Sunday, September 19, 2010

Detroit Breakdown

I rarely agree with Terry Teachout about anything other than the high quality of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but I think he raised some good points in yesterday's WSJ piece "Disaster in Detroit."
I agree with those musicians who argue that cutting the average salary of a DSO player from $104,650 to $75,000 will transform the orchestra beyond recognition. The DSO will inevitably lose its best members and won't be able to attract replacements of comparable quality. But the players' decision to respond to the orchestra's financial crisis by voting to strike is a classic symptom of the cultural-entitlement mentality—the assumption that artists ought to be paid what they "deserve" to make, even when the community in which they live and work places a significantly lower value on their services. Any economist can tell you what has happened: In Detroit, being a classical instrumentalist is no longer an upper-middle-class job.

We like to think that great symphony orchestras and museums are permanent monuments to the enduring power and significance of art, but in the 21st century, we are going to learn the hard way that this is simply not true. Great high-culture institutions reflect the fundamental character of a city. In America, most of these institutions were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as manifestations of civic pride. But when a city's character undergoes profound changes, as has happened in Detroit, the institutions are bound to reflect that transformation. One way or another, they'll follow the money—and if there is no money to follow, they'll go out of business. The sad truth is that the Detroit Symphony is no more "permanent" than . . . well, your average auto company.

The liberal counterpoint to Teachout's laissez-faire argument might be something along the lines of, "well, in Europe, this is why the government steps in to support high culture institutions that couldn't survive otherwise." But I've never been particularly comfortable with that approach, and at any rate, in addition to limited direct support the federal government already subsidizes high-cult institutions by way of a tax code that makes no distinction between charitable giving to a homeless shelter and to the Metropolitan Opera. Classical music enthusiasts should count themselves fortunte for that; I'm not sure it would survive a popular vote!


6.54 said...

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about government-sponsored arts. I've heard it argued – though I suspect neither of us would be entirely okay with this either – that government funding for arts of any kind could be construed as "abridging the freedom of speech" of non-funded programs, particularly if government funding became a dominant method of supporting the arts.

I dunno. The bigger problem seems to be that the government is about 20 years behind the times in every respect. Less of a problem with traditional art forms; more of a problem with potentially controversial art; literally a fatal problem with art forms that didn't exist 20 years ago.

Of course... even that framework probably puts the Detroit Orchestra at the top of the list...

ritchey said...


joe musicology said...

I have a feeling that in the last year the federal government gave more money to bankers than to the arts or the homeless. These bankers are making $200,000 on average for less education and for failing miserably at their jobs. DSO musicians have more education, skill and success.
But what I am really wondering is why you have such strong negative feelings about orchestras? ("high-cult institutions,") It is not a zero-sum game, even in Venezuela there is a flourishing popular music scene--despite the strength of their state financed conservatory culture. Also, to think of it from another perspective, do you think that Detroit should lose its museums (MOCAD etc.) because the city can no longer financially afford them, and the population "places a lower value on their services?" I don't, and as an American liberal I think that, "well, now more than ever, these are the things the government needs to protect." Teachout is preaching the ideals of the race to the bottom and its effect of lowering the standards of the entire city--don't let him win!

PMG said...

The blogger Atrios has proposed a currency unit that he calls the "Month in Afghanistan," or Mia, which translates to about $6 billion dollars. The annual budget of the DSO is .0005 % of a Mia, and yes, I think that would be money much better spent!

You're right, it's not a zero-sum game, and neither the DSO nor horrible economic conditions have stopped the pop music scene in Detroit. I don't have an antipathy towards the high-cult institutions per se, but I do towards the hierarchical view of culture that makes them possible, Lawrence Levine and all that.

But really, my broader point is this: we're all historians here, and so we know that the institutions we are talking about grew out of a specific historical moment. And I think it's also clear that they won't be around forever, since that's not how culture works. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is not going to be around for ever, but neither is the BSO for that matter, and that's not a bad thing, that's just how history. These outfits are great for playing a very specific repertoire, the nineteenth and early twentieth century symphony, but they don't work well for much else. And so for me, knowing that these institutions are not actually universal and timeless, I want to know how they are going to manage that inevitable change. Sticking resolutely to their place in society doesn't seem like the best option to me.

@6.54, re: government funding, my general feeling is that it can produce great art when there is a lot of it, enough excess to spill over the edges of what's formally allowed and into enabling exciting new stuff. That seems to happen a fair amount in some European contexts (and Venezuela!) and I'm definitely a fan of that. But the American practice of just allowing a trickle of highly regulated, bureaucratized money into a few officially sanctioned contexts...well, it strikes gold sometimes, but that's usually in spite of the money! Frankly, I think one particularly effective way for the government to support the arts would be just a better safety net for everyone--health care, education, disability, retirement, etc.--so that it's easier for artists to live closer to the edge!

cpo said...

The government already funds the arts, it's called tax-free charitable donations. When these funds become significant one can think of it as the rich getting to choose where their tax moneys go.

Not that I think this invalidates the discussion above, but it does add an important interpretive layer.