For some time now it has been clear that the great works of Western civilization are under assault for being the unfairly privileged impositions of European culture. The latest manifestation of this assault is An American Dialogue, a report of the National Task Force on Presenting and Touring the Performing Arts. This slickly produced booklet, paid for by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a definitive statement of the new gospel of what people ought to be seeing and hearing in the name of art. Its chief goal is to appropriate the task of artistic presenting— which makes available travelling music, theater, and dance attractions to local audiences on a short-term basis—for the frankly political purpose of achieving “a profound impact on American society and the changes that are shaping it.”
The political message of An American Dialogue is especially troubling because, for much of America, locally supported presenters provide the only live artistic performances available. In the increasingly distant past, such presenting was either undertaken for profit, and therefore subject to audience taste, or was part of the high cultural uplift American education once thought to be its public task. But since World War II, the tremendous rise in presenters’ costs, fueled largely by an explosion in artist fees, has combined with a huge increase in public funds for nonprofit presenters, many of them in colleges and universities, to render for-profit presenting impossible. Freed from the need to be supported by a paying audience, the way is now open for the use of aesthetic offerings to implement radical social and political agendas.
The new trend, of course, is multicultural. And so, for the authors of An American Dialogue, the splendid American record of transmitting high culture is no more than the result of “European immigrant artists .. . [responding] to the need to perform” and “European immigrants [having] brought with them their hunger and demand for European-style performing arts events.” The report proudly generalizes this socially based theory: “[M]any Task Force members easily regarded community as the true source of all culture.” New times, then, produce new communities, and since the authors of An American Dialogue regard “all culture” as a product of the community writ large, it is not surprising that their definition of art is (to say the least) expansive:
[O]nly in the last two decades have we begun to recognize the breadth of genres, styles, sources, venues, artists, artforms, and expressions that comprise the performing arts and on which the future of presenting and touring muse be predicated. This is in contrast to the established routine that presenting and touring followed for many years, as art was given the stamp of approval in New York and Europe before being disseminated elsewhere.
And so the art requiring dissemination now is the activity of “cultures and people . . . scarred by centuries of violence against them” and whose “histories, and the images and expressions that have grown from them, must be recognized and supported.” Those responsible for presenting art must remedy their ignorance of “cultures other than their own, or arts disciplines other than those they already know,” and become “educators” whose “first purpose ... must be to expand the community's awareness of the sources and breadth of American culture.” Like the goal of art, the goal of presenting is to be “cultural equity,” the acknowledgment that
every culture has worth and that its worth must be recognized, expressed, presented, and supported…. Demographic change is already rewriting the story of community dynamics and institutional responsibility. As power shifts (and it will, despite tremendous resistance), the present economic, political, and cultural stories must be rewritten.
Thus for those presenters who were so carefully chosen to do the bidding of An American Dialogue’s flinders, art, if it can be said to exist at all, is a matter of the daily life—and the political life at that—of the tribe. The implications of this attitude are clear for us to ponder: where art is forced to go, can life—not the life of the tribe, but the life of the individual—be far behind?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 7, on page 2
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