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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hey Budget Cutters: Keep Your Hands Off High Culture

Posted By on Wed, Nov 26, 2008 at 1:50 PM


San Francisco is a classical city at heart.

By Benjamin Wachs

The knives are out, ready to slit vocal chords, sever Achilles tendons, gouge out eyes and lop off ears. 


In the last few weeks several major media outlets in town (plus a few) have run columns, editorials, letters or articles calling on the city to help fix its budget deficit by slashing the high arts: cut the symphony, cut the ballet, cut the opera, cut funding to the visual arts (at least those that are "classic" rather than "contemporary") and under absolutely no circumstances help bail out jazz clubs. My own publication is in on it, and SFist has forever earned my enmity by calling jazz a "dead" art form that can be replaced by "club nights."


In a time of fiscal crisis, everything should be looked at for savings - and I don't begrudge anyone the idea of making the arts part of across the board cuts. 


But there's also something perverse about it, since the city's agencies of high culture are some of the only non-profits that manage to keep their promises to the taxpayers.  


They are charged with creating world class artistic productions, and they produce world class artistic productions, winning rave reviews around the world and raising the bar for everyone. They are charged with raising San Francisco's tourism profile, and they do so brilliantly;  they are charged with giving city residents greater opportunity to access the very best in the Western artistic traditions, and they do it. 


Other non-profits that the city funds promise to end homelessness, reduce violence, empower kids, increase our housing stock... hey, how's any of that going?  Those goals being met? 


If efficiency matters in a budgeting process (and it should be one of the cornerstones) then San Francisco's institutions of High Culture have earned their taxpayer subsidies in a way most other city non-profits haven't.  If we want to reward efficiency, cuts to the high arts shouldn't be on the table.


But this argument is about more than simple budgeting issues. All of these calls to kill high culture have been accompanied by a mean populist streak:  these art forms are elitist, unpopular, Western. They stink of money and carry the whiff of dead white males (except, ironically, for the city's jazz clubs). The city, we are told either explicitly or between the lines, has no business funding such hoity fare: we should spend money on contemporary art, the kind that has no history or provenance except, perhaps, a politically correct program blurb;  something more hip;  something (to use marketing language) "that kids go for."   


This is a particularly ironic stance in a city that loudly insists on the importance of never forgetting history: we lead the world in museums-about-oppressed-people per square mile, we insist on knowing every detail about the brave black/gay/Amerindian/Armenian/Jewish people who stood up against or for whatever it was at the time that was worth standing up about, and yet when given a chance to actually participate in a cultural heritage that belongs to all of us, not just some of us, we get mad - as though the common history somehow drives out the particular. 


But the high arts are our most common cultural heritage in its most concrete form:  a solid manifestation of the best western culture has produced.  Why would we want to deny the current generation, especially its most impoverished, their chance to access it?  Why would we want to elevate the dark crimes that came out of the west but not its brightest lights?  To insist on remembering slavery while allowing jazz to be forgotten is to rob black history of its redemptive spirit, and deny us the richness of its fruit. 


The world of classical painting is the atomized building blocks of the modern eye;  the world of opera is the stuff the modern ear is made of:  to forget them is to rob the next generation of its inheritance and leave them a cultural deficit that the market will rush to fill with advertising.  If we care about diversity of thought, we must care about protecting high culture: without it, nothing's left but the market. 


That the city of San Francisco has a stake in high culture's success, and a reason for promoting it, was established most recently with the movie "Milk." How much city money, in the form of tax breaks, staff time, official sanction, and cooperation, went to support it?  Does anybody mind?  Of course not:  because it helps the world remember what happened, reminds them that the struggle goes on, and because it's a good movie.  Those same justifications all support the High Arts:  while (often) not so explicitly political, the reminders of the struggles of 400 years ago are no less germane today, because forgetting them means repeating them.  A world without high culture is in a permanent state of amnesia. 


But what if people want to forget?  That's an argument that rings hollow in a progressive city, where every citizen is called upon to render unto the common good what is good:  we insist that people "be aware" of environmental issues, war issues, economic issues.  In what way is demanding an "awareness" of the symphony more obtrusive into private life or any less justified than demanding an "awareness" of housing issues? At least the symphony is nice to listen to.


Oh, but it's not popular!  Right! They don't play it at dance clubs!  Pity.  And, since all art is equally good and meaningful, that means that the symphonic can be replaced by trance, jazz by hip-hop, and the Rodins in the Palace of Fine Arts can make was for installations on their way to the Playa. 


And so they could:  except that not all art is created equal.  It's no slander against trance, hip hop, and whatever Chicken John is doing now, to point out that the difference between high and low culture is a real one:  High culture makes demands of us. We must make an effort to unlock its treasures, and effort requires discipline.  Pop culture may be no less rich, but it also makes no demands:   the mode of appreciation for pop culture, as it is meant to be enjoyed, is unreflective.  However much attention we pay to it, it requires no effort, and so serves as little more than background noise. 


In this sense, San Francisco is actually a classical city:  it makes demands of its residents. It insists that you "be aware," it urges you to get involved, it bombards you with information;  and telling activists "I'm sorry, this issue is hard and unpopular" is not a get-out-jail-free card.  This is classical culture in a nutshell:  the symphony may require more attention than a beat, the impressionist exhibit may not have blinking lights, and jazz ... undoubtedly America's classical music ... may not go down well with ecstasy, but these are art forms that we should know, that are good for us to know, and that - if we can keep our internet-addled brains focused for long enough - will reward our attention with pleasures that are far more gratifying than immediate. 


A truly progressive city demands high culture, and I rather doubt that a city can be truly progressive without it:  a city that can't remember its past will never know where the future is, let alone how to get there. 


High culture is an essential firewall protecting diversity of thought, and a fertile birthing ground for new aesthetics;  it is both a link to our past and a living tradition that is open to everyone who is willing to put in effort.  In time, no doubt, some of today's performers will have their most cutting-edge works added to high culture's pantheon - and if we want to leave them as a legacy, we'd better preserve it. 


None of which means our institutions of high culture can't shoulder their fair share of across the board cuts, or be asked to be more effective and inclusive.  But their survival is essential.  A progressive city demands classical art. 


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Benjamin Wachs


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