Newtering The Arts

While it may be in vogue to dwell on the similarities between politics and showbiz, the reality is that Washington and Hollywood, circa 1995, pose sharp contrasts in style. In Hollywood, for example, spontaneity is dead. Everything in town is always going into rewrite; you can’t even hiccup without some development person saying, “Can’t we find a better hiccup?”

In Washington, by contrast, shooting from the hip is now de rigueur. Hence, Rep. Dick Armey will pop epigrams about “Barney Fag,” his colleague in Congress (that’s Rep. Barney Frank, folks, in case you’re not hip).

And then there’s the ubiquitous Newt, whose shoot-from-the-hip rhetoric has set the tone for what should have been a serious debate about public support for the arts and for public broadcasting. Only Newt, who, remember, has a Ph.D. – that stands for Doctor of Philistinism – could call PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts “this little sandbox for the rich.”

Newt’s rhetoric has in turn inspired NEA proponents to advance arguments that are equally absurd, suggesting that subsidies for the arts represent a form of populism and concern for the masses. That might come as a surprise to the Medicis who, history shows, did not take a very keen interest in, say, the homeless.

The shoot-from-the-hip debate raging in Washington has fuzzed over a number of intriguing questions. To begin with, why is anyone as busy as knuckle-head Newt bothering to debate an item as insignificant as a $167 million NEA appropriation? Newt and his pals may hate the cultural elite, but we’re not talking pork here- we’re talking a bacon bit.

Second, how can anyone with a Ph.D. – even from a university no one has ever heard of – argue that t he purpose of arts subsidies is to promote warm-and-runny projects that make us all feel blissful about our lives? Artists down through the ages have been a pain in the ass – that’s their role. As Paul Goldberger pointed out recently in the New York Times, “For the arts establishment to try and save its own skin by portraying art as sweet and lovable” is as ignorant as Newt’s hyperbole.

Indeed the biggest flaw with PBS, whose $285 million appropriation the Newtists are also fighting, arguably is that it hasn’t been sufficiently “cutting edge.” Do we really need to spend public money on “Barney and Friends” and “Lamb Chop’s Playalong”? PBS, too, is trying so hard to distance itself from the cultural elite that it may even turn “Dumb and Dumber” into a weekly series.

Given the fact that more than 80% of the public says it is “deeply concerned” about the declining quality of commercial TV programming and favors public support of PBS, leaders of television would do well to stop apologizing about elitism and focus, instead, on reconfiguring their uniquely boring pledge drives.

None of this is to suggest that public subsidies represent a magic potion to improve pop culture. The attempt to foster filmmaking with public subsidies, for example, has foundered badly in countries like Canada. Arguably, all these programs have succeeded in doing is to create a school of filmmaking designed to appease bureaucrats who pass on grant applications. The annual orgy at Sundance poses a unique reminder about the ability of young filmmakers to hustle private money for first-time projects – an exercise which, stripped of bureaucratic input, produces a far more invigorating genre of artistic expression.

Again, many of the movies at Sundance are both profoundly irritating and even downright offensive. That, in itself, demonstrates the validity of free market filmmaking.

Defenders of public subsidies are quick to point out how skimpy Americans are in their support of the arts. As Goldberger points out, the entire flyspeck NEA subsidy for 1994 is less than a quarter of what the city of Berlin alone spends on arts subsidies. Europeans lavish money, not only on artists, but also on the arts infrastructure. No one driving through France can avoid a sense of awe over the spending spree on museums, auditoriums and cultural centers.

The inner cities of Europe reflect almost a Renaissance verve. In the U.S. they reflect ignorance and penury.

Newt and his cohorts may derive a perverse satisfaction from the fact that they preside over a nation of mini-malls rather than cultural centers. The pervasive drabness of America may reinforce their belief that the cultural elite has been thwarted.

In Hollywood, at least, there’s still a hunger to do things better, a belief that the audience not only expects more but deserves more. Indeed, maybe the best thing that could happen to Newt would be to consign him to development hell for a few weeks. At least it might give him time to think.

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