American Canvas

by Barry Drogin

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Members of the c-opera listserv may be interested in checking out a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts called "American Canvas," available on-line at in its entirety. There's an introduction from NEA Chairman Jane Alexander, then nine chapters on such topics as the arts and education, and technology, and community, and so on, and then a set of "Calls to Action." The NEA went to six cities (not including New York) and held panel discussions with artists, arts administrators, arts advocates and so on, then analyzed and compiled the results.

First of all, the report is not just of interest to Americans, as the state of the arts and of arts funding is on everyone's mind nowadays. Second, I don't mean to bring up the report just to bash it, but instead to use it as a starting point for serious discussion with anyone who is interested.

Some of the early chapters of the report are quite astute, and perhaps it is the failure of the report to deal with some of these initial issues that disappoints the most. The report asks how the American individualist tradition can be nurtured, citing Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles and Conlon Nancarrow as excellent examples. There is also an anecdote about a non-profit production of "Angels in America," which, despite its Pulitzer Prize, was met with protest and opposition at a regional theatre.

The most striking, and worrisome, insight, pertained to the ability of audiences, stripped of educational arts opportunities in elementary school and high school, to be anywhere near to a path that would eventually lead to an appreciation of the work of, say, Merce Cunningham. A later chapter cites Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" wake-up call to environmentalists, and it is clear that such a wake-up call is needed in arts education. This real threat to the "high art" traditions that many new opera creators subscribe to is glossed over in favor of the need to preserve folk traditions --- a worthy cause, but you can see how the funding pie is going to get sliced.

The "Calls to Action" that the report ends with are too vague to be of any use --- calls on educators and governments to "recognize" this or that about the arts, calls to "broaden" the scope of under-funded programs, and such. The direction that arts funding is going is clear --- toward more social-issue specific projects, toward serving community folk traditions, away from elite art forms --- in other words, away from just about everything and everybody that used to get funding in the past. Any non-profit institutions (like museums, theatres, dance companies and opera houses) that already exist must become local tourist attractions, or die. And individual artists that can't put a social-issue tie-in (like teenage pregnancy or some such) into their work will never see government money again.

Around the middle of the report these points of view start to dominate and take over. They point up a troublesome "dumbing down" of the arts, a complete rejection of aesthetics and rejection of "art for art's sake." The technology section mentions the threat to copyright as if it were a minor issue rather than a major Constitutional one. The importance of un-mediated art forms is barely mentioned in the idealistic rush to bring electronic pictures of paintings, electronic recordings of music and electronic videos of dance and theatre to rural areas.

The most offensive theme is the wholesale adoption of "identity politics" into the discussion, what many call the "myth of community." There are many artists and arts advocates, including many members of this list, who are convinced such "communities" exist. I see this as a dangerous idealization. The media and business interests fractured and destroyed all communities years ago; we live, even within our families, as alienated individuals grasping for meaning. The artificial creation of these "communities," in the name of "civic spirit" or "racial pride" or whatever, are intended to tell people who to vote for, what to buy, what to think and so on. The arts are among the few instruments to break through these artificial constructs and communicate from creator and performer directly to each individual audience member. The arts speak to individuals, not "new audiences" --- the Hispanic woman who loves opera, the Asian man who adores modern dance, the WASP who craves honky-tonk, whatever.

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A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007

Last Updated: November 11, 2007