Cultural Novocaine

This is going to be very brief today. I was searching for writing on theatre, and theatre blogs.

I found this….

Sociology achieved real traction in the US in the mid 20th century. Its the perfect discipline for bureaucracies. These studies are a sort of constant, a cottage industry for the large foundations that parse out money to whoever will agree to be obedient and artistically opaque.

The study refers to findings and concludes, “the home is a favorite location for arts activities…”

I’ve no idea what that means exactly. Another favorite location is the internet. What?

This model for the arts is predicated on the idea that quality is irrelevant. Its not even mentioned. Its about what people “like”. This study is hardly unique. Read any grants organization application, read any theatre’s quarterly report, or any government paper on the arts. The value is placed squarely on what people “like” to do. If they like to square dance in their living room, then money is funneled into that. Of course the air conditioning bill for the Pentagon exceeds the entire US federal arts budget, so it’s not exactly meaningful cash being talked about. There is an entire discussion to be had about the liberal populism, in all this. Again, sociology is the boat carrying this torpid crew.

Another quote…”Racial/ethnic differences in participation exist for reading and writing activities. For example, three quarters of whites reported reading books or poetry for pleasure, compared to 45-55% for the other three racial/ethnic group”.

What is a reading activity? For pre-schoolers? Seriously, I’ve no idea. There is a horrid taste of well meaning condescension in all this, and the grotesque threadbare activities of a city or county bureaucracy implied — and what does it have to do with culture, really?

It has nothing to do with it. And nobody cares about it. The issue that does have meaning, however, is what does the society ask of culture? What does it mean — for I think it means essentially entertainment. There is one entire layer of this society that does not think past being a fan or being a spectator in some fashion. Sporting events, concerts, beheadings….it really hardly matters. The Spectacle. So arts bureaucracies are just the after-birth of the Spectacle — the slag left after the strip mining of consciousness. The tailings of the Spectacle. Of course, one needs to examine assumptions about ‘entertainment’ as well as how the commodity form pollinates all these subjects.

I suspect that there is actually no good reason for the government to spend ANY money on the arts. Not this government. Not in this context. Either that, or give the arts the entire defense budget. What would 400 BILLION dollars a year look like if turned over to the arts? The problem is, would the people who wrote up this “study” (above) and who made all the pie charts and wrote the sadistically dull prose of this, would they allocate the funds? If so, I would think the artist would remain outside anyway. (This is the cult of genius I’m indulging in, and I’m aware of that. A bourgeois notion of artistic ownership, and that is indeed a topic). But for another entry.

I end with a quote from this article on the study (about the Inland Empire, remember)…

“The Mexican farmworker focus sample results were reported along with all other subgroups, parsed by arts activity and mode of engagement. Looked at as a single group, however, a number of surprisingly high engagement results indicate that this cohort may be ripe territory for further, more detailed study.”

The death of irony.


  1. Stephen Birch says:

    John, there is something wrong with the link. I get a 404 error message.

  2. The last paragraph is really interesting in that corporate style commodification of the arts is now a part of government and foundations in that they lie in wait, an anticipatory posture ready to pre-commodify anything that *might* come from the poor.

  3. john steppling says:

    thanks stephen, i think its fixed now.

    And yeah Lex, I think its a pretty fascinating topic. There is just something wrong with that last paragraph……I mean given the state of farm workers…in the Inland Empire especially maybe….its both what you suggest, and a sort of parody of liberal notions of reform.

  4. But at the same time, the California Endowment is funding a lot of great community development work in the area. Some of it is what got you working with those high school students for example. Also green jobs initiatives that are trying to train the people from he community to have these skills to help potentially fight off the gentrification that will arrive when the energy resources develop into an economy…but then some of it is arts related work, and rarely do they hire the right people..if ever…just like universities…same vibe…

  5. “This model for the arts is predicated on the idea that quality is irrelevant… ”

    The Los Angeles Dept. of Cultural Affairs released their new Guidelines & Application today (Cultural Grants Program: I came across this on page 3 of the 29 page document:

    “What’s New or Emphasized
    • DCA has altered the points awarded in two scoring criteria on its panelist scoresheet. Ten points were decreased from the Artistic Merit category and added to the Relevance category. This change has come in a response to governing questions about the relevance of arts/cultural projects to City residents and/or tourists. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to change their narrative emphasis and spend a greater number of words addressing “why” the themes, topics, and subjects of the proposed projects are relevant to community audiences. Less emphasis will now be placed on the artistic sample documentation.”

