There are two points in his essay that I want to comment on. The first is this question of elitism, which invariably comes up in any discussion of the general public and the fine arts. Pountney makes a distinction which is worth emphasizing: that although music and the performing arts are necessarily ‘elitist’ in that they require people of rare talent, training and skill, this does not mean that the audience is or should be drawn only from the wealthiest or the most educated. (This leads back to the discussion here a while back about accessibility in all its various forms: for classical music to be considered ‘accessible’ in the cultural sense, it first has to be accessible in the financial sense.)
The second is about state funding for the arts. I live in the United States, the land of opportunity vast income disparity, poorly funded public schools and increasingly limited social mobility. State funding for the arts is touchy around here. Pountney is talking about the UK, and his point, in response to an argument about a lack of state funding being ‘liberating’ for artists, is that well, it isn’t liberating at all — and he points to us as an example.
This point is well taken. Venues that rely on private donors tend to be conservative, because you pretty much have to please most of the people most of the time or else the money will dry up. You certainly don’t want to piss anyone off or offer performances that are too confusing or unusual.
The interesting thing about this problem of money and the arts is that if you start hacking your way through it, you end up more quickly than you might expect in the middle of an argument about the nature of the state and the proper purpose of government. The question boils down to: is it in the best interest of society to fund art that will not be accessible to everyone? On one hand, you have the argument that having affordable fine arts out there is a good thing, and makes for a better society, even if everyone doesn’t like or doesn’t understand the art in question. On the other, you have the claim that the government should not spend money on anything that doesn’t benefit everyone – i.e. if I don’t use it, it’s wrong to make me pay for it.
I think the fallacy in the second claim is obvious enough that it doesn’t require extensive refutation. I attended a private university, for example, but I definitely want to live in a society where people have access to (relatively) inexpensive, high quality public universities. I don’t own a car, but I decidedly prefer living in a country that has well-maintained interstate highways to one that doesn’t.
But the argument in favor of the arts, the one about it being part of building a good society, can be a tricky claim to make because the concept of ‘a good society’ is extremely slippery. Some of my fellow Americans appear to have a version of ‘a good society’ that is a nightmarish combination of Mad Max and fundamentalist Protestantism. I try to avoid these people, but they are out there, and they vote.
But if we take it for granted that a good society involves things like roads and not being shot, and ask more specifically how the arts benefit people who have neither the time nor the money nor perhaps even the inclination or preparation to enjoy them, the best answer is probably actually an argument about opportunity and human potential. You want arts in society because you want to make sure that the best aspects of human nature — our ability to think, and our capacity to create and enjoy beauty — have the chance to exist. Schoolchildren from the poor parts of Detroit need to be able to hear good music because there are going to be a handful among them whose lives will be transformed by it. This is probably an elitist argument by some standards, but I think it’s the best one we’ve got.