The NEA turns its back on classical music

This is pretty sad. The NEA has made significant cuts to PBS broadcasts of classical music in favor of gaming, mobile, and web-based projects.

The cuts affect Live from Lincoln Center (down from $100,000 to $0), Great Performances from the Met (down from $150,000 to $50,000), and American Masters (down from $400,000 to $50,000). The Times reports that Alyce Myatt, a former vice-president of programming at PBS, said that

while public television and radio remain “the leads, we also know we have a generation — not of kids but adults — who are consuming content online and on mobile.”

She also expressed the imperative for the federal government to lead the field in the ever-shifting frontier of electronic media. Among the projects (sheesh, I almost wrote products) that did receive funding are:

a University of Southern California video game that uses the writings of Henry David Thoreau; Power Poetry, from Odysseus Group of New York City, which encourages youths to write poems via texting; the Flea Theater’s production of a play using interactive technology; and Spelman College’s “HERadventure,” an augmented reality computer game featuring a superheroine.

This was a blip a couple of weeks ago, and now, no one is talking about it. Here at thousandfold, our hair is on fire.

True, the Met is making money on its HD broadcasts, so the hundred grand is chump change. But the rest? I couldn’t help but wonder if Myatt has some axe to grind from her time at PBS.

Let’s think about this. If the NEA is taking the position that a Lincoln Center performance is just as good as teenage text poetry, that a Met production is on equal footing with a computer game, then we no longer have need of the NEA. The market provides plenty of opportunities for people to text (even poetry!) and play video games. If the NEA no longer wishes to preserve the canon of American art-making that the free market does not, then it is nothing more than a trade association for electronic media.

Myatt also expressed that the NEA must lead in this area. But has the government ever been charged with leading in any area? The government is there for us when the market fails us – look at other services, such as unemployment checks, public safety, water works.  And the market has never supported art for art’s sake; it’s always been government-sponsored or in the hands of a few private citizens.

But at a time when arts participation is declining in the lively arts, as the NEA reports, there are fewer and fewer citizens to turn to who will carry the torch of attendance, much less philanthropy. If the government is leading the trend to individualized, electronics-based arts experiences, who will be left to support orchestras and opera houses?

Made us think of this quote, written when the NEA nearly lost its funding in the 90s:

Today, Congress seems to have forgotten that the original purpose of the endowment was to support “free art and free expression,” which clearly means to satisfy the needs of artists, not the tastes of the democratic majority.  It was never the intention of the endowment to subsidize popular taste.  No, the National Endowment was designed as a counter-market strategy, in the hope that by subsidizing cultural offerings at affordable prices the works of serious art could become available to all those normally excluded by income or education.  This is a far cry from providing federal funding for “what the people want.”

Robert Brustein, “Arts Wars,” Reimagining American Theatre (1991), p. 271.

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Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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6 Responses to The NEA turns its back on classical music

  1. scillagrace says:

    I can think of parallels with the National Park System deciding to pull funding for preserving the actual Grand Canyon in favor of a “virtual” interactive canyon available in an app. Frightening!

  2. Kit says:

    I’ve been writing NEA grant proposals for over a decade – mostly for classical music organizations – and I sympathize. However, I do see validity, maybe even inevitability, in the NEA’s new course.

    Maybe that’s because I now work in the publishing business, where the need to adapt to the new realities of the digital sphere is absolute.

    In any case, it seems to me that the NEA situation is less a matter of bowing to the pressures of popular culture than of facing up to a seismic shift in cultural activity, not least a generational culture gap which seems to be creating some kind of digital barrier between those under and over 40.

    I think we also need to bear in mind that the right wing have been wielding their increased power through mid-term election gains to artificially suppress the NEA budget with yet more vicious, politically motivated, and willfully uninformed attacks and manufactured scandal. For me, this is the main reason that the NEA has been left with no choice but to work with grant funds which fall far short of what is needed and deserved.

    I’m inclined to give the NEA the benefit of the doubt, while drawing encouragement from recent swings of the pendulum away from government arts austerity measures in France – where the new president has made assurances that government support of culture will be “enshrined” – and Germany – where the Culture Minister has said that ensuring adequate support of culture is a moral imperative.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response. We certainly agree that the NEA doesn’t get enough funding, and have absolutely no sympathy for the right-wing attacks on it. And you’re surely right that there’s a digital generational divide, creating new realities that none of us can ignore. I just doubt that the NEA is responding in a thoughtful and constructive way.

      I think that packaging the arts in the same forms as digital pop culture is a doomed strategy, because it requires the arts to succeed on the same terms as commercial pop culture–and it can’t possibly win on those terms. “The Waste Land” would make for some boring (not to mention incomprehensible) tweets. That Thoreau video game will never be as fun as Angry Birds. (And who’s going to be caught dead playing it?)

      Do we have a better idea? Working on it…our hunch is that while the internet revolution is (as you say) a seismic shift, it hasn’t taken over everything. We still consume culture in ways that aren’t mediated by digital technology–and I think government arts policy could be extremely valuable in helping preserve that diversity, in the way Brustein describes.

  3. Kit says:

    I guess the difference is that I’m approaching this issue from a different perspective, which has publishing and contemporary performance in mind as well as classical music (but believe me I’m not that happy about the need for doing so in the first place, the NEA proposal I submitted this year also lost out to the favored digital projects).

    I still don’t see such a strong link between pop culture and digital projects. For example, there’s a very interesting non-profit company in the UK called Blast Theory (http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/index.php) which creates digital games all the time, which in my opinion are beyond doubt sophisticated works of art. In one of their text messaging games, I experienced a sudden “reveal” that was just as richly layered and powerful as a climactic Act V moment in a Shakespeare play.

    Blast Theory don’t adapt works like “The Waste Land” or Thoreau, but I know a company that did. It was a performance and visual art company that created vast installations for free adaptations of Homer’s “Odyssey” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy” for a mostly under 30 crowd (they divided the critics, but the ones that liked them gave them raves, and they got an NEA grant for the Dante). You could say that their productions were like surfing the internet – they were mounted in a big warehouse with different spaces, some like galleries in which you could roam and watch individual performers arranged throughout the space, others with cafe or theatre seating from which you would watch theatrical scenes.

    It’s quite possible that the “Waste Land” and Thoreau projects are structured like those performances, albeit virtual rather than in the flesh. I see no reason why the digital “adaptations” couldn’t end up being of equal artistic value. I for one am reluctant to dismiss them ahead of time.

    Perhaps the solution for classical music is to view the new NEA direction primarily as an opportunity for increased access and outreach through digital channels, rather than as the source of core programming funds it used to be. One example would be the Berlin Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall, I imagine the costs involved are pretty considerable but it’s the kind of digital platform that could really advance an organization’s goals.

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