Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book Review: Live the Good Life

Title: Live the Good Life

(Amazon has a page for the book, but doesn't have even a computer-generated image for it. Hmm. It wouldn't be fair to gank an image from another online bookseller. Let's see what Morguefile can do...here's an image from OgleEye tagged as "good life." If you click it should open the Amazon page for the book.)

Author: Wolf von Eckardt

Date: 1982

Publisher: American Council for the Arts

ISBN: 0-915400-24-3

Length: 129 pages

Illustrations: many black-and-white photos, some graphics

Quote: “Government involvement in the arts has been part of civilization since civilization began.”

Everybody has a vision of “the good life,” so when I saw yet another book describing yet another vision on sale, cheap, I picked it up. How would Von Eckardt define the good life?

Von Eckardt wants more art in the cities. He wants funding from private donors, and free contributions from struggling young artists, but he has no problem with government funding either; he thinks the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts should have been shoehorned onto Pennsylvania Avenue. “In…Mesopotamian, Babylonian, and Egyptian civilizations, church and state were the same and the creation of art was an integral part of the state religion,” he writes wistfully. “In the Athens of Pericles…[w]ealthy citizens were asked to ‘lead the chorus,’ that is, pay for the production of a play, an honor as compelling as paying taxes.”

He dreamed of the sort of totalitarian “planning” that would overrule the sinister forces of democracy, individualism, and frugality. “[M]any slums are being reclaimed…This does not mean that the center city will necessarily regain all of its lost population. That depends on whether the city will offer affordable housing. It would be unfortunate if the lack of effective regional planning were to force the new generation of suburbanites to settle on the suburban fringe…Unfortunately,w e have no tradition of national land use, let alone regional planning.”

Too many artists, Von Eckardt complains, sit around and wail that “they,” the government, don’t fund “us” the artists. “Artists…must urge, vote, pressure, coax, cajole, wheedle, and exhort the Muses into positions that allow them to whisper into the ears of planners, administrators, and politicians. The cause is not served by general complaints that artists need more support…We all hear enough about what society can do for the arts. We want to hear what the arts can do for society and for the things society happens to be particularly interested in at the moment.”

He wrote from Washington, D.C., the city to which I came during the year after this book was published. Plenty of people in Washington agreed with Von Eckardt. If they didn’t think artists should sell out to the “planners” and crank out the kind of propaganda art for which the old Soviet Union became infamous, well, they’d take their funding where they found it. They had no problem with the idea of their “creativity” being exploited for political purposes, or rewarded based on its usefulness for political purposes rather than on its merits, or funded by coercive taxation rather than by the kind of individual communication toward which creative artists struggle.

Results were, to put it charitably, mixed. There’s a lot of art and culture, free for the soaking up, in every part of Washington (and its suburb-towns). Perhaps the best way to assess Live the Good Life is to reflect on the extent to which that art and culture really gave Washingtonians “the good life.”

What leaps first to my mind is that a lot of it is indeed beautiful, and enjoyable. The newspapers that list even the semi-planned art, music, drama, dance, and handcrafts events that are available each weekend are thick papers. Of course it’s possible for Washingtonians to choose to spend a weekend at home, or out of town. (Washingtonians traditionally come from somewhere else, in order to earn money in Washington, and they traditionally consider it obligatory to use as many of the long weekends and mandatory holidays as possible for travelling, taking that money back home, and spreading it around.) It’s not, however, possible for Washingtonians to consider going out, look at the entertainment options available, and decide to stay home because nothing interesting is going on that weekend. The city (and suburbs) have certain obligations to the tourists. Those obligations include bringing art, music, etc., from every State and nation, and sharing it liberally—one might even say prodigally—with anyone who goes outside on a weekend. As a result Washingtonians are bombarded with far more art and culture than they can consume. A serious “planning” concern involves staging open-air concerts far enough apart that the bands don’t clash with one another.

What leaps to mind next is that the best of Washington’s art-and-culture is the least “planned.” I feel almost subversive in whispering that (tiny print, please) the Smithsonian Museums never were my very favorite places, and I don’t think I ever went to the Kennedy Center at all. Too much “planning,” staging, marketing, makes a mob scene, which does strange and unpleasant things to any artistic endeavor. The bigger an event is, the more widely publicized, the less pleasure it gives. I've enjoyed Smithsonian events but I suspect I would have enjoyed them more if they'd been smaller-scale and staged at Georgetown University.

Finally…from the artists’ own point of view, the idea of “downtown” as a place to visit, not a place to live, has much to recommend it. Humans do not thrive in densely populated areas. Artists, due to their need for creative solitude, suffer the effects of crowding more acutely than other people. When artists do work in crowded conditions, some of them do produce art that is good in a way, but what their work is good at communicating is depression, worry, angst, alienation, and hostility.  When artists produce the kind of art that people want to look at, listen to, read, dance to, or sing along with, they can indeed go into inner cities, and find inspiration in inner cities, but they work privately in spacious, wholesome places.

So, has Von Eckardt’s book any value? I think it has historic value. The arts don’t need to be heavily “planned” and subsidized into the service of a political party or movement, but it’s useful to be able to document the early stages of the current encroachment of “planners” on the arts and on other aspects of city and town life.

Wolf Von Eckardt no longer needs a dollar, but if you want a copy of this book, please send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the appropriate address at the bottom of the screen. You can search this site for "A Fair Trade Book" to discover books by living authors that can be added to the package for the same $5 shipping charge; when that happens, we send 10% of the payment, typically $1, to the living author or a charity of his or her choice.

Endnote: Morguefile's new format is not conducive to finding web addresses for free pictures, but here's OgleEye's whole gallery: