THE DEMOCRATIC MUSE: Visual Arts and the Public Interest by Edward C. Banfield

THE DEMOCRATIC MUSE: Visual Arts and the Public Interest

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Harvard political scientist Banfield, an old-line conservative, opposed government intervention in urban and minority problems in the 1970 stirrer-upper, The Unheavenly City (""there are few problems that can be solved""). Here, he challenges public support for the visual arts in general--and takes specific objection to the National Foundation for the Arts, the art museum, and art instruction in the public schools. Neither the general nor the specific arguments are new, and they are not without merit. Thus, Banfield has no trouble demonstrating that different people define art differently, and disagree accordingly as to what is ""art."" (Public art has long been controversial.) Many National Foundations programs--grants to individual artists, aid to blockbuster exhibitions--are vulnerable to attack; art museums do, to a degree, ""encourage the substitution of pecuniary and curiosity values for aesthetic ones""--and don't attract the poor proportionately with the better-off; art instruction in the schools has been notoriously weak, and sometimes counterproductive. But Banfield would not ""subsidize"" the visual arts in any case--except perhaps for the dissemination of reproductions. (The cult-of-the-original is much scored.) He doesn't think most people are genuinely interested in art, or ever will be (there is almost no gradation here--among levels or types of interest); he thinks that the National Foundation, art museums, and art education are all self-promoting--part of an interlinked art establishment. (In a footnote, public libraries are also said to lack broad appeal and to aim for ""survival and growth."") The discussion in each instance is not without some use as a historical review--but it is severely limited as a critique: in Banfield's accounting, the National Foundation has scored no successes; museums haven't created art-lovers; schools haven't turned out artists--but even if they had, subsidizing them would not be ""in the public interest,"" either on financial terms or on the basis of government interference in what-is-art. In the abstract, the argument has appeal for those with laissez-faire leanings (and no concept of art as our common heritage); today's reality is that, without subsidies in some imperfect form, there would be little art around for us to enjoy in our own imperfect ways.

Pub Date: March 29th, 1984
Publisher: Basic Books