The Evil Stench of David H. Koch and Corrupting Arts Philanthropy

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Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
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There is a character in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute known as the Queen of the Night. She is powerful, manipulative and vengeful. She represents the counter-Enlightenment forces of obfuscatory emotion and anti-intellectual deceit. The Queen of the Night also displays a violent, relentless self-interest.

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This brings us to David H. Koch.

What are we to think of the David H. Koch Theater, as the former New York State Theater was rechristened in 2008? Koch was the primary benefactor — $100 million — of a much-needed renovation to the theater that is home to the New York City Opera and the New York City Ballet. I suppose it’s great that NYCO is among the recipients of the largesse made possible by Koch’s stratospheric wealth. His generosity toward the opera, however, is merely the tiniest drop in the enormous bucket of his miserably pernicious effect on, well, everything else. In the world.

The renaming of the theater isn’t exactly a new development, obviously. But Koch has been all over the news lately as an ally on the wrong side in the ongoing Wisconsin union struggle. It is important that we keep in mind the links among all of Koch’s various projects and causes. It’s true he has donated generously — befitting his ever-increasing billions — not only to NYCO, but to renovating the fountains in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to a cancer research institute at MIT, and to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, among other worthy charities.

The Koch billions come from the rapacious oil, gas and chemical company — Koch Industries — that he and his brother, Charles, inherited from their father, along with their father’s abhorrent politics, and now run. The unworthy causes which also receive Koch money include Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and a web of other vaguely-named groups with aggressively libertarian missions focused on eradicating corporate taxes, union busting, denying people health insurance and government deregulation of, not coincidentally, industries like energy and chemicals.

While the New York State Theater and the MIT cancer institute bear Koch’s name, his conservative political funding projects are much more discrete. Through AFP and his other front groups, Koch funds the racist, crackpot Tea Party and then lies about it. Last weekend, AFP sent “Joe the Plumber” to Madison, Wisconsin, as an ambassador for their cause, insanely holding forth about the Communist threat unions pose. AFP is a horror show. Q.E.D.

The nasty piece of work that is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously enjoys the opera. This is the fact most often invoked to suggest his sensitivity and humanity, which, it must be said, are not infrequently in doubt. It was widely reported that when one of the (young, attractive female) singers at the Washington National Opera sat on Scalia’s lap during a 2009 performance, he displayed disingenuous charm. Though too delighted to have a (young, attractive female) singer sit on his lap, Scalia still doesn’t think women should have, you know, rights. I wonder that woman’s flesh didn’t fester where he touched her. I’ve been trying to make #AntoninScaliaIsTheWorstPersonInAmerica happen on Twitter, but it hasn’t taken off yet.

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Well, Scalia is a crony of the Koch brothers. I wonder if they rest from the hard work of feudalizing the country and discuss Verdi over brandy while lighting cigars with $100 bills. In light of the humanizing effect opera seems to have on Scalia’s reputation, it seems plausible that one of the reasons Koch donated $100 million to have the New York State Theater named after him would be to arts-wash his image. Good luck with that.

Behind the scenes, Koch works to manipulate, corrupt or simply buy the Tea Party, Republican governors and the whole federal government. (Don’t believe me? How’d those budget negotiations go last week?). Like, right now, and into the foreseeable future. The establishment of the David H. Koch Theater casts an almost tangible pall on the NYCO and the NYCB. That the “people’s opera,” as the NYCO was envisioned since its founding, should team up with David Koch, the antithesis of popular anything is ironic, at best. More to the point, it is operatically tragic.

Koch has been doing his best to see to it that these organizations’ need for him was inevitable. Koch gave a speech at the New York City Ballet gala in November of 2009 advocating increased philanthropy for the arts. Of course, this private philanthropy is especially necessary because Koch is vehemently against government financial support of anything except oil companies. Of which, let’s not forget, he happens to own one.

Koch furnishes money to renovate a theater, has it named for himself, then causes the national political atmosphere to make his donation NYCO’s best option at a time when it was truly in danger of folding. Or, to put it another way, he indirectly contributed to making it more difficult for NYCO to find other — that is, less repellant — donors. Koch isn’t responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world. But it can’t be said that he isn’t working to help every bad thing along. When stupid, corrupt, petty politicians win elections because of their overwhelming financial advantage, they govern with stupidity, corruption and pettiness. Here’s looking at you, Governor Scott Walker. This has all been catastrophic for the arts and for the economy, and thus for philanthropy.

I’m just guessing, but it seems inconceivable that the childish, racist lady in the photo, with an offensive sign at a Tea Party rally, would not be substantially better off in every possible way if, despite her sign, cap-and-trade passed and if corporations and billionaires paid more taxes. (I found the image at the always entertaining Look At This Fucking Teabagger blog.) That is, unless this woman is a billionaire plutocrat, but I doubt she is. If she were, she’d have duped some other teabaggers into carrying that ridiculous sign.

I hope Koch is as proud of this lady (whose bus to the rally AFP likely paid for) as he is of the David H. Koch Theater.

To his credit, Koch doesn’t seem much of a “social conservative” — which is to say an outrageous, across-the-board bigot. But he happily joins forces with and funds extravagant, incandescent racists, misogynists and homophobes. It is the unspoken deal that amoral gazillionaires have made to trick stupid, non-gazillionaire bigots (again, the Tea Party) into mobilizing against the government to cut corporate and plutocrats’ taxes.

I don’t suppose the Tea Party politicians for whom Koch buys “popular” support care much for opera — disdaining, as they do, humanism, art and beauty. One wonders whether, given the opportunity, they might rather raze Lincoln Center and build an evangelical megachurch over its ruins. Groups of megachurch worshipers speaking in tongues doesn’t provide the same edification or artistic integrity as, say, a soaring soprano aria, even one sung by the Queen of the Night.

And now, an epilogue:

After bedbugs were reported to have been found in David H. Koch Theater during October of last year, the pithy doyenne of the opera blog Parterre Box captured, succinctly, the essence of how liberal opera queens might think about the theater’s new name:

“One of buildings at Lincoln Center has become infested by a disgusting, blood-sucking parasite. And besides that, the David H. Koch Theater now has bedbugs.”