Are the Arts Inimical to our Democratic Ethos?

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The starting point of my new book The Propaganda of Freedom is the core tenet of the cultural Cold War as prosecuted by the CIA and the Kennedy White House: that only “free artists” in “free societies” can produce great art. And yet this is a risible claim, self-evidently counter-empirical; I’ve dubbed it the “propaganda of freedom.”

An exceptionally thoughtful review has just materialized in the online magazine Fusion. The author is Robert Bellafiore, who writes:

“In The Propaganda of Freedom, Joseph Horowitz considers the history and influence of Kennedy’s argument and finds it harmful to freedom and culture alike, revealing an uneasy relationship between art and politics that any free society must grapple with. . . .

“Through his musical analysis and a broader history of the [Congress for Cultural Freedom] and cultural exchange during the Cold War, Horowitz seeks to protect both art and freedom from their cheapening . . .

“The tensions between artist and audience, and between artist and government, didn’t resolve themselves when the Cold War ended. What makes The Propaganda of Freedom more than just a compelling history is its illustration that these tensions will mark every free society, including ours today. For any American who is discouraged by the vulgarity and frivolity of contemporary culture and wishes for something better, the book raises difficult questions.” 

Is our ethos of democracy and freedom somehow inimical to the life of the arts? Arts skeptics will argue that certain impediments are deeply rooted in the American experience. Certainly there is an impressive lineage of writings analyzing an American aversion to artists and intellectuals. Alexis de Tocqueville, nearly two centuries ago, observed among the citizens of the United States “a distaste for all that is old.” Assessing an expanded “circle of readers,” he discerned “a taste for the useful over the love of the beautiful,” for the “mass produced and mediocre.” 

No less than ascetic Calvinism, Republican rationalism could spurn creative achievement. If popular government demanded a virtuous and pious citizenry, monarchies linked to sensuality and decadence. Were the arts an aristocratic luxury? Even the likes of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – cosmopolites of humbling intellectual attainment – expressed ambivalence toward the cultivation of painting and sculpture. “Too expensive for the state of wealth among us,” opined Jefferson. Conducive to “luxury, effeminacy, corruption, prostitution,” wrote Adams. Both men well knew pre-revolutionary Paris.

Many decades later, American politicians of note included no Adamses or Jeffersons. Edward Shils, a widely influential sociologist, in 1964 regretted that in the US “the political elite gives a preponderant impression of indifference toward works of superior culture.” Two years before that, the historian Richard Hofstadter produced a Pulitzer-Prize winning study of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He adduced an enduring New World stereotype of the effete intellectual: impractical, artificial, arrogant, seduced by European manners. A related American stereotype, Hofstadter reported, holds the “genius” to be lazy, undisciplined, neurotic, imprudent, and awkward. He blamed democratization, utilitarianism, and evangelical Protestantism. These critiques registered aversion to the Red Scare and also to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who once told Leonard Bernstein “I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.” 

An enduring philosophical argument against the American arts was launched by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School. This was a tirade against the “atomized” premises of Anglo-American empiricists who in separating the individual from society spurned a vigorously  “holistic” dialectic. “Affirmative” American culture was bland and homogenized – rather than bristling with “negative” attributes igniting an engaged interactive response. Packaged and merchandized for mass consumption, affirmative culture was a feature of twentieth century capitalism. Concomitantly, capitalist society embraced a mistaken notion of the artist as a distant actor, unfettered and autonomous. The very DNA of American democracy – its notion of “freedom” – was in the Frankfurt view a naïve myth.

The contemporary pertinence of all this philosophizing is everywhere around us: increasingly, our democratic world of social media and mounting, ever multiplying gadgetry swims in bits and pieces, in disconnected dots, in superficia and ephemera – an ontology of fragmentation. 

For more of the same, see my current “American Scholar” essay “Ripeness Is All.”

For more on the Frankfurt School with reference to American classical music, see my notorious “Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music” (1987)

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