FROM CHRONICLES, APRIL, 1994
On a morning in April, 1990, practitioners of the journalistic craft received in their mail a communication from one Jack Lichtenstein, at that time the director of public affairs for the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency then embroiled in a desperate onslaught by an army of Philistines, voters, and taxpayers who imagined that they ought to have some voice in determining what their government does. Mr. Lichtenstein’s purpose in reaching out to the purveyors of news and opinion was to do whatever he could to keep the hordes at bay and save the NEA and his own job from the appointment with a brick wall that the outraged citizens had in mind for them. In the course of expatiating upon all the good things the federal art munchkins had spawned upon the Republic, Mr. Lichtenstein let slip his insight that “The arts, once found only in metropolitan areas, today are flourishing in Alaska and Alabama, in Maine and Montana, and everywhere in between.”
So far as I know, the editors and editorial writers who were the objects of Mr. Lichtenstein’s solicitations ignored his entire package, and to this day the awesome banality he emitted in the above passage has remained undiscovered. It apparently occurred to no one to upbraid the director of public affairs for the ignorance of “the arts” that he betrayed, the contempt in which he evidently held the rest of the country, or—most interesting of all perhaps—the facile conceit his insight revealed. That conceit, of course, is the assumption that the only civilized parts of the country are Mr. Lichtenstein’s beloved “metropolitan areas” and that the non-metropolitan portions of the land—Alaska, Alabama, Maine, Montana, and all those unnameable and unpronounceable regions “in between”—are naturally immersed in such an impenetrable cultural darkness that only the bureaucratic enlightenment of the federal leviathan could lift them out. The whole burden of Mr. Lichtenstein’s impassioned communication to journalists was that if the rubes and yahoos then besieging his beloved endowment should succeed, the nether portions of the land would once again be delivered into the iron grip of Chaos and Old Night.
It does not occur to those of Mr. Lichtenstein’s persuasion that art, so far from being dependent upon or the invention of the state and the monopoly of “metropolitan areas,” is inherent in man’s nature and that it will flourish and does flourish even when the state and the metropolitan areas with which the state naturally allies itself do not exist. If the famous prehistoric paintings in the paleolithic cave dwellings of central France prove nothing else, they confirm that no sooner had human beings separated themselves from their tree-swinging ancestors than they began to create art, and the careful depictions on that dark stone by primeval Raphaels and Michaelangelos of elk and bison, religious ritual and hunting adventures, display a developed technique of art that most of the recipients of NEA grants today are unable to match. Had Cro-Magnon men enjoyed the assistance of Mr. Lichtenstein and the U.S. government in their aesthetic efforts, it is likely that the emergence of human civilization would have been retarded for several millennia and that even today the whole planet would remain engrossed in the same darkness that Mr. Lichtenstein imagines still holds sway in Maine and Montana.
Mr. Lichtenstein, of course, is not alone in harboring this conceit, and the main reason his banality passed unnoticed was that most of the journalists who received it share the conceit with him and never entertained an inkling that he had made a fool of himself by disclosing it. The idea that the arts, and with them the whole of human civilization, are the exclusive inventions of metropolitan areas and the federal government is one of the central assumptions of the body of men and women who in recent years have come to be known as the “cultural elite,” and it is through this idea that the elite not only legitimizes its existence and activities but also establishes the rationale for its continuing war against the real culture of the American Outback. It is precisely for the waging of that war that the NEA was created in the first place, and the more bizarre eroto- digestive escapades in which the endowment indulged in the 1980s (and which it continues to this day) when the Stupid Party took it over are only the most extreme examples of its continuing mission.
It is entirely appropriate that the cultural elite the NEA serves should entrench itself in bureaucratic form. Earlier cultural elites—of Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, 17th-century France, etc.—also often allied with the state, but the state in those regimes was not bureaucratic but a personal despotism of one kind or another, and neither the elites nor the despots employed themselves in the destruction of the culture of the peoples they ruled. Today, however, all elites typically assume bureaucratic forms, not only because bureaucracy provides the most efficient means yet invented for organizing power but also because, lacking any deep support or roots in the civil society, today’s cultural elites have no other organizational basis for their power. Unable to peddle its garbage on the market, incapable of duping or flattering wealthy patrons into supporting it, and despising the prospect of working for a living like everyone else, the cultural elite has no other recourse but to rely on bureaucratic mechanisms to sustain itself, its privileges, its productions, and its power.
Indeed, what is true of that part of the cultural elite supported by the NEA and similar federal agencies is true of the cultural elite as a whole, even those parts not directly subsidized by the state. The expression “popular culture” originally meant those elements of culture produced by the people.
Today, it means nothing of the sort but rather culture produced for the people by elites, and the elites, whether “publicly” or “privately” endowed, are invariably entwined with bureaucratic organizations. A number of scholars, from Daniel Bell to Jacques Barzun to Russell Jacoby, have remarked on the singularity of a culture that is increasingly lodged in bureaucratized universities in the forms of art departments, literature departments, writers and artists and poets in residence, and so forth. Outside the universities, what passes as popular culture manifests itself in television, films, journalism, publishing, music, museums, galleries, and amusement parks, all of which are bureaucratic and professionalized in form, most of which are almost always directly or indirectly dependent on the state, and all of which claim to provide for the people a culture that is so superior to what the people can produce for themselves that no one needs to worry about producing their own.