    Case and point.

  6. john steppling says:

    thanks Katy. Yeah……”less emphasis on the artistic sample…”. Right, and more on “why”. What the fuck does that mean? Its so profoundly stupid. Why?? well, mr Shapkespeare, why do you think we should fund this Hamlet project? But lex, the thing is, that program teaching for cathedral city high school was a nice program…but hugely limited… was token, we had an hour every other week. But yeah, Im sure there are decent choices made…..well, I’m not sure, but I’ll take your word for it. The problem is, the inherent quality of the work doesnt matter. So this just encourages those crappy murals on community development buildings. It doesnt have to be that way. It encourages people to think culture is a hobby, or more often, a therapeutic activity. I mean why cant that chicano community bldg get a mural by some whacked out japanese muralist. Because….he wouldnt be part of the community, so you get a tacit ghettoizing of culture……where everything has a quaint vibe about it. Its not art. It IS therapy. Bad therapy. The problem is, the entire apparatus is woefuly underfunded….but more importantly, its run by people who dont value or know culture. They dont. They might be good organizers or good activists, but they don’t know or even care about art. And the entire society is sort of this way. The elite white liberal feels fine because he can afford a ticket to Lincoln Center, or the Ahmanson and thats his art tourism. It has no resonance – not to that audience or to the people who create it actually. Its all empty spectacle, all empty sociology. The liberal white audience goes to the Ahmanson and figures the ghetto is fine with these infantile murals. They dont have educated taste after all. Then they hand out a few free tickets to the Ahmanson, for a matinee, and this only reinforces the point. Whats on stage means nothing to the people getting those free tickets….because it expressed in the code of the white liberal class. Its kistch, but highbrow kitsch. So it always ends up feeling a bit colonial to me somehow.

  7. I agree….that’s why I think the “arts” funding model is impossible to make right, whereas the community development models can be excellent. Because art is not talked about correctly. So should arts funding be done away with completely? I’ve always found it silly when I meet a “full time artists” but I also know that part of that stems from my own impatience that is born out of an often shallow anti-bourgois attitude……I want artists to survive but I guess it means defining an artist no?

    As for community produced art…I actually think that’s a myth….Hip Hop for example came out of many communities…..So yeah, the mural should be good, why is it so often not? because art get’s treated like a hobby as you say….What are some first steps to begin this dialogue and planning on how to challenge this paradigm?

  8. As long as these community arts programs are about “celebrating”ethnic identity, that is, creating a group ego that reifies its self and tries to create yet another lie based on the ghetto-ized model of “empowered” ethnicity instead of engaging directly in the more existential questions of why people need to have a cultural identity in the first place, and for that matter, why we are all turned into consumers not creators, etc etc, the social arts–or should we now call them “relevant” arts– will continue to be insipid.
    I recently attended a talk at the LA Public Library about the New Deal in LA and how it put millions to work, including artists…and how so many of the inscribed mottos on WPA buldings were about how the greatest good was the social good, etc…a completely reversed value from now. Also, these WPA artists often show black and white and brown working side by side in the public arts projects…creating huge controversy. The New Deal made as many enemies and deeply grateful folks whose survival depended on it. The enemies have won.
    Apparently there was also an “easel painting” program that paid artists who were abstract expressionists( But I heard from my friend that this particular program created such antipathy that the canvasses (we’re talking Rothkos, Pollocks, and deKoonings) were later cut into strips and used to wrap heating ducts in the New York subway.

