space previously devoted to it) merely reflects disdain for a particular arrogant elitism, this misses the point entirely. As, for that matter, does Althouse; and, in a different sense, do invocations of "democracy" based on the idea of "democracy" as "the mostest wins." Democracy is not about just determining who "wins" by enshrining per capita majorities with power. (Whether this is consistent with a market-based economy, in which the "capita" are units of transferrable wealth and not individuals, is for another time and another 500 footnotes.) Democracy recognizes and celebrates both empherality and dissent. One could enumerate ethnicity (or whatever other single factor seems most "important") and establish a permanent oligarchy based on that and reach the same immediate "goal" of "majority rule."

Democracy in general is about how minority "interests" eventually influence majority interests. The arts have an even more diffuse relationship to "winning"—because they can succeed by later influencing one person. That means that the broadest possible spectrum needs to be made available; and that "voting with dollars" for the arts will seldom reach that far. Ask yourself whether "Guernica" would have passed any "popularity" tests in the late 1930s and early 1940s, especially if competing with Busby Berkeley musicals. Then put the world on a desert island and ask which of the two it can do without. The correct answer is "neither": There is space for both.