Friday, February 20, 2009

Homo Neanderthal in the US Congress

That cultural neanderthalism still abides in certain quarters of the US government was evident this week during the Senate debate over inclusion of arts funding in the new stimulus bill. As reported by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times of Monday, February 16, 2009, in attacking the stimulus bill "Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, had grouped museums, theaters and arts centers with implied frivolities like casinos and golf courses."

Another representative of contemporary atavism, Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, stated that "'I just think putting people to work is more important than putting more art on the wall of some New York City gallery frequented by the elite art community.'" Kingston went on to suggest that the arts are "the favorite of the left," and added as justification for his opposition to funding the arts a populist-demogogic "Call me a sucker for the working man."

Countering Kingston was Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, who noted that "Arts workers ... have 12.5 percent unemployment" and asked his Republican colleagues if they were "suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn't real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance?"

I'm happy to report that the arts survived Republican hand wringing and made it into newly passed stimulus plan.

On the down side: the article noted that even as the arts were untied from casinos and golf courses these two latter institutions, along with zoos, aquariums and swimming pools, were excluded from the stimulus program. Don't casino, golf course, zoo, aquarium and swimming pool workers have rent and health insurance costs? Don't zoos and aquariums have high values within our educational and cultural lives? And as for their inmates, are we not alive to the fact that animals have rights, and, moreover, that at the least we have an obligation to those we hold captive?


vrm3 said...

It appears that Senator Colburn was angry over funding for an orchard museum in Maryland (

and an organized crime museum in Las Vega (

Coburn has been a fierce critic of what he considers to be wasteful spending regardless of who supports the spending. He amendment appears to have been overly broad in its targeting.

I wonder if his opposition would have been so fierce if the language in the bill specified that the stimulus funds for museums had to be used only for job producing actions, like adding a wing; repairing a building; or hiring folks to refurbish an exhibit.

Since this whole federal initiative is focused on boosting the economy (and virtually every economist says you need to get them started very quickly if they are to help), I would focus any funds going to museums on the activities that are most labor intensive, such putting on a new roof; constructing a new wing; painting the buildings; renovation projects involving lots of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and painters; and improving energy efficiency.

These should be short term and quick to implement projects designed to employ the maximum number of people as soon as possible. These kinds of projects could make the difference between a small company going under or a family running out of money. The museums would see tangible, often structural improvements; while the local economy would get an infusion of cash from the salaries and wages paid; and the materials purchased.

Barry Seldes said...

Dear vrm3,

Fair enough about Colburn's immediate motivation, his supposed upset with an orchard museum. But he said much more than that, according to the news report. "Museums, theaters and art centers" were his objects of animus.

Now as regards the stimulus package: yes, on a macro level we have to ensure quick rise in the employment rate. But those rates progress not merely by spending in various mass production centers, but as well in areas where a jolt of money can feed local shops, concerns, institutions, and thereby raise up a local economy that is not characterized by mass production. In other words, the emphasis on the macro metric, aggregate employment growth, must not marginalize communities such that we wind up with pockets of poverty. The plan must be extensive to be enduring, and to be just.

But on top of that is the hierarchy proposed by those who would put the arts at the bottom of the hierarchy. An arts policy that would ensure employment, e.g., the New Deal Federal Theater Project, would enhance American cultural life while it helped raise standards of living. There is nothing frivolous about working as a painter, or a dancer, or a sculptor, or a playwright. There should be no hierarchy with a machinist at the top and a poet at the bottom. Yes, I think the museum's carpenter should be employed; so too, the artist whose work might be collected by the museum. Yes to the local symphony stagehand, but yes to the composer working at his or her kitchen table.

Peakeone said...

It is important for the US to have money coming in from around the world. We buy too many products from China and purchase too much oil from the middle east and don't produce enough goods for international consumption. (Of course we do produce a lot of the worlds corn, and sell scrap metal to China, but that is not enough). The better the museums and the Arts, the more this encourages tourism and foreigners spending their Euros and other currencies here.

