Friday, July 17, 2009

Income Inequality and Culture

Pieper famously argued that leisure is the basis of culture. Though his argument is rich, the fundamental point is obvious enough. Culture needs space for its creation. Without time, real time, apart from immediate concerns, the many facets of culture have no room to thrive: whether the fine arts or folk music, conversation, writing, or religion. Culture needs space.

I was reflecting today on the lovely way the Latin language treats this. What we call business the Latins called negotium (from which, obviously, we get negotiation: business dealing). But negotium is actually a compound word: it is the neg-ation of otium, leisure. So in Latin, business is literally "no time for leisure"; nice, above all, because it presents leisure as the activity, the fullness to be negated, whereas we too often think of leisure as just vacant space. Of course, our language contains a similar point, though less obvious to our etymology-deaf ears. Business (say it, maybe, with a British accent?) is just busy-ness, not having time for other stuff.

Of course, I don't want to take this too far. I think business is a lovely thing in and of itself. But the point remains: culture needs space.

Culture and Wealth
I'd like to suggest a new twist on this: in order to have space, culture needs income inequality. I think the more obvious (though not obvious enough) aspect of this is that culture requires the rich. Great cultural figures -- most great authors, almost all great musicians and artists -- typically have patrons. Without the Medicis -- gross bankers! -- there is no Florence, almost no Renaissance (though, of course, they got a lot of help from the merchants in Venice). Michalengelo, da Vinci, and Botticelli are nothing without Florence, both to give them their daily bread and to give them their materials. Writers don't need materials, but they still need to eat. And it is only too obvious that living on the popular sales of your work produces Danielle Steele and Time Magazine, not Dante and Petrarch.

The rise of high music makes it even more clear. Without the Esterhazy's, there's no Haydn, without King George, no Handel. Bach had a series of patrons -- the Duke of Weimar, the city of Muelhausen, the Prince of Anhalt-Coethen, the great merchant city of Leipzig, and finally Frederick II -- but his career almost proves the point. No one of these patrons was sufficient to create the man who is perhaps the pinnacle of western music. He could not be discovered by the King until he had been recognized by the Duke -- and several others. This is precisely the argument for riches: however limited the oligarchy may be, it at least diffuses judgment more than centralized government does, so that there are dozens of possible patrons, dozens of opportunities for a genius to be discovered. But most of them will overlook the genius; and if there is only one centralized authority, the genius's career will be over.

Culture needs riches because oligarchy multiplies opportunities for patronage, and minimizes the ability of one tin ear to end a great man's career.

(In case you're wondering: Mozart started under the patronage of his local prince-archbishop, then got his big break when another oligarch archbishop brought him to Vienna. Beethoven was discovered by the Elector of Bonn, then managed his career in Vienna through a host of noblemen: the Count von Waldstein, Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz of Bohemia, Prince Karl Alois Lichnowsky of Prussia, and King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, among others. Dvorak came to America under the patronage of the New York philanthropist Jeannette Thurber, and even Copland got his start through the very first Guggenheim fellowships -- funded by money made in the mining industry. Etc.)

So art, culture, needs wealth. But interestingly enough, I think art needs poverty, as well. Copland, to take but one example, lived on the Upper West Side in the 1920's -- a neighborhood rough enough that liberals subsequently plowed it under to build their art park. He'd spent the beginning of the decade in gay Paris. Paris was gay, of course, because it was cheap, and poor. That great flood of 1920's American writers and artists went there because it was a place they could afford to be writers and artists: even with Guggenheim fellowships, etc., creating culture rarely pays, especially when you're getting started.

Plow it Under?
Apparently there's a move about to plow certain derelict urban neighborhoods under. The theory is that these places are ultimate dives, never going to recover, and we'd do better just to return them to wilderness. There are a lot of problems with this idea, but one of them is cultural.

I lived in such a neighborhood a couple years ago. H St. NE was once one of the great thoroughfares of black DC, a thriving area of shops and night life. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., these neighborhoods suffered riots roughly proportionate to their importance to the black community; H St. was one of the most devastated neighborhoods in the country. In 2007, when we moved there, most of the businesses were still burned-out shells, the surrounding neighborhood filled with derelicts, drugs, litter, and more burned-down properties than you'd ever want to see. But it was coming back. H St. has recently become a place for alternative Washington nightlife: a couple of experimental theaters, some odd-ball performance bars, some great new restaurants. (Really great!)

Now, most of this stuff wasn't super positive -- I wasn't real tempted to check out the Rock and Roll Hotel or the Palace of Wonders -- but for one thing, it is an essential part of cultural activity that many things be tried and most fail, and for another thing, that's more a reflection on the sorry state of our culture in general. Rome wasn't built in a day, and if the new architects of culture have only rock and roll and camp to build upon, well, that isn't their fault.

But anyway H St. wasn't rich even in its heyday. That's what made it H St. I don't know of any great H St. cultural icons, but U St., the other great black thoroughfare of old Washington, was home to Duke Ellington, and both these places were echoes of the Harlem Renaissance. 1920's Harlem, of course, like 1920's Paris, was a cheap place -- the end of the New York subway lines, the least desirable place in urban New York City -- where people could go to experiment. (Copland's part of the Upper West Side was close by.) Harlem thrived because poor populations, in this case black ones, could go there and survive, and even find some great community, despite their lack of means. Jazz thrived there in large part because musicians could afford the rent. And though Jazz might not be the highest of high culture, it's really the best America did in the 20th century: apart from writing (which is always cheaper for the artist, for a couple reasons), the only real living school of art in its time.

Middle Class Art?
Income inequality sounds like a bad thing. (I haven't gotten to read the new encyclical, which proportedly makes that argument -- but I will tantalize you by saying that Rerum Novarum, the opening salvo of modern Catholic social thought, whatever anyone may tell you, explicitly argues that income inequality is a good thing and that anyone arguing to the contrary is betraying the Gospel.) But I don't think art, real culture of any kind, can survive without it.

Imagine a perfectly middle class society. Where, first, would you go to find funding for your art? There are only two options: the government, or the mass market. Frankly, I think both of these are more likely to give us pats on the head and demagogery than real art. They are not designed to discover artistic genius or appreciate real quality. Hoping that a centralized committee will give the good posts to good people is not hope I can believe in.

But equally problematic, if we really waged war on poverty, where would the artists go? I chose to live in the H St. neighborhood because I could afford to live there and pursue my idealistic dreams of writing and the intellectual life. Plow down these neighborhoods -- literally or metaphorically -- and I'm stuck, along with greater men like Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Ernest Hemingway, Ella Fitzgerald, Mozart, and J.S. Bach, having to give up on making culture and get a job that will pay the rent somewhere respectable.