Arts Funding and Neoliberalism

newmusicbox  Fall 2007


I would be very wary of think tanks centered around neoliberalism and the Chicago School of Economics.  Neoliberalism is under massive attack because so many of its theories didnít work.  The increased dichotomies in the distribution of wealth in Latin America, and the havoc wreaked by the privatization of American power grids are just a couple of the many examples.  When 7 million New Yorkers suddenly have no electricity for about 24 hours and canít even get home after work (as happened a couple years ago,) when they have no subways, no traffic because the stop lights donít work, no air conditioning, no street lights in an extremely dangerous city, and no elevators in their sky scrapers, even the Chicago School folks on Wall Street notice its time to go back to the drawing board.  And of course, since 1970 the wealth of the wealthy in the US has increased at three times the rate of the middle class.  We also have more people living in poverty than at just about any time in our history.  Your studies of the economics and sociology of music are important, but in the end you might find neoliberalism is a bit passť.  You wouldnít want to end up sitting on your horse backward. 


This problem is especially difficult, because neoliberals ended up sprinkling good ideas with a lot of ideological blindness.  (n the 1940s   Cantor notes that 19th century novelists wrote a lot of books because that is how they made their living.  He then goes on and on about how modernists like Pound and Joyce were not very productive (Joyce only wrote two novels) because patronage made them lazy and allowed their work to fall into elitism obscurantanism.  That might be true, but he neglects to note that the vast majority of the 20th centuryís great writers made livings from their writing.  He overlooks that most of the 20th centuryís great painters made good livings with their work.  His case that modernist art existed through patronage is weak.


Our universities are definitely a patronage system for art, and I think this has created some serious problems, but the new ethos among academia is now accessibility.  Just look at how the faculty at the Ivy schools are changing.  They all seem to want to hire neo-romantics and guys who play a little electric guitar.  Their music is pretty accessible, in some cases almost populist, but they still canít make a living with their art.


Unlike art, economics is science.  Its theories are only valid if they are proven to be correct.  Cantorís observations of modernism cherry pick the facts.  And the move of art music toward the marketplace has shown that it still canít compete with the mass media. The vast majority of ďclassicalĒ composers can still not make a living with their music regardless of how popular they try to be. 


Authors like Greg Sandow and numerous others, also argue that classical music must creatively accept the structures of the marketplace.  Sandow notes that even the fringes of the mass market, such as those occupied by indie rock, are enormous. If artists can't fit into America ís relatively unmitigated capitalist system, they are to be blamed, at least in part, for their lack of imagination and relevance.


Unfortunately, this ignores the economic theories of fringe markets.  More variation in the acceptance of musical styles exists on marketís fringes, but the degree is generally proportional to the size of the audience. The more unusual the stance or music, the smaller the market. The financial viability of fringe markets thus depends on having a limited supply of artists and a specialized public for a particular view or aesthetic.  In short, only a relatively small number of classical cross-over artists can make a living in the genre before the market becomes flooded.


We thus see that Cantorís theory has proven wrong, and it is unlikely he will be able to correct it.  Pointing to a few exceptions and cherry picked examples from history does not make a valid economic theory.   And it is obviously disproven in practice.


It is one thing to note that modernism was often elitist and that it was sometime funded through forms of patronage, and another to conclude that returning art exclusively to the marketplace will solve its problems.