Often in hard times, a full-blooded Philistine will step up to bash the arts and rail against their public funding as a subsidy for the rich and elite who, it is implied, are the only citizens benefiting from “high culture.” The OED defines a Philistine, (originally a barbarian) as “a person deficient in liberal culture and enlightenment, whose interests are chiefly bounded by material and commonplace things;” adding that the term is often applied contemptuously. I’ll accept that assignment.
In THE HARTFORD COURANT, March 6, 2003, Columnist Laurence D. Cohen falls into a strange kind of classist fallacy when discussing the arts; which he chooses to contrast with bowling, the roller derby, cock fights and strip shows. Certainly not the same crowd which attends the Bushnell or the Wadsworth Atheneum. But are they divided by income? Many of us who work at and support the arts are far from wealthy; and many of the wealthy participate in much less admirable and elevating activities than the arts provide. The income level of the audience is not significant, its size and distribution across class, culture, ethnic and age categories is. Would Mr. Cohen eliminate music, art, theater, literature and dance from our public schools? Many of our youth become the makers of art and recipients of its power throughout their lives.
Should activities which bring pleasure, solace, joy, challenge, escape, curiosity, expansion, contemplation, disturbance, release, surprise, and many more dimensions of the human spirit, not be supported by public funds? Should the making of art, which has embodied some of the highest aspirations and achievements of human beings through out history, now be left entirely to the whims and machinations of the marketplace? Some say there is enough of this already. Government and public subsidization allows for opportunities and excellences which any great civilization should assure can exist outside of the influence of private capital.
Mr. Cohen’s suggestion that the arts be “…cut loose from the public dole to win friends the old-fashioned way: market-place transactions,” is an incorrect ascription. The “old-fashioned way” was not the marketplace; it was most often the way of courts and kings, of religious and tribal commissions, where art was not the production of commodities for sale, but an integral part of constructing culture. Whether or not this was a culture just for the elite and powerful, depended on the times and the place but what is most remarkable about America and the developed world today is the tremendous accessibility all populations have to the very best (and very worst) of culture from low to high and private to public. With government monies spent to subsidize agriculture, business, sports, warfare, medicine, science, and real estate, why begrudge the arts a pittance for their survival; especially as they compete against the flood of mass culture, sports, entertainment and media which threaten to drown us in mediocrity.
San Antonio, Texas has blossomed as a newly revived and lively city whose growth has been augmented greatly by what urban scholars call “amenities.” The arts form a large part of this category. It is shame that as Hartford works to regain its place as the gem of New England, critics like Cohen wish to dull and fracture its brightest facets.