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High art – low art – art

This from Friedrich Blowhard is right on the money. It’s a piece about the financing of “high” art in America, and identifies one of the the key facts: the tax laws.

It was not clear that there would be an endless succession of extremely wealthy art-fanatics who would be willing to spend their money behind the scenes to prop up these institutions. The solution, oddly, was the 1894 income tax law, which included a provision that charitable donations to nonprofit corporations organized for “educational” purposes would be tax-deductible. This presented the wealthy with a choice of paying the government taxes or donating to nonprofit enterprises, which was a choice many less-than-religious supporters of the arts were willing to make – especially if they got to be a certifiable member of the social-cultural elite in return. In short, the income tax provided the incentive, and the nonprofit corporation the vehicle, to broaden the group “supporting” the uneconomic arts.

The biggest givers, while no longer required to assume a heroic burden like that of Mssrs. Morgan or Higginson, got another perk as well: they got control of the enterprise because they sat on the board. These wealthy, prestige-seeking board members, often determined to use their art institution to civilize the masses, had an intensely conservative effect on the material that was actually presented and how it was presented – no more of the wild and wooly hybrids of “low” and “high” art which we saw were financially successful for decades in New Orleans-style opera and on the vaudeville stage. No, by jingo, we were all going to take our “high” culture straight. So much for giving the customer (the American public) what they wanted.

I can’t help contrasting the state of “high” art now, either getting disguised government money in the way described above, or else just plain getting government money as here in Britain, with the state of affairs when art truly sparkles, and reaches out to grab both its own contemporaries and the next few centuries by the throat. At those magic times, new money and old money, rich money and poor money, are all thrown into the same pot, and you get immensely sophisticated but (and!) also immensely popular stuff, like Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven, Verdi and Puccini, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, and the best of the movies and the Broadway musicals. How else could Falstaff meet Prince Hal on equal terms, or Hamlet meet the Gravediggers? How could The Fool turn the tables on King Lear? How else could Papageno and his Papagena have shared a stage with Sarastro and the Queen of the Night? Only an audience with such contrasts in its own midst could have cheered, laughed and cried such art into existence.

One of the great tragic figures of late twentieth century art was Leonard Bernstein, a man who understood perfectly how much high and low art both have to gain from being shoved together in the one place, in front of the one audience. He composed West Side Story, one of the all time great Broadway musicals – itself based on Shakespeare’s immensely popular Romeo and Juliet of course. So he did scale the peaks, once. Yet mostly, the times he lived in forced him to choose between high art and low art, and he had to settle for high. He spent his mature years composing seriously classical music (in hideous solitary confinement) and conducting seriously classical music (endlessly recycling of the core classical repertoire, although heaven knows he did it wonderfully well). All his life he tried to create the kind of musical audience he really wanted, but it just wasn’t there.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, I once met Brian Sewell, the “art” (now there’s a strange usage) correspondent of the London Evening Standard, and I asked him: Can popular entertainment – movies, pop music, pop videos, comic books, adverts, computer games and the rest of it – ever truly be “art”? I asked him this because I suspected what the answer was going to be and that it was going to be an anecdote to last me for a lifetime. Sewell did not disappoint me. He considered my question for a little while, mentally and (it may even have been) literally placing the oh-so-refined tips of his oh-so-refined fingers together. Finally, in that ludicrously affected voice of his, he replied:


I don’t know Sewell’s origins. I don’t know if he is a genuine upper class twit defending himself against the upstart masses, or an upwardly mobile go-getting lower class class-traitor with an absurd tape recorder voice lesson phase buried in his past. Either way, what a silly man.

9 comments to High art – low art – art

  • Reader

    Hey Perry, they say if you have money you can buy anything.

  • Kevin Connors

    While I think you may be on to something here, Brian, I fail to see that you, or Friedrich, have clearly tied the highart/low art schism (or, for that matter, the corruption of both) to government funding.

  • Tom

    Brian Sewell is a snobbish twerp. He likened the attack on the WTC to Jesus throwing the money changers out of the table. What an arse.

  • zack mollusc

    Why should my tax money go on art of any kind? Surely art is a luxury and an easy way of making money for the few. If you like a piece of art and you have a few million, buy it. Or just point at random at your belongings and declare it a work of art.

  • It might surprise Samizdata readers that there at least some artists who don’t like the government subsidizing art. And they’re not all libertarian zealots. Some artists have noticed how “official” art tends to be conformist — even in relatively free societies such as the United States. State supported art comes with many strings attached. You have to win the approval of various boards, commissions, etc. These groups, even when made up of artists, tend to favor the artists’ views.

    I know my art (see http://home.att.net/~chuck.divine/sfart/) doesn’t tend to conform to the current standards of “high” art in the United States. Too much of “high” art today to me seems like boring junk.

    Zack, I feel for you. Art isn’t really a luxury. It’s an important way of understanding the universe we live in. You might be surprised that most artists don’t get rich at it. And, trust me, what I and others do is not easy.

  • zack mollusc

    Sorry if I offended you, Chuck. I reckon art is something impractical which is difficult to replicate by myself using the same tools. That sounds a bit vague, so……. a load of tyres or bricks or half an animal is not art, in my view. A canvas with geometric areas of colour is not art. I can replicate this conceptual crap and I am no artist. A portrait of a person in oils that looks like the subject is my idea of art.
    Finally, what do you call rich? Compared to some poor bugger on min wage in a council flat who can work for 50 years and get nowhere?
    Looked at your stuff. Pretty. Looks like book cover things. Don’t agree that it’s an important way of understanding the universe we live in.

  • Sigivald

    Zack: Must disagree, in part.

    By which I mean, Mondrian’s work is definitely art (though this may not be obvious without a good look at a high quality print or an original; there’s subtlety there that doesn’t reproduce so easily).

    In my own defense, I can’t stand “conceptual” art either, and normally prefer representative art, but geometric areas of colour on a canvas need not be purely “conceptual” art; as an exercise in proportion, color relationships, and use of space, they can work better than description would lead one to believe.

    (And I can’t bloody stand Pollock, either.)

  • Kristie Blanch

    What are the constiuents for high art? Low art? It seems so nebulous. Also, what are your thoughts on art in the “mechanical age of reproduction” (to quote W. Benjamin)? How has it affected the permeation of art throughout our society?

  • Rob

    I don’t give a toss about art, I just say: “BRIAN SEWELL FOR PRIME MINISTER”