As Americans, our hearts may bleed over the fate of poor Willy Loman, the broken-spirited drummer of Arthur Miller's celebrated play. But is hasn't changed us any. We still believe firmly in the power and merit of salesmanship.
Implicit in our way of life is the conviction that a good spiel can sell anything. In our own times, God himself has been designed a fit subject for "promotion." We've seen bus placards and TV spots proclaiming that the family that prays together, etc. One wonders how many tottering house-holds have actually been salvaged by such councel. But we go in the blithe faith that we are doing good by advertising morality.
More lately still, "the arts" have been taken up as a public relations campaign. Perhaps your eye was caught the other day by a sizable "public service announcement" (it looks like an ad but no one profits) in this newspaper, over the imprimatur of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Advertising Council. It was headed, "Picture your community without the Arts," and the copy asked you to "Imagine no theater. No music. No sculpture or painting. Picture the arts gone and you picture a lot of beauty missing. But the arts not only create beauty, they create jobs..."
This chain of reasoning leads to the thought that the arts attract tourists, who spend money on dining, hotels, taxis, clothes and so forth, and therefore are a spur to employment and a lodestone for industry. "And the arts are an industry in themselves. Like any other industry they employ people, buy goods and services, and generate taxes." The implication is that if the arts were gone, business and jobs would be too. "So it'd not only be pretty dull, it'd be pretty lonely." And in much larger letters, below a big chunk of white space, stands the supporting the arts in the first place. Either art is a sacrament, involving a quest for the mystery and terror, the ecstasy and pain, the comedy and tragedy of existence, or there's no reason to make more of a fuss over it than over bookkeeping or gardening.
It's also disastrously misleading to characterize the arts as "an industry," without making conspicuous note of the distinction between art and ordinary commerce. It's true, of course, that there are fields catering to a mass public-the movies, TV, "legitimate" theater-where the two overlap considerably. But it's precisely the difference between most artistic enterprise and profit-oriented business that puts artists in the position of dole-seekers. The arts aren't "cost-efficient," nor can they avail themselves of labor-saving devices, unless we're willing to replace Isaac Stern with a fiddle-playing computer. To be sure, the administraion of large artistic institutions or companies may be open to business improvements , but even so, there's no way the arts themselves can be rendered self-supporting, as centuries of royal, ecclesiastical and public patronage have shown.
The arts do need support, in the sense of merited subsidy, and in the sense too of recognition that art is treasurable for itself, for what it does for the human spirit-not General Motors. But a little reflection should show that we can't continue to hawk the arts as if they were brand names without having the effort backfire on the arts themselves.The experience of art ought ideally to be one which is relatively free of the hokum, image-spping and self-aggrandizement which infects so many other departments of contemporary culture. But if we persist in plugging the arts, the arts will become-plugoia. slogan: "Support the Arts: That's where the people are."
But it's not possible to transfer merchandising techniques invented to peddle soap or sports cars to the arts without training the operation with boosterism and cant. The "picture your community without the arts" ad was part of a broader campaign undertaken by the Arts Endowment last year in conjunction with the Advertising Council. An earlier item was a TV spot that showed a hot dog vendor explaining that he "loves the arts" because he sells lots of franks in front of concert halls or theaters. The underlying theme of both these messages is that the arts are good because they're good for business. Down this road lies cultural ruination. Think what happenes to the historical role of artists as visionaries and revolutionists, as critics of the establishment and the status quo. Is art that's good for business any better than art that's good for the Kremlin? If the only art we're willing to support is that which enhances the gross national product, we're going to end up with art that is little more than puffery.
One suspects that much of the recent touting of the arts springs from ulterior motivation. In the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, nationally broadcast as a CBS-TV special ostensibly in tribute to Arthur Rubinstein, Fred Astaire, Marian Anderson, George Balanchine and Richard Rodgers, it looked as if what the producers were really after was "virtue by assocaition." Certainly the show, a sort of tony vaudeville, had precious little to do with the honorees, and even less to do with the arts, a few token entries aside. After all, it has long been apparent that commercial television networks are hestitant to touch "the arts" with a 10-foot pole if they can't contribute to the profit margins for mouthwash or hair spray.
Behind the Arts Endowment campaign (indirectly aimed at Congress, which determines the arts budget) and much else in the way of publicizing the arts these days is the largely unexamined but widely accepted presumption that the arts, like vitamins or aerobic exercise, are not only beneficial to everyone, but daily requirements. It may be true that the artistic impulse, like language and mathematical thinking, is a cultural universal. But that is a different thing than insisting that art be crammed down every taxpayer's throat without regard to actual desire or need. In a brilliantly acerbic story about a mythical country called "Paraguay," Donald Barthelme describes a situation in which official policy calls for all art to be "rationized." "The rationalized art," he writes, "is dispatched from central art dumps to regional art dumps, and from there into the lifestream of cities. Each citizen is given as much art as his system can tolerate." One feels that we are rapidly approaching a point where the public will not tolerate much force-fed culture.
Of course, the "Support the Arts" newspaper ad raises no question of the sincerity of intentions, nor even of the fact that the arts, as walks of life, require various kinds of support in the face of ever-increasing fiscal pressures. But has anyone seriously considered the realistic effect of this sort of guff?
To start with, it's hard to imagine exactly what kinds or strata of readers the plea is aimed at, and what they are supposed to do in response to it. Honk twice for the arts? Take an artist to lunch? March up and down the side-walk with sandwich boards declaring "Let's all love the arts together!"? Move your packing-crate business from Centralia to Chicago because there's better opera there?
It's interesting to see, too, what contortions of logic these tactics incur. We're asked, for instance, to support the arts(whatever that means) because "that's where the people are." But if the people are really there already, why do we need these sanctimonious urgings? And just imagine anyone applying comparable ploys in other serious fields of endeavor: "Support nuclear physics: That's where the people are."
The worst of it is that we are entreated to become partisans of "the arts"-as if they were a hockey team or an office-seeker-for all the wrong reasons. It's not the primary mission of the arts to "create beauty, though it may often be a byproduct. If sensory titillation were all there were to the arts, there'd be no room for such things as "Guernica," or "Endgame," or Stroheim's "Greed" or Varese's "Deserts," or for King Lear," for that matter. And if there were no room for such as these, there'd be little point in