Also, the more we encourage the arts, the more we seem to be enlightened. We should work hard to shed the image of a bully (war-mongering GW) and to seem more like a nation of smart and sensitive individuals. But of course, the right will never see it this way.

claire-in-the-bronx said...

What about all the restaurants, cab drivers, and hotels that people visiting museums and other cultural attractions spend their money on. Doesn't this help support the working "men" (God forbid they support working women) that Coburn is so worried about?

Barry Seldes said...

Claire is absolutely correct. In fact, anyone whose income must be earned from work, anyone participating in the division of labor, is as deserving of income as anyone else. That includes not only Joe the Plumber but Jane the Croupier and Marion the Museum Curator. Need we recite from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice that we all bleed if we are cut? As for the stimulus, let me remind us all that John Maynard Keynes, the theoretical grandfather of stimulus packages, noted in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) that any salary, for any job, that goes to the unemployed or near unemployed goes virtually whole into the economy, and multiplies through as more demand, and therefore, more jobs. This rule does not have some dubious moral consideration, that some kinds of work are more worthy than others. Paying rent and feeding ones self and one's dependents is a need that is felt by anyone anywhere.

May I add that not only were the Republican opponents quoted in the NY Times article sexist, but insulting to the Joe the Plumbers for assuming that they have no interests in, nor aptitudes for, museum or concert hall or opera house art. Having grown up in a working class environment, I can testify to the unquenchable needs of so many in that class for those kinds of art that the no-nothings call "elitist."

Thanks, Claire, for pointing this out.

Barry Seldes said...

This is a comment sent to me by email by my colleague Jonathan Mendilow, and which Prof. Mendilow consents to publication on this blog:

1. I think that Obey got it, in the sense that all money that government spends is stimulative. If we have under- or even un- employment in ANY field , injecting demand into it would stimulate the economy and will hence be beneficial. Art suffers 12.5 % and that is MORE than most fields of employment, so.... 2. But, of course , there is something beyond this. All government spending is stimulative . The cliche is that even if it hires a person to dig ditches and fill them up , the $ injected into the economy is a $ . Obviously , too , the goal is to get a benefit beyond the stimulus. Thus, if the person above builds roads , then in addition to the $ injected to the economy , we have a usable product --a road. The question is , who decides what products we would rather have , and especially, who is it that should decide it? The Republicans are right in raising the question. I , for one , have my own answer. For all who know me , I am an old (pre Thatcherite ) British Conservative. In US terms this will put me in the most extreme Democrat position as concerns socio-economic dimensions , and a paternalistic elitist concerning cultural spheres (as well as other issues ). Thus , the aim of government is to do for society what society will not do for itself in education and the arts. The 'average' unintelligent person may prefer the soap opera and the casino. I think that government should invest in museums and in artists themselves, not only so as to allow us a better standard but to try to open the alternative to all who we hope will adopt it. This is not necessarily a democratic standard, yet I think that government receives a mandate to perform it and the people may look at its performance and judge it retrospectively . The Republican friends do adopt populist positions, but they seek to appease the lower self of the populous and enlist what they believe is their prospective definition of what is beneficial . Such a question, of course, is not limited to the arts. Who do we want to lead us? people like us , e.g. Bush , or people who will be better than us and would lead us towards things we ourselves could not do for ourselves (I hope Obama ) ? Well, we have an actual test of the results. I think all agree that the Republican way led us to a disaster. Yours, Jonathan.

LSMaterna said...

As with any issue, Republicans line up on the side of what they think has "value," and if for them it doesn't, than neither do the workers who bring us the things--zoos, museums, whatever--productive or reflective of that value. Now as for not spending for zoos however, we're not just talking about taking care of paintings or enhancing the citizenry's aesthetic life, but taking care of living beings. How that can be underfunding without doing harm to these creature/victims of human exploitation is something I'd like to see them justify.

Barry Seldes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barry Seldes said...

Brava to LS Materna. How right she is to note that only as one opens one's sensibilities to the totality of sentience in general, rather than seeking false refuge in analytic categories such as the economy, does one enter into the deeper experiences that give life to the ethical spirit.