Political Animals

Something Mittens said to an interviewer at Forbes

“[F]irst there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs — the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf. …”

Overlooking the “borrowed from other countries” part — it’s hardly the fault of Amtrack or PBS or the NEA that money has to be borrowed — the issue here is not whether government should pay for these things, or not, but whether we’re going to have them at all. Because, whether conservatives can admit it or not, not everything worthwhile and valuable can be supported through free enterprise.

The Right hates Amtrack because it hates all public transportation; what cannot be privatized must die. IMO a rail transportation system is one of those things, like the electric grid, that the private sector cannot be depended on to maintain. But for now I want to talk about the arts.

It so happens I’m on the board of directors of a local arts organization, which is a chorale. It’s a volunteer position; I take no money for it. I also typeset programs and fliers for the concerts so that we don’t have to pay a typesetter. Chorale members, who have to audition to be accepted, pay dues to the chorale to remain members. We enjoy the patronage of a large church that gives us a big break on renting rehearsal space and a concert venue. Our concerts usually are well attended, at $25 a ticket. We hold fundraisers such as auctions and spaghetti dinners to raise money. We grovel for donations pretty much perpetually.

And it’s still a struggle to stay afloat, because the fact is that it costs a whole lot of money to put on a live performance of a major choral work. Directors, rehearsal accompanists, vocal soloists, concert accompanists, orchestras, the insurance company, etc., all have to be paid, and the costs are way too high to cover with ticket sales, even when ticket sales are robust. In the past, this chorale has had SRO crowds of paying customers and still lost money on the concert. If we priced tickets at what we really needed to recoup cost, we wouldn’t be able to sell them.

It’s a fact of history that the fine arts always have depended on patronage, whether from the Church or the nobility or a government. Although you can find examples of great artists who managed to live on the sale of their works, you can find a lot more — even among the great masters of world art — who would have starved without the patronage of some wealthy individual or the church. And some of them did suffer real poverty at times.

In December the Chorale will be performing Bach’s Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, plus the Saint-Saëns Christmas Oratorio, with a small orchestra. In recent years we’ve been keeping costs down by performing works that didn’t require orchestral accompaniment, but now that part of the choral repertoire has been pretty much mined. And choruses tend to dry up if they don’t get to sing masterpieces like Wachet auf now and then. So, fingers crossed we don’t fall into too big a hole.

(BTW, Bach’s compositions didn’t earn him any royalties when he was alive. He depended on the patronage of Austrian royalty, who gave him music director and court composer positions. He was also widely admired as a keyboard performer. The Brandenburg Concertos were written for a Prussian prince as a kind of job application. He didn’t get the job. Bach’s compositions were not much performed in public until about a century after his death.)

It so happens we’re not eligible for state arts funding because we perform only two concerts a year. Any more than that would be pushing our members into more rehearsals and music-learning than most have time for. But there are many genuinely excellent vocal ensembles, orchestras, and even small opera companies I know of that depend on state arts council grants to keep going, and the state arts councils depend on money from the NEA to keep going. And I suspect if that money were to dry up, some of the donations given to our chorale probably would begin to flow to more prestigious groups. Also, many of our musicians and solo performers depend on getting gigs from arts council-funded organizations to pay their own bills, or they’d have to find new careers. So I believe we do benefit indirectly from the state arts council money in circulation.

If the NEA were to disappear, probably only the biggest and best-endowed performing arts organizations would survive. Even some big-city orchestras and opera companies probably would be endangered. And those performing arts organizations really do provide jobs to a lot of people, including sheet music printers and instrument makers. Plus they draw customers to restaurants and other businesses in the concert venue neighborhood. And people really do turn out to hear live performances of masterpieces; I have seen it with my own tired eyes.

So, basically, what we’re talking about is not whether taxpayers should help fund the arts, but whether we have fine arts available to the general public at all. I know less about the economics of visual arts, such as galleries and museums, so I don’t know how much they depend on NEA money. But it would be devastating to performing arts.

And, y’know, it’s going to be a lovely concert, in a beautiful church decorated with Christmas greenery, and people can come into a church to listen to masterpieces of sacred music at Christmastime. You’d think that would be the sort of thing conservatives would want to, you know, conserve. But I guess not.