Monday, March 14, 2005

High Cultural Fraud

I have a soft spot for Paul Fussell. Though he can be a bit cruel. Though he can be a bit cocksure. Though he's really turning into an old crank . . . in spite of all these things I still can't help but love the man who wrote Class, that most insightful dissection of 1980s American culture.

His newer book along the same lines is BAD. He's still got his ear to the ground, but his hearing isn't quite as keen, especially when it comes to pop culture. BUT he's still got the gift when it comes to things like manners and what passes for high culture these days, and that is more what the book is really all about.

Something like wrestling is, for Fussell, "merely bad." But something bad and pretentious, like a mediocre, expensive and snooty restaurant--well that's BAD.

One of the things Fussell jumps on is classical music and the cult of the conductor. He attacks Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, saying they are basically frauds preying on a classical audience that can't tell the difference between the fraud and the real thing. He also attacks abstract public sculpture for the same reasons.

I got to thinking that art, as depicted by Fussell, looks a lot like a bureaucratic product--and indeed we do have a lot of bureaucrats working in the arts world these days, and a lot of the artists who do well seem to do well by scoring cushy gigs with government or quasi-governmental organizations, and certainly I look at a lot of the products of our official, grant-supported "high" culture these days as being to art what bureaucratic double speak and ass-covering is to leadership.

This I think is the real dirty secret of the arts world. People like Mapplethorp who create outrage may be tiresome and old hat, but they are much to be preferred as artistic poster boys than the master grant applicants who make up most of the arts world.

How much would we lose (and what would we gain), I wonder, if we just pulled the plug on all arts funding with the exception of arts education and things like community theatre. Not to save the money, but to save art.