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The Therapy Sessions
Monday, March 08, 2004

Let's learn something from the French

In the late 1990’s, the French had one of their periodic bouts of xenophobic paranoia about foreign influence in their culture.

For decades, the French government had been subsidizing its film industry. Their hope was that French film would become the envy of the world – a showcase of artistic excellence and a display of French cultural superiority.

It didn’t work out that way.

French filmmakers, released from their obligation to turn a profit, turned their talents to producing whimsy. Critics, a group that included money-losing theatre owners, described French films as diffuse, unappealing and unprofitable.

By the late 1990’s, the situation had gotten so bad that 75% of the screens were showing imported films, which actually brought in crowds. The French government – in its loveable way - attempted to force theater owners to devote 50% of their screens to French films.

Presumably, their next great plan was to purchase the bankrupted theaters.

This anecdote, I think, illustrates everything that is wrong with government involvement in the arts (and a good part of what is wrong with France).

Its lesson is that government should have nothing to do with the funding of art, for the precisely the same reason that government should not buy sports stadiums for sports teams, or protect failing industries in the hope that they will grow more competitive.

But art is a particularly easy call, because after years of smashing rules and breaking conventions, artists now find their cultural landscape strewn with nothing but debris.

Modern artists get no respect? Look no further than modern art. It is often the colorful chicken scratches of third grade talent, a ridiculous mingling of obscure images and radical, wacky philosophies. And no display of modern art is complete without venomous attacks on business people, politicians, scientists and religion.

This wasteland has been evolving for quite some time. Brancusi – now regarded as one of the great sculptors by art critics – once had difficulty getting his art through American customs. His art - a sculpted lump of pig iron that looked remarkably like an unsculpted lump of pig iron - was confiscated by custom officials who thought that he was smuggling in raw steel without paying the required import duties. Modern art groupies laugh when they tell this story, sniffing that customs officials aren’t qualified to be art critics.

What better evidence is needed of the detachment of modern art from modern society? Is this art or fashion?

I think government funding is toxic to artists, mainly because it allows them to avoid the painful growth required to attract an audience.

Mozart’s service to a succession of masters is legendary; indeed, the inner conflict between what he wanted to play and what his bosses wanted to hear is the key to understanding his depression late in his life. Yet he produced quality music. Someone of his prodigious talent would do well in any generation, under any circumstance.

I can’t see Mozart, upon learning that he’d been denied government funding, deciding to go into, say, accounting, because the world is populated by Phillistines. But had he received a handsome paycheck for his early work, it is quite possible that a contented Mozart might not have made the art that the conflicted one did.

I don’t favor giving money to the talented guy who plays pipe organs, the mediocre man who does street mime, the incredibly-talented nutcase who sculpts excellently using chewing gum, Pennywise the clown and his amazing balloon animals, the symphony that wants a new concert hall, the African bolo dancer, the guy who welds sheet metal together to look like birds or the break dancer.

Each one will get the same answer from me when they come to me with their hands out: go away.

America is far from artless. It has burgeoning literature, excellent independent filmmakers, and countless painters and sculptors.

I personally want to see art that represents a high degree of technical mastery. I went to a dozens of concerts (all with no government funding, naturally) before I had kids. If I went to a concert and saw that the performer was playing guitar only slightly better than I play guitar then that’s the end of concert for me!

Others might appreciate different aspects of the un-talented guitarist. Perhaps his lyrics sound like poetry, for example.

Trying to codify that into law, and interpreting fairly for the thousands of different types of people who make up any modern society, is impossible. You can’t, and nobody can, and I’d hate to see what a hash government would make of it.

Hey, they’d probably just do what they do now– give money to their elite friends at the symphonies and art galleries (while impoverished hip hop musicians have to go tour to survive).

It is impossible to define art at something above the personal level. Some people may feel a blood covered Star of David or a decapitated businessman are works of art. Fine. I call them political expressions. Let them pay for them.

The art world is torn by competing answers to a timeless question: what is art?

Government involvement is not going to help answer that question.

We can at least learn that much from the French.

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