Culture and Freedom of Choice

(a brief commentary by William Osborne, November 13, 2001)

I recently forwarded a copy of an article to an Internet arts forum announcing that the popular singer Wayne Newtwon was being sent to entertain US troops overseas. When I joked that America's lack of culture seemed to be becoming a matter of national security, one person responded with the old adage, "To each their own taste."

The old saying is quite true, but as artists and scholars, it is also important to question how taste is formed and how it affects our consciousness. To what extent do people in the USA freely formulate their own tastes, and to what extent are they created by international corporations that spend trillions of dollars to shape the public's desires? Can we really say that people have chosen their own music? Can it be similar to saying most Americans can choose to take mass transit? What mass transit? The majority of Americans lack a viable mass transit system while a massive industry spends billions to encourage them to invest large sums in automobiles. 

Can an appreciation for "classical" music be developed by simply listening to it on the radio, or does it also need to be a part of our education, and above all, a part of our communities? To what extent do people in the USA have a viable opportunity to choose classical music? 

People do not pull their tastes out of the blue, but rather select among the options available to them. In the USA those options are overwhelmingly centered around a relatively narrow spectrum of commercial music that in many respects represents an aesthetic uniformity. Almost all of the music is three-minute songs accompanied by synths, guitars and drums while other forms of popular music are thought of as marginal. All of the forms, such as rock, country, techno, and hip-hop fit structural norms designed for the purposes of a monolithic, commercialized mass media controlled by a relatively small group of corporations. 

Through what might be termed the processes of cultural isomorphism, most artistic expression is forced to conform to the social, economic and political structures of its surrounding environment. This means that in capitalistic societies, music that cannot conform to the commercialized structures of the mass media will struggle for mere existence. Classical music is thus marginalized, since it does not fit the three minute form for the commercial break; it is extremely expensive to perform, record and tour; the education required for its production and reception is long and expensive; and it is not well-adapted to marketing through sexual imagery, just to name a few examples. In its more progressive forms, classical music also leads to concepts of individuality and autonomy that are generally antithetic to a culture of mass marketing. 

In a capitalistic society, classical music will thus not be available as a significant choice unless is it subsidized by the government as an alternative to commercialized culture. In -all- of the countries of Europe, this alternative is offered through state owned radio and television networks, communal orchestras, opera houses, ballet troupes, theaters and arts festivals. This is not the case in America, which advocates a form of laissez-faire capitalism that represents a political extreme not found in -any- other industrialized country. America's only exception to this laissez-faire politic is military spending.

This extremism, if it might be so labeled, has had a profound affect on American society and makes it very unique among the industrialized countries. What does it mean that the budget for the NEA is only 1/3920th of the military budget? If the Federal Government's funding for the arts equaled only 1% of its military budget, arts funding would increase 329 times. Is it any wonder that our society has become so militaristic when the yearly funding for the military is 3290 times greater than for the arts? What will this long-term disparity do to the fabric of our society and to our minds? 

With these monolithic forces of commercialism and militarism surrounding us, how honestly can we say, "To each his own taste?" Who in the American government is advocating support for the arts that might even approach the norm all Europeans take for granted? For whom will you vote? What sort of intelligent cultural life does your community have? What good is freedom of choice when certain important, viable choices hardly exist? 

William Osborne