Spurning the glass teat

Florida Youth Orchestra 

With the writers strike threatening to turn American television into a wasteland of re-runs and reality-based programming, one could be forgiven for assuming that a final and ignominious descent into cultural oblivion is nigh. So it is with a sense of holiday joy that I present to you the counter-argument, namely, that American arts culture is thriving as it never has before. Thus writes art critic and journalist Douglas McLennan in a recent (okay, month-old) post on his very interesting blog diacritical:

In 1950 there was only one full time orchestra in America. In 1965, there were only three state arts commissions. Now there are 18 full 52-week orchestras, and more than 3,000 arts commissions at the local and state levels. The 1990s were the biggest expansion of arts activity in American history; we went on a construction binge, building more than $25 billion worth of new museums, theatres, concert halls and cultural centers. Since 1990, almost one-third of all American museums have expanded their facilities. Major American museums such as the Met and the Museum of Modern Art are now so crowded the experience of visiting them has degraded.

The number of performing arts groups is up 48 percent since 1982. Last year American music schools graduated more than 14,000 students, and new fine art academies are popping up all over and overflowing with students. There are more than 250,000 choruses in America – that’s choruses, not people in choruses. That means that more than four million people a week are getting together to sing. There are at least that many book clubs. Opera attendance is up 40 percent since 1990. Band instrument sales are at an all-time high, and in cities like Seattle, where I live, the youth orchestra program is so crowded, more and more orchestras have been added. Culture is a $166 billion industry, accounts for 5.7 million jobs and is America’s top export.

Now, this says nothing about the quality of art being produced by (or even for) all this activity, and elitists will certainly point out that having thousands of teenagers puffing away on trumpets does little to produce an American Mozart. But certainly the existance and enthusiasm of so many cultural participants and consumers is a sign of hope for the producers of art (or rather, to use a less market-inspired word, for artists); such a constituency provides revenue both directly in the form of sales, and indirectly in the form of favourable public opinion that might positively influence the aggregate level of arts funding granted by governments. It also elevates standards, as any exposure to the great works of the past is wont to do.

Television a cultural wasteland? Sure — but who cares?

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