  9. john steppling says:

    Rita, thats exactly EXACTLY right. I guess thats what I was getting at when i spoke of an almost colonialist cultural sensibility at work. Identity politics again. Once you do that, as you say, the deeper issues of all humanity get pushed out of view. Its perfect for the ruling class that instinctively want to erase class awareness. There is a great little essay today by Chris Hedges….over at common dreams…..and it speaks to this. The so called celebrating of diversity is often if not usually used as a ghettoizing mechanism. And yes, the far right reactionary mind set is going to hate anything that addresses this. There has always been a favoring of norman rockwell and “skill” over a Rothko……but even a diego rivera would be shunned…obviously. The notions of “skill” turn art into an exercise in reflecting the status quo. And we arrive full circle at education in general…..most notably arts education.

  10. Well Hedges is mostly great but he also can be really clueless around issues of diversity, exemplified by his problematic Crazy Horse piece. Anyway, it’s important to remember that white American ethnic pride is reinforced at every corner, including in those new deal murals. It’s a lot easier to pursue the greater existential questions when your experience has been systematically affirmed. Reducing it to a celebration of ethnic identity is just that, reducing. They are problematic programs for sure, and usually in the hands of the wrong people. Almost always actually, and they are colonial for sure, but I think Rita’s alternative is also missing some questions.

  11. I’ll add that it of course comes down to proper arts education. Critical spaces. Very critical spaces, which are absent in almost all community arts programs.

  12. But it is in part because of a backlash that I think a lot of white folks don’t understand because they have never had to fight for cultural affirmation, and so cultural affirmation becomes the conflated with art unfortunately.

  13. john steppling says:

    Lex, you raise questions of what art is for in a sense. I would say first off, it has NO purpose per se. Its not there as an ideological instrument. Thats really to the point. Art is not political in that sense. It is in another sense. I mean if you have a government institution that allocates money for the “arts”…then thats what it should do. But its not that. It never has been really. You cant demand that every piece of “art” say everything you want…..first off, art simply isnt about communication. This is another myth. There is such a deeply ingrained relfex to think art has to communicate a “message”. Once you assume that, you are on the path to reduction. You expect it reinforce this ideology or that one. And there develops a tacit censorship……or this offends this person or that person. If one starts with the understanding that an entirely ‘other’ frame be constructed to evaluate ‘art’, then one stops demanding it have a “message”. Now, one can read art-works….and conclude it expresses white superiority or it expresses a celebration of diversity or whatever…..but none of that is actually a way to look at art. Again, its not communication. It has meaning, it requires an analysis — an engagement — but its not propaganda. For any side. In the US however, it usually is just that. It cant be that FIRST however. Everything, every sign code and narrative contains political meaning. However….I would say the best art is always more expansive than that. It also often has several layers and doubled meanings… do dreams. But so eroded are the interpretive skills of the average US citizen, that the discussion rarely reaches a place that even makes any sense. And its because govt. organizations usually have an agenda, and that agenda usually takes precedence over all else, you end up with those bad murals on walls everywhere. So, no I dont think those existential questions are precluded by somehow not having your identity affirmed. In fact, I don;t think i even understand that. This is for me the core issue with any identity politics. The political dimension of this, as Greenwald wrote last week, is The Advocate endorsing Obama because he affirmed their identity with a single remark. All else…..all other issues, are put aside. It’s only this ONE issue that matters….because its THEIR issue.

  14. Yeah I agree with all of that. Art should not have a meaning and activists think of art as a political tool and they are dead wrong. What I’m saying is that the critique needs to take on more historical questions when talking about this deficit.

