Michael Kaiser + Scott Walters ≤ U.S. Senate


Yes, you read that equation correctly. Let me explain.

I read blogger-slash-pedagogue Scott Walters’ response to a Huffington Post essay by Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center. And it led me to a conclusion: If most arts bloggers agree we have multiple crises in the arts — from advocacy to funding to infrastructure and beyond — our biggest issues is the community’s lack of unanimity, in general, regarding what to do about it. Everyone is possessed of ideas, philosophies, approaches and rhetoric. But everyone also thinks, often very stridently, that they’re right — and as Thomas Garvey suggests in his Hub Hubbub column at the Clyde Fitch Report — everyone is capable of wrestling statistics into submission. Still, what gets done gets done incrementally. Collectively, in terms of marshaling its forces, we’re balkanized. In terms of thinking big all together, we are more typically as functional as the U.S. Senate.

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Kaiser’s HuffPo essay, called “Where Are the Arts Important?,” addresses a canard I thought we’d all dismissed long ago: “the claims of too many politicians that the arts are the province of the elite in big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles.” This claim is used, Kaiser reminds, “as an excuse for denigrating public support for the arts, and by extension, the arts themselves.” The implication: the arts affects “a very small, very rich, and very concentrated segment of our population.”

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In those big coastal cities — especially New York City — Kaiser notes, ticket prices are indeed “so high as to make them unaffordable for many.” But his essay is less an economic one so much as sociological observation mixed with cultural critique. Based largely on his own personal experience, he demonstrated why he believes that “the arts play a vital role in virtually every community across the nation,” why people “of all backgrounds and income levels are involved with the arts across the United States.” He cites turnout for events he’s held (part of his Arts in Crisis initiative) in Kalamazoo and Kansas City (400 and 750, respectively); later, he explains how a recent appearance in Meridian, Mississippi triggered his knowledge of “great art and artists from the region.”

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Or at least one artist, anyway: Leontyne Price, who was born in Laurel, Mississippi; Kaiser saw the great soprano in recital in his hometown of New Rochelle, New York, when he was 16. Almost free-associating, Kaiser mentions other globally acclaimed artists who began in interesting locations — that great Wisconsin-born ballet dancer Ethan Stiefel; that pride of Portland, Indiana, choreographer Twyla Tharp; that product of Corpus Christi, Texas, playwright Terrence McNally. Isn’t this, Kaiser asks without asking, proof that location doesn’t predicate interest in the arts or talent? Isn’t this evidence that artists should be encouraged, developed and nurtured wherever they are?

Hold on, hold on, writes Walters. The real problem is those evil “large Northeastern cities” that “regularly like to assert the universal interest in the arts whenever they are promoting their own agenda, which usually involves Hoovering up more than their fair share of the arts funding pool.”

Worse, Walters argues, the real reason Kaiser even mentions Price is because “she didn’t stay in the south, but traveled north to become the first African-American prima donna for the Metropolitan Opera in…New York.”

Walters’ anti-New York bias, usually as under the surface as a shark fin cruising the waters as the double-basses play in Jaws, is at least exposed in his post for what it is. He criticizes Kaiser’s citation of Stiefel, who became “the principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre in…New York.” Let’s not forget, Walters writes, how Tharp “began with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and also worked with the American Ballet Theatre in…New York.” And poor Terrence McNally, who “moved to…New York in 1956 where he became known for his productions on and off Broadway in…New York.”

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The overall point Walters makes, provoked by Kaiser’s essay, is this:

These are not artists who stayed in their community, or even in the states or regions where they were from. They are artists who were extracted from their communities in the same way that coal is extracted from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia and transported elsewhere for consumption. And what Kaiser wants us to do is applaud all the warmth that that coal is bringing to New York while the originating communities shiver.

Well, I have been accused of hyperbole before, but this is a hemorrhoid of revisionist history — and, most frightening, Walters actually believes it to his core. He believes it strongly enough to accuse Kaiser of “exploitation colonialism“: “the policy of conquering distant lands to exploit its natural and human resources.”

No, Walters says:

If we want the arts to be valued nationally, then we need to decentralize and deurbanize, and we need to stop the arts equivalent of mountaintop removal.

As CFR readers are aware, I am a fan of Kaiser’s but I am not above criticizing him. Still, there is a problem with Walters’ approach. He implies that metropolitan areas like New York forced these artists, as if at artistic or physical gunpoint, to abandon their hometowns. If “large Northeastern cities regularly like to assert the universal interest in the arts whenever they are promoting their own agenda, which usually involves Hoovering up more than their fair share of the arts funding pool,” is the idea, then, to hold local communities blameless for their lack, then or now, of opportunities for the artist? How many studies does the arts community need regarding how impossible it is to make a living as an artist in Dayton or Missoula or Little Rock or Providence or Portland? Isn’t that why planeloads and busloads of young artists still make their to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago each year? It’s not ideal. But it’s disingenuous to blame major metropolitan areas for what smaller cities lack in terms of cultural infrastructure.

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“If you want a democratic society to support the arts, distribute the money democratically,” Walters asserts. And he is, of course, making a good point. But here’s another point: Who says the vast majority of average citizens, particularly in radical-right states like South Carolina or Texas, where there is a stomach-churning aversion for government at any level, want the money?

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This week, for example, was big news out of South Carolina: embattled adulterer-governor Mark Sanford went to Washington to attend the National Prayer Breakfast and to ask for $300 million in stimulus-directed education money that he’d previously refused. Other governors in our so-called union have suggested they would prefer unemployment insurance funds to run dry rather than submit to fiscal support from the federal government. If you want a democratic society to support the arts, mustn’t we also, in addition to distributing money democratically, also distribute pro-arts arguments equally too? And would it not be through reminding citizens in towns like Laurel, Mississippi, or states like Wisconsin, what their progeny have contributed to the national cultural canon?

And why is Walters’ argument always “either/or” — either New York or the rest of the nation? Why is it never “and” — New York and the rest of the nation? Why is it better to be a divider and not a uniter?

Certainly Walters, with his professorial mien (pardon the homonym), will attempt to refute my arguments at every turn. Such is his right. Surely, then, it’s also Michael Kaiser’s right to make his point. The problem is, when you have Kaiser being the proponent of one set of ideals and goals and beliefs, and a prominent, articulate blogger like Walters being the proponent for another set of ideals and goals and beliefs, and dozens of additional voices, such as that of the Clyde Fitch Report, raising still other ideals and goals and beliefs for arts, the result is noise and instability — in other words, open invitation for common enemies to strike. Just as healthcare is probably dead due to a fractious, ego-driven, everyone-is-wrong-because-I’m-right U.S. Senate, arts issues are dividing us far more quickly than we can unite. At some point, can gridlock yield to compromise? Can cacophonies harmonize into the collective good?