Of the Arts and Alan Jacobs

My friend and erstwhile colleague Alan Jacobs has penned this really quite interesting something-more-than-a-blog-post but not-quite-an-essay  in which he suggests – and it really is a suggestion in the best sense of things – that the financial and institutional ties art currently occupies (or is occupied by, I suppose) limits artists’ (and he has in mind mostly writers) ability to imagine “other” worlds, other ways of being. I’m not going to pull quotes much from the piece because you really should go read and think about it.

I’ll admit that the piece bugged me when I first read it through, first because he flogs that old chestnut “military-industrial complex” as the big bad thing that is limiting our artists.  I get bugged by the phrase because it’s so often misconstrued – Eisenhower’s warning was not about a bunch of generals and captains of industry conspiring against us all, but, in reality, a warning about what political scientists call “corporatism,” a way of organizing political and economic institutions such that government, business, and labor all cooperate in policy-making.  It’s the model that dominated Europe’s political economy for most of the post-war era and while it has some real benefits, it also tends to ossify economies and privilege insiders.  (President Obama, you should recognize, is much more a corporatist in this sense than any sort of socialist or social democrat or whatever).

But then I realized that Alan means the “complex” phrase to stand in for the ways in which a kind of instrumental rationality that prizes the calculus of material investment and gains above all else has, when it captures different institutions, converts them, so to speak, to its logic.  So to the degree that our artists are tied to universities and our universities have become institutions dedicated above all to material profit, then Alan’s worry is that art itself becomes hemmed in or even deeply structured by that self-same logic.  (And don’t kid yourself – major research universities may not report profits in the same way that IBM or GM do, but they have profits–they just distribute them differently).

So what to make of this?  Well, in a way, it’s nothing new, is it?  It reads to me as at least running in parallel with 150 years of Marxist thought on the subject and similar in structure (I think – I’m wandering a bit outside my expertise here) to some of the complaints the Frankfurt School folks made in the middle of last century about culture.  And, of course, there’s obviously some sort of truth to it – people who give the money will often (though certainly not inevitably) look to pull the strings.  At the very least, artists, like most anyone else, respond to incentives and if institutions are set up to reward those who remain within a certain “lane,” that’s where folks will drift.

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer.  See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty!  Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held).  And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way.  That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

I’m not sure I quite buy a central part of Alan’s thesis – that capitalism is central to this development – but I’ll have to think more about that.  But for those whose instincts make them dubious regarding the benefits of markets (or certain markets), it’s worth keeping in mind that I think Alan’s critique cuts much more deeply (or, maybe better, should cut much more deeply) than some we-don’t-like-corporations gesture.

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