For my last trick this week, I’m going to write about some ideas I had when at Toad Hall. I think we were talking about Flarf and Language poetry when one of us—or maybe I thought of this after the fact . . . I can’t remember—voiced a unique theory on their origins: so many resources and years and years of traditions and movements had become available to us poets, we suddenly had to dump the excess. That is to say—we had to use the excess, even if it was garbage, because it was there and we could. These movements, then, arose less as rebellion than as corollary. They weren’t commentaries but consequences.
While I appreciate the original Language poets for their innovation and application of theory and politics to political practice, I don’t often love their poems. I enjoy the experiment—and have learned from it—but I find much of the emotion in that poetry stilted, and that’s just not my personal preference. Whether the poems are accessible, so to speak, is inconsequential. Generally I can’t (and shouldn’t) approach an Armantrout piece with the same lens I use for a Collins poem, so I’m not bothered when I don’t get it—anyway that’s rarely the point of any poem. As for Flarf, I think—so what? When things are new, they’re exciting and sharp. Over time, much sloppiness ensues.
At the same time I can’t help but think how wonderful it is we live during these (according to theory) excessive, extravagant years in which movements like Flarf can germinate and be popularized, in which we can grant time for these art forms, to not tax the rich, to have lockouts over the salaries of professional athletes, to afford personal computers in all shapes and sizes and—nearly—in all things, to market almost any extravagantly unnecessary item and, in an ironic twist, deem it a must-have even in these dire times because well—why not? If we want, we need. If we can, we must. It’s a basic, underlying proposition of the United States of America.
Jared Diamond and Denis Dutton speak to this rule of excess and extravagance in their books Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Art Instinct respectively. Each, in his way, discusses how art—in terms of its social production and appreciation—is the result of a civilization’s having made it in the world. While all societies have their arts, only those having achieved a certain degree of size, stability, and success (I use these terms quite loosely) can actively promote and fund such wasteful enterprises. Diamond explains this in terms of agriculture and food production: once certain grasses were domesticated, once certain animals were domesticated, no longer did human beings have to spend their days hunting, gathering, and laying low in-between to conserve energy. An increase in calories coupled with a decrease in per capita effort to produce them resulted in a surplus of energy that could now be used to build and support other things, namely full-time professions that otherwise couldn’t be sustained—soldiers, priests, poets, etc.—due to the fact everyone was too busy keeping the tribe fed, clothed, and healthy. Think of this in Maslow’s terms: only after basic needs are met can extravagant wants be pursued.
Dutton drives the point home by explaining how sexual selection—a driving force Charles Darwin claimed second only to natural selection—may be at the root of art. He writes of the peacock’s tail, in many ways an exceptional waste of resources: it is large, colorful, cumbersome, and requires a heap of energy to manufacture and model. To the peahen, however, such a fine display suggests that a certain handsome peacock has made it, that it has been able to afford this waste of calories over time despite its obvious drawbacks and apparent lack of other evolutionary advantages such as camouflage. Therefore, said peacock with its wealth and virility must be a worthy mate.
I segue: a poet who can equally afford to spend all afternoon composing sonnets to his or her significant other obviously is clothed and well-fed (otherwise he or she would be out hunting and gathering) and, therefore, must also have the genes and experience for superior survival. If life ultimately is a game of genes and their proliferation, theoretically this sonnet-writer would be desirable to others who unconsciously realize their own genes stand a better chance of enduring if coupled with those of this said hero-poet. Hence, our long history of devotional love poetry. My first great teacher, in fact, the poet Vince Gotera, told me straight-up that’s how he got started with writing poems—trying to catch girls—and now I know why.
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the poet who wastes his time writing sonnets actually is poorly clothed, inadequately cleaned, and severely malnourished. This too is acceptable at the level of desire because obviously that poet forgoes such normal requisites out of a deep, commanding love for the other. And who wouldn’t appreciate that level of devotion? I mean—really—writing love poems to your significant other is a win-win situation: either you’ll be desired because you’re solvent and stable or because you’re disheveled and malnourished but exceptionally well-devoted.
I segue: governmental funding for the production of art is proportional to the size of a nation-state’s coffers, particularly to that portion that is overflowing. The bottom of the barrel must be used for the production and procurement of food, clothing, and shelter, then for services like mail distribution and interstate travel. National security has its reserves near the bottom as well, along with increasing salaries for Congress and such—corporate tax-breaks and what-not. Near the tenuous top of the barrel, then, Medicare, Welfare, and Social Security, Education. Funding for the arts—those few coins up there—rests on top of this layer. Uncle Sam can grab it with one hand and reappropriate it at will. When times are tight, this is precisely what happens. Country is in debt? Get of rid of the National Endowment for the Arts. Or maybe the Department of Education—it’s really a toss-up. Either way, such a move gets rid of wasteful spending and ensures everyone will be clothed and fed, though—naturally—some will be better clothed and fed than others.
And, as Jared Diamond points out, we have to eat—so it’s logical to expect resources devoted to art should be among the first to go in these dire times of consumer crisis. Art is nourishing for the soul, but the soul is housed in the body, and the body requires food. The body requires clothes (a form of shelter); it doesn’t need a soul. Still, I can’t help but think of the soul as a sort of vital sign for human success and survival. This is as true for a country as it is for its people.
Digression aside—I can’t help but think of funding for the arts as a vital sign for a nation-state’s so-called success and survival, including that of its soul. A society that can sustain—in fact waste—money for the arts at no expense to the feeding, clothing, and living conditions of its citizens is a success story. Simultaneously it’s nourishing the soul of its people. A society that can no longer waste such funds is on the decline—more like a soulless bastard than the best Uncle in the world.
What I propose, then, is using public art funding—instead of gross domestic product and the like—as a measure of a nation’s progress. The basis for this is simple: a healthy country can and should waste money on the arts whereas a sick country cannot and should not due to the primary needs of clothing, feeding, etc. This would consequently grant countries a fresh perspective on the meaning of life and its constituents. To my mind, had the United States employed this method of thought, we may have fixed our budget and debt ceiling woes before they ever threatened to bust through the roof—this year or any previous year. According to the NEA’s Research Division Note #74 from January 2000, the United States spent roughly $6 per person in art funding at the end of the last century. Germany, with a comparable per capita GDP, spent roughly $85 per person—only Finland spent more. Of the 11 countries surveyed, not one spent less money on the arts than the U.S. And, we continue to spend less. According to the Fall 2010 Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, current spending is under $4 per person.
And, there’s no tax breaks for artists in the U.S. Did I mention—according to an Irish acquaintance of mine—that artists living in Ireland can earn tax-free money on their art income? Conditions apply, but nevertheless—that’s a country that’s got its you-know-what together.
Sure the Great Recession, the Housing Bubble, and so on have affected public funding here in the States. But those are all short-term causes any myopic fool can see and claim as the roots to present, although persistent, problems. I’m curious about the bigger picture, the national decline (of art funding, that is) over time and what it has to do with the pursuit of happiness and its sustainability. I’m wanting to use historical data for public art funding as a vital sign for national health—as opposed to growth—and, therefore, as a preventive against such ills as the earlier mentioned budget and debt crises. Using these numbers should allow us to better finger the pulse of the U.S. and, therefore, better direct policy over the long haul, economic or otherwise.
But alas—I’ve written a lot this week, some at the expense of my eating, bathing, attitude, and—dare I say—health of the family. Ahhh . . . to afford such binges! The time has come for me to drop my pen with the hope some other writer—one more genetically desirable than me, who exhibits all the signs of having made it—picks it up and does what needs to be done. Good luck.