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WOID #VI-30. Regulating the Arts

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Richard Cloward died August 20. He was the author, with Frances Fox
Piven, of "Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare." Piven
and Cloward argued that since the sixteenth century at least the real
function of welfare has been twofold. In times of economic downturn or
social unrest it keeps the poor from making trouble. When times are
good it uses them to "enforce work norms."

The first part of the argument is so obvious it's not worth explaining.
The second part raises some issues. The point of "workfare" programs,
for instance, is to force the most vulnerable people into jobs that
they are unsuited for, that lead nowhere, and that entail a
considerable amount of humiliation. That way the state can
simultaneously fills those jobs and hold a stick over the rest of us:
whistle while you work - or else.

I won't get into the details of that argument, but I am intrigued by
the chronological fit between state patronage of the arts and state
patronizing of the poor. It turns out that the idea of supporting the
indigent developed in the late sixteenth century, at about the same
time that the various princely courts became major patrons of the arts.
Sometimes there's even a geographic fit, as for instance, in Lyons,
France, circa 1540. Of course in the 1930s in America government
programs to help out artists were simply an extension of the WPA, the
program to support the unemployed in general: the idea was that
artists, like everybody else, should get paid to do what they did best.
But what about the National Endowment for the Arts, in the 'sixties? Is
it really a coincidence that it was initiated at the height of the
Vietnam War, and by Dick Nixon, no less? A dog with a bone in his mouth
doesn't bark. Or, to quote verbatim (if from memory) some official
commission's report of the 'seventies: "you can't burn down the ghetto
with a saxophone in one hand."

Clear enough, but what about plan B? What happens when social unrest is
at a minimum, and how would the state enforce work norms within culture
as they do within the labor force at large? The slashing of NEA funds
isn't a big issue since those funds stopped going directly to artists a
while back. Since the money's used almost exclusively to supplement the
private receipts of cultural institutions the state has little leverage
over artists, and even less interest in exercising it. Right now the
state is as likely to tell artists what to produce as it is to train
welfare mothers to be teachers or computer analysts.

So what can the state tell artists about themselves? I once sat on the
Board of Directors of a certain cultural institution. After a while I
started noticing widespread irregularities, financial and otherwise.
Since I was legally liable for all of this I decided to follow up; and
since the institution was accused of diverting funds paid out by the
local arts council I called up them up. The artcrat at the council
listened a second and then broke in: "If you think I have time to
listen to a bunch of...*artists*!"

Happy Labor Day.

Paul T Werner, New York

WOID: A journal of visual language

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