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  • rmacculloch

Do Newsroom's staff think they're culturally superior to the rest of us? Are they arguing that Amazonians & other Indigenous Societies are "Philistines"?

Can't remember the last book by a Kiwi author you read? Think the NZ government should spend less on the arts in favor of helping the homeless? If so, as far as Newsroom is concerned, you probably deserve to be called a cultural ignoramus & philistine. This past week it targeted MP Todd Stephenson, ACT's Spokesperson for Arts & Culture, in a "Gotcha" interview. Here is an extract:

Newsroom: So government funding of, say, literature, how do you feel about that? Would you rather it be done privately? Stephenson: Absolutely. I want people to support things that they value and want to either purchase or go and see. Newsroom: But that money isn’t forthcoming. That’s one of the reasons why there is government funding of the arts. Stephenson: "Well .. we would give back more money to people so they can actually value things that they find creative & invest in and purchase them and attend them". Newsroom: That way lies philistinism .. But you don’t have individual tastes yourself, do you? You’re kind of an arts ignoramus, really, by your own reckoning.

The one who comes out of this interview badly for their ignorance about the relationship between government arts funding & culture is Newsroom, not Todd Stephenson. What is Newsroom's argument? That there was no culture & art in NZ before the British established a tax & subsidize government? That Amazonians in South America today are Philistines since they live outside a system of public arts funding? As for JK Rowling, the author of Harry Potter - she wrote it whilst a bankrupt, unemployed single mother. Now she's the richest woman in the UK. Was African American soul, jazz & blues music subsidized by the State? It would be insulting to even suggest so. How much public subsidies does the motion picture industry in America get? Around zero. Was Van Gough subsidized? Yes, by his brother.

On a more academic note, whether the government should subsidize the arts is part of a long-standing debate in economics - with much disagreement about the best policy. Many years ago, The New York Times reported on a Symposium organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the topic. The name best known for arguing the arts should not be subsidized was William Baumol at Princeton University: "Just why do you & I when we visit a museum or attend a performance of modern dance deserve to have our enjoyment subsidized? Do we really have such special merits that we deserve to be fed at the public trough when others who consume only more worldly goods deserve to be turned away?". Ironically, one reason for the Symposium happening, said Michael Walzer, Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, "is anxiety that there really isn't a good case to be made".

Baumol, the author of Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma noted that it was relatively affluent members of society who benefited most directly from arts subsidies, in what he said was a "reverse Robin Hood redistribution", taking from the poor & giving to the rich. The most skeptical reaction to the arguments for public subsidy is from Robert Nozick, Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Harvard. He called the thesis advanced by Ronald Dworkin, Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford - that high culture is important because it spills over into the society - "the trickle-down theory of culture" and questioned whether the arts were in fact in such short supply that they required a subsidy.

As for Todd Stephenson, he was born in Lumsden, Southland. His parents met in Te Anau - his mother a hostess on the boat taking people to the glow worm caves & his dad a guide in the caves. He graduated with a law degree from Otago, having read hundreds of articles & books by NZ authors in the legal profession, as well as many others. He recounts, for example, that "in the same year I started university, Sir Roger Douglas had published Unfinished Business .. It was over those early years of university that I discovered what I believed in, that I was a classical liberal ..". Is his South Island heritage too ordinary for Newsroom? Is someone who goes to cafes in Thorndon in Wellington, or Ponsonby in Auckland, who attended nice schools & read Katherine Mansfield, culturally better suited to be an Arts Spokesperson more than a straight-shooting Lumsden boy in Newsroom's view?

Given that Newsroom's "partners" include the Universities of Auckland, Victoria & Otago, which means part of the teaching & research income I bring into Auckland goes to funding it, I take an interest in what it writes. On that note, sorry, I have to stop writing. I don't have the time to do a leftist Anti-ACT "Gotcha" interview like Newsroom - I have to teach 140 students now to generate fee income to pay Newsroom salaries. By the way, its article was not art. It adds nothing to NZ culture, only a one-sided, biased view of the issue of public subsidies for art - not a debate about the pro's & con's, which is what the New York Times journalists & The Met Museum took the bother to do.



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