U.S. Culture Suffers From Malign Neglect

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In an article in the Wall Street Journal online, Terry Teachout cites a national decline in audiences for the "high arts" and uses it to reiterate his position that orchestras, opera companies, museums and other arts organizations fail because of their in ability to innovate.

In order to survive, such institutions will have to constantly re-examine their missions and adapt to the brutal challenges of American culture in the 21st century.

Anyone care to argue? Bueller?

Of course not. As far as it goes, his point is simply that arts organizations need to do their best to stay relevant to the changing communities and shifting conditions. Cultural institutions have known that -- and talked about it and tortured themselves over it -- for at least 50 years. My article last week What's Killing the Orchestras of the United States? offered more or less the same point as a conclusion, that to be successful, an orchestra needed an effective, working board dedicated to immediate and long-term planning.

But the key words in the Teachout quote are "brutal challenges of American culture." With those words, he would like to let the wealthiest Americans in position to help these organizations off scot free. in the course of my article I laid out some of the many challenges facing orchestras. Teachout would like to sweep those aside and put the onus solely on the failed institutions. Do your job better, he implies, and all will be well.

That argument is an old capitalist rationalization. Businesses that fail deserve to fail. It allows us to walk away from the free marketplace with a clear conscience each day. But applied here, the argument trivializes and obscures known problems in education and in funding that currently plague the arts. It also ignores the special place the arts have in society, treating them as more or less disposable.

As I've said before, the wealthiest Americans have made a killing over the past three years but their charitable donations have not risen proportionately. A study published by the University of California at Berkeley found that from 2009 to 2012, the top 1% of U.S. incomes grew by 31.4%, while the rest grew at 0.4%.

In the meantime, charitable donations in general have not yet recovered. Giving USA estimates that if the current rate of giving continues, it will take a full six or seven years to reach pre-Recession levels. The small slice for arts and culture has been rising faster than giving in general, but still not enough to make up for the damage done by the drop-off beginning in 2008.

Audiences for the arts come from all walks of economic life, but as a direct result of the Great Recession, the vast majority have not seen their incomes rise sufficiently to reconsider subscriptions and memberships to cultural institutions. All the relevancy in the world isn't going to change that equation. No help coming from that direction.

Help from government funding is also missing. According to the Web site for Grantsmakers in the Arts, public funding for the arts has contracted by 31% since 1992, when adjusted for inflation.

Adding to that storm of obstacles, mainstream media outlets, dealing with their own set of crises headed into the Recession, no longer have enough staff to adequately cover regional arts groups. Many concerts, shows and exhibits go unnoticed in the press, unreviewed and disconnected from public discourse.

In public schools teaching of the arts is in its second generation of stark decline. Drama, visual arts, dance and music have all suffered further declines since 1999, with many urban schools doing away with arts programs entirely. The horrific result of that national neglect is a new generation of wealthy who feel the arts are a luxury that society as a whole can forgo for the time being.

Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world and a representative of new wealth, is quoted by the Financial Times questioning why anyone would choose to donate to a museum rather than put the money toward preventing blindness.

This indicates a terrible misapprehension about the role of culture in creating and maintaining a successful, productive citizenry. We are more than the sum of our physical parts. A denial of funds to an arts or cultural organization is a denial of the need of humans to understand themselves, a denial of our soul as a civilization. It guarantees dysfunction.

Gates is free to spend his money however he likes, but the statistics I cited above seem to indicate that the wealthy need not choose between the arts and social programs. They have enough money. They could easily make meaningful contributions to both.

Teachout and others, meanwhile, would like to believe there is nothing we can do, nothing we need to do. Arts organizations will either succeed or they'll fail and that is the natural course of things.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing natural in the race to the bottom in arts education and arts funding. It can be prevented simply by allocating public resources to prevent it, by beefing up of charitable organizations by donations from the country's wealthiest and wisest, by increasing the role of government funding, by demanding arts education in schools and energetically fighting against the tide of the shuttering of valuable cultural institutions.

Without support and education for the arts everywhere it appears, the result will be a glossing over of the best of our society's soul in favor of the pornographic commercialism of music and art made solely for profit. To elicit the best in ourselves, we need to dedicate hard work, hard-earned money and hard-won time, to the call of our better nature.

Challenged cultural organizations cannot succeed simply by remaking themselves. All will not be well without concerted public action. Further, the lion's share of the responsibility rests right now not with the organizations themselves, but with the wealthiest Americans. They alone in our current economic climate, are in a fine position to respond.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York

More from Opinion

Tuesday Turnaround: Micron, Autonomous Driving, and J.C. Penney

Tuesday Turnaround: Micron, Autonomous Driving, and J.C. Penney

Cable Stock Investors Should Keep an Eye On Wireless Broadband's Rise

Cable Stock Investors Should Keep an Eye On Wireless Broadband's Rise

Trump Blinks on China Trade War That's Looking Harder to Win

Trump Blinks on China Trade War That's Looking Harder to Win

Monday Madness: GE, China, and Micron

Monday Madness: GE, China, and Micron

Attention 60 Minutes: Google Isn't the Only Big-Tech Monopoly

Attention 60 Minutes: Google Isn't the Only Big-Tech Monopoly