Moreover, the incessant message of this culture is a thematic development of the conceit Mr. Lichtenstein revealed. My personal favorite of it is the seriesStar Trek, though any number of other television series also exemplify the pattern. Star Trek, however, has been plastered on the screens of American living rooms for some 30 years, and despite the vapidity of its plots and characters the show seems destined to attain at least as much immortality as paleolithic cave paintings. Week after week during those 30 years, the crew of the starship Enterprise has bustled back and forth about the universe violating its own laws that forbid interference in other planet’s business and performing deeds of liberated derring-do. Usually the cosmic conundrums it encounters and speedily resolves are transparent allegorical representations of whatever social crisis preoccupies the real cultural elite at the moment. In the 1960s, racial discrimination was a favorite target of the series, later variegated by the iniquities of war, ecological catastrophe, sexism, and the psychological problems of children. Th
e constant butt of Star Trek jokes are the obsolete customs and sometimes obnoxious beliefs and habits of 20th century man, who is nothing more than a metaphor for Mr. Lichtenstein’s Maine and Montana, and the typical and predictable “irony” the series inevitably presents is that the monstrous aliens and androids who populate its cast are more morally responsible beings than the backward humans of either our own time or the progressive and emancipated world of the future.
The public orthodoxy of the world of Star Trek is virtually identical to that sappy and syrupy credo concocted by Francis Fukuyama in his ill-advised “end of history” thesis, though the TV series is better science fiction. The planet Earth and much of the inhabited universe have been unified under a mysterious, omnipotent, but benevolent “Federation,” and there seem to be no wars, no political or social conflicts, and no wants in this warp- speed utopia unified by Global Democratic Capitalism gone galactic. Indeed, what else does the human race in the Star Trek cosmos have to do but stick its nose into the affairs of other species? They can zip about the galaxy at velocities faster than light and “beam” themselves from one place to another instantaneously, and there never seems to be any question of food, clothing, money, disease, aging, or even of career advancement in this placid paradise. Having resolved all conceivable material problems of the human race, the only woes that remain to it in the world of Star Trek are those perennially invented by the cultural elite, of which the Enterprise’s crew is an equally transparent representation, and, of course, armed with energy weapons and beamer-uppers, the elite always solves these problems as quickly and as happily as it discovers them.
Star Trek represents what the cultural elite thinks America and the world should and would be like if only the Philistines would get out of the way and let the Federation (i.e., the leviathan) spend their money as the elite wants, and the enduring popularity of the series suggests that no small number of viewers at least unconsciously share this vision or have absorbed its premises. That, of course, is what comes of surrendering the production and even the meaning of “popular culture” to the elite.
Long ago, sometime between the sketching of the paleolithic cave paintings and the beginnings of real history in 1965 when the NEA was foisted upon us, there used to be a real popular culture in America, not only in Maine and Montana but even in metropolitan areas like New York and Boston. In that veiled and lost epoch, many Americans played musical instruments they were raised to play instead of buying recordings produced by European musicians and Japanese corporations, wrote poetry for themselves instead of puzzling over thin volumes of crippled and bitter verse cranked out by whatever Lesbian poetess-in-residence New York publishing houses have decided to make a celebrity for a week, and acted in and sometimes even wrote plays that they produced themselves in local theaters instead of packing the house to gibber over Madonna, Michael Jackson, Wayne’s World, and Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 79.” Today, in most American cities and towns, locally owned bookstores that sell anything but second-hand books are almost extinct, and the Crown’s, Walden’s, and B. Dalton’s that dominate professional bookselling offer exactly the same stock in every city in the country, almost none of which would have complied with the conventional and moderate obscenity laws of the 1950s.
The transference of cultural power and cultural production from the people who consume it to bureaucratized elites that despise and fear their own audiences is of course an aspect of the continuing destruction of republican self-government, no less than the transference of political and economic power to similar bureaucratized elites in the centralized government and economy. Indeed, it is hardly an accident that the corporate, governmental, and academic bureaucracies that house and support the cultural elite also provide lodgings for the elites in the state and economy. The function of the cultural elite in the managerial system is to provide legitimation, not only for itself but also for its siblings in government and corporation, and the calculated insults to and debunking of the culture of the American Heartland are an integral part of the revolutionary strategy the elite pursues and practices. Only by portraying those parts of the country not totally under managerial control—namely, Alabama and Alaska, Maine and Montana—as dark-age wastelands isolated from the metropolitan and cosmopolitan centers of managed mass culture can the elite purport that what it is and what it does is useful or necessary, and when it so portrays the rest of the country, it also paves the highway by which the rest of the managerial apparatus will one day ride into town. The result, so far from the interstellar utopia of Star Trek, is an emsaculated population unable either to produce an enduring civilization in the shape of a culture of its own or to understand what civilizations of the past have already produced, a passive and continuously entertained and continuously managed mob that has already surrendered its capacity to govern itself and is now busily and merrily in the process of surrendering its capacity to think and create for itself. The final and unpredictable irony of our civilization may be that at the dawn of its history we were more civilized than at the end of it. The paleolithic savages who painted the walls of the caverns they lived in with pictures of the beasts they hunted created a higher and better civilization than Captain Kirk and his preposterous band of progressive monsters and robots promise us, and those savages were far more civilized than the Mapplethorpes and Serranos financed by the NEA or the Lichtensteins who make their livings defending them. If Americans who still know what a culture is would like to have one of their own, the most revolutionary act they could perpetrate would be simply to turn off the television, cancel their subscriptions to most magazines, and start looking for a cave with some bare space on its walls.