  15. john steppling says:

    Let me try to be clearer. Obviously the meaning of a work of art includes every aspect of that work — from who paid for it, to how its perceived and why. What is the narrative saying and how does it relate historically to other work. There is always a dialogue with history going on. But imagine if an arts organization simply said…we have X amount of money. Submit your CV. Period. Now that CV would be evaluated….and probably that evaluation process would include a fair amount of political agenda….but still, even if they simply gave money to the first guy in line. You get to paint the mural. That was it. And it got painted. Now…..I am sure whatever was painted would offend a lot of people, others would love it. But in ideal world, that dialogue, generated by the engagement with the mural, would be profitable. It would necessarily demand a criteria for how to evaluate be debated. None of that takes place. And its because things are censored in advance, half the time by the artists themselves. People learn what is expected of them. So, if the mural offended the community, that would be an interesting dialogue. First question would be “why”? And that might be an interesting discussion. As it is, there is simply a guarantee that ‘bad’ art is being endorsed because it has the most reductive and one dimensional “message” possible. And then whole communities learn to love bad art. Nobody can learn what they havent ever seen. When I screened Bresson to first year students, they hated it. Eventually they loved it. But I could have asked ahead what do you “like”? And i would have ended up showing a zach snyder film.

  16. john steppling says:

    @lex….yeah, of course it should. And this is a culture that almost NEVER examines history. Or if it does, its a revisionist history. This is another reason a norman rockwell is so popular with a large part of the populace. He reinforces all the tropes of the american fanasty, american dream, AND of white superiority. Its stuff that if often barely in Rockwell. He was an illustrator in the end. Thats all. A bad one that helped reinforce this fantasy vision of American exceptionalism….but at least half as a result of how he was embraced. So the issue is really the same as its always been — to make people aware of real history. Of course, government organizations are never going to do that. On a dumb level if you tried to paint a mural of George Jackson, or James Carr on a building in westwood, that idea wouldnt get very far. If you did it for a community center is Watts, you woudnt have a problem, probably. So……its a huge mine field of stuff here, and it comes back to the idea that art is looked at as propaganda and is connected to some “identity” a particular group has of themselves. And this is self defeating on several levels. Now….its not a level playing field…..James Carr’s mural wont get as much money as one of Ronald Reagan, and so the marginalized voices in the society continue to be marginalized. All the more reason to work toward the idea that ‘art’ is transformative, but not via a simplistic “message”.

  17. john steppling says:

    one footnote: its not like community centers have a monopoly on bad art. Most of what one sees in the richest galleries in any big city in the US or Europe is probably going to just as bad. The entire “business” of art — the market for art, controlled by a few curators with profit as the sole motive, is even more obscene. So this then leads us back to art as commodity. And thats not a simple topic.

  18. hahah that last point is well taken. Most sponsored art period is not very good, and for very clear reasons. Westwood should have a James Carr mural. That would be a worthy project.

    But Oakland should also have a Huey Mural, and Pasadena should have a Michael Zinzun mural, and South Central a BUnchy Carter Mural etc….UCSD should have an Angela Davis Library…but those would not be examples of art, they would just be positive gestures. THen again, if they are funded by rich white boosters then it starts all over again.

    A friend of mine and I were in a community in Barquisimeto, Venezuela and a local pro chavez cop and a few other organizers had bought a bunch of paint to do a mural, and my friend who was a graffitti artist ended up painting Simon Bolivar, and the community really dug that an outsider chose that image. It would be really cool if some top notch muralists on their own went into communities around the world and painted the faces of important figures like that….It wouldn’t necessarily be art either but it would be something good.

    As for community centers, they really ought to have critical art workshops. That was a big part of the goal of Gunfighter Nation, to create a model that said community based art is still supposed to be art. And that people in the community should be offered the space to be real and critical practitioners.

    Right now most marginalized people, when they get a chance to do art it’s via a white savior who asks them to tell their inner city tale of whoa to well meaning liberals via painting or theatre or poetry or whatever, and that’s ghettoizing as you guys say.

  19. john steppling says:

    agree totally. And there IS certainly a place for propaganda……or agit prop. The problem is that its often confused with “art” — and part me just thinks it best to actually stop using that word….its a bit of a relic in a sense (another whole topic). Also.. these areas over-lap in ways that become their own area of confusion. But as an exmaple of what you say, the statue of martin luther king recently put up…the WHITE statue……in washington I believe….is actually a tool to cleanse King of his radicalism. Now he’s Santa King…..and utterly de-politicized. In the US Institutional authority is always going to make culture a reflection of imperialist ideology.

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