Art’s Establishment

Entitled by Jennifer Lena, a professor of sociology and arts administration at Columbia, delivers a wonkish look at how strains of popular art in America are coronated objects of sophisticated taste. Her question: By what means is something low-brow made high-brow? Seemingly a rather narrow topic, it touches upon one of the great fault lines in contemporary politics: the relationship between populism and establishment.

For those who hope the populist sensibility of today’s right might permanently shape America’s leading institutions, the book’s “findings” are not encouraging. Entitled concludes that America’s elite firmly controls the ratification process that confers standing on popular arts and lodges those deemed worthy in the nation’s museums and symphony halls. That elite is ensconced in metropolitan foundations, non-profits, and colleges, places where conservatives are thin on the ground.

Entitled offers far too much focus on policy without enough attention to theory. Lacking an aesthetics, the nature of art and how it is conveyed is narrowed. The clue is that there is no discussion of industrial design anywhere in the book. For this reason, the idea that Ford motor car company, for example, sets styles and fashions is overlooked. This omission hampers the book’s other major claim that arts flourish when inoculated from commerce: the contention that non-profit management and government funding expands the arts is hardly defensible.

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote a defense of popular detective fiction. Himself the author of many detective stories—his Father Brown mysteries are classics of the genre—Chesterton argued that crime fiction is art. Graham Greene (1904-1991) was obviously not convinced because he described his own mystery novels as “entertainment” to distinguish them from his true art, novels like The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, which made him part of the canon. Chesterton states that art is a principal engine of civilization, the moral character of which is the most astonishing innovation in the world. He reasons that crime novels are a crucial component of that engine, for the model of the detective, he contends, is the selfless chivalry of the medieval knight. A weary but steadfast sentinel keeping evil at bay. For this reason, P. D. James argues that a believable detective story could not be built around a corrupt police officer. Fictional detectives can be battered and damaged, but not corrupt.

Inquiring into archives, Entitled is a sort of documentary history, especially around the New Deal, with Lena, who is less romantic than Chesterton, arguing that the source of civilization is funding: “The pace at which America legitimated these art forms was slow, which serves to remind us that, while works of art may connote indelible, transhistorical value and prestige, their presence in our culture is contingent and arbitrary.” The last 90 years has witnessed a ratification process through which certain nativist or popular arts—jazz, tattooing, graffiti, dance –have morphed into the tastes of sophisticates. America inherited orchestras and paintings from Europe, but a transformative process began with the New Deal, when government invested heavily in art.

For example, the projects of the Federal Theatre employed nearly 11,000 workers and operated in 31 states. In 1936, around 36 million Americans attended performances of the Federal Music Project. These are impressive numbers, but the real legacy is the politics of this government investing. Chesterton thinks that detective fiction deserves the label of art because it maps a civilizational battle between good and evil, but of uppermost concern to the funding machinery of ratification is a diverse, but shared, public culture “critical to a modern, heterogeneous republic.” No theoretical time is spent explaining the coherence of this goal.

Decisions about what gets included in the public culture must be made and space found to put that artistic expression upon a pedestal. This is the task of the “elite stewards,” who are reportedly omnivorous in their tastes, if not their colleagues. Art foundations are bastions of highly educated white folk, who make up 72% of the staff, with minorities mostly consigned to the food and security jobs in museums. The fundamental direction of the arts in America is set by those with cultural capital, which is communicated through family, schools, and the right sort of universities. There is still something to the old mantra of the arts world that a curator is born, not made. Still, a democratizing is said to be afoot. Citing a 25 year-old article, Lena contends:

Unlike the cloistered elites of the nineteenth century, today’s elect are likely to interact with people from other social classes in the workplace and in grocery store queues… Generational politics have contributed to a trend away from snobbishness… toward interclass interaction.

Standing in the queue at the grocery is a ridiculously narrow idea of interaction, but even it is likely non-existent. 25 years was a long time ago in an America whose rich now express a narrow, feudalistic outlook and reside in bastions comprising America’s most economically segregated cities.

A major figure in Lena’s story is Nelson Rockefeller, who worked tirelessly to have his private collection of primitive art put into New York’s Metropolitan Museum. His success was consequential, significantly shaping the public’s perception of worthy art. Lena’s pages on Rockefeller’s legacy illustrate that for nigh on a century America’s opinion makers have been determined that the establishment must celebrate diversity and inclusion. At one level, why wish it otherwise? It appears a vital idea that a republic of self-legislators celebrates the artistic accomplishments of its varied sub-groups. However, though Lena herself is clearly a friend of the progressive establishment, she points out that the decisions of the “elite stewards” are more than a little tinged by exoticism: opinion makers take a not altogether healthy thrill from a contained exposure to the other.

Skeptics will wonder why government is picking winners and losers in the arts. Theoretically, there is a potent image to ponder. Chesterton remarks that crime fiction is set in cities (an important exception being Agatha Christie’s English village). Great cities, he observes, are like massive constellations of hieroglyphs; meaning is everywhere, and thus Sherlock Holmes finds significance in a misplaced brick. Skeptics will rightly challenge that Entitled is also a story of the city, but one cramped, institutionalized, and compartmentalized: government funding dedicates buildings to art which shifts its locale from amongst the people. Emblematic is the removal of street art to showcase in galleries.

We are told that artists flourish best with “high public support,” assuring “robust delivery systems” that give access to “the real American character” (emphasis original). How this claim is reconciled with another is unclear: “primitive art, outsider art, and design were inventions of art-world insiders. Aesthetic entrepreneurs like Rockefeller, but also art dealers and academics, invented and then populated these fields.” Puzzlement deepens further: left unexplained is in what sense Nelson Rockefeller was any sort of entrepreneur, as opposed to an heir of one of America’s greatest fortunes which he used to access the public purse to force the rest of us to digest his particular aesthetic tastes.

Lena’s focus is the legal and economic implications of trusts, foundations, and architecture of non-profits. She documents how in the past ballet, opera, and theatre had been commercial ventures, but were the first arts to adopt the non-profit model. In elite circles, this conferred legitimacy, for the model distanced these arts from markets, inoculation from commerce being perceived as a condition of elegance. This is where the lack of theory in the book hurts most. Industrial design is the primary vehicle by which the world has been made beautiful: artists and engineers, builders, and draughtsmen, have given us bridges, houses, tower blocks, cars, watches, aeroplanes, kitchens, and bathrooms. Adam Smith and David Hume discerned the intimate relationship between commerce and the refinement of the arts and sciences. They would be unsurprised that the signature beautiful object of our age is the iPhone: utility combined with design, the iPhone graces the lives of billions who use it to register the teeming hieroglyphs of places and peoples far from the precincts of the “elite stewards” of museums and concert halls.


final fantasy

What Is Art?

Politics shouldn't determine what counts as art, but the energy released and channeled by art has a profound effect on politics, for good or ill.