My Great Art Epiphany of 1995

I think I must have read, somewhere before 1995, that arts institutions were taking the place of religious institutions among the upper classes of this country.  But it did not stick with me until an important epiphany I had in 1995.

It happened that in August of 1995, I was in Seattle with my family, and that one day I took my then young son to the amusement park at the Seattle Center by monorail.  Going to the center, I failed to notice the banners on the street lights on the way to the monorail station; coming back, I saw them!  They were preachy banners, of the general tone of “Do you know what it feels like to be homeless?” the one I remember.  I drew a conclusion, logical to me, as to whom had put these up; surely it was the local Council of [liberal mainline] Churches.  But shortly after that I read what was really going on; a major art museum in the city, having been refurbished, was reopening, and the community of artists had been allowed to put up these banners.

There could be no possible doubt; the artists were the new clergy, the people who were regarded as having moral authority.  It threw a different perspective on the battles then raging regarding the National Endowment for the Arts.  The business community was protecting its clergy, the same way a Catholic community would react if priests and nuns were politically attacked.  It complicated things that many of those fighting the NEA, most notably Dana Rohrabacher [now my own Congressman], were more interested in defunding it altogether than imposing moral standards on it and a lot of arts institutions such as the symphony and the theatre, which were not necessarily morally problematic but had benefited by the NEA sprinkling holy water on them in the form of relatively small grants that were a form of certification and at least helpful.  And it was not as if we had a Minister of Culture, like the French!  Plus, the moral standards of the business community, deferring to their ‘clergy’, had evolved somewhat!  This gets a little bit into what Charles Reich [1969] and Daniel Bell [1975] called the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism; business wants workers that are not very affluent, and disciplined, but it needs to sell its products to people who have money and are undisciplined and free spending.  And to the extent that business increasingly depends on the ‘creative class’, it may want workers that are like the consumers it wants!  Anyhow, for the last 40 years, the business community of America has, with rare and eccentric exceptions, not been supportive of social conservatism.

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