Say what you will about the Internet's impact on our attention spans, books seem to be getting longer, not shorter. That's not just my imagination: In his 2007 book Microtrends, Mark J. Penn included a line graph showing that the length of the average best-selling book jumped by about 100 pages between 1995 and 2005, from just under 400 pages to just under 500 pages. Maybe authors are getting more self-indulgent, unwilling to prune their prose even when it needs it. Or maybe they--and their publishers--think readers expect more poundage when they actually spend money for a book, instead of getting information free online.
Patronizing the Arts, the latest effort from Marjorie Garber, a professor of English and of visual and environmental studies at Harvard, isn't a big book. It clocks in at 234 pages, including notes and the index, but it still seems padded, like an essay that grew, willy-nilly, so it could be a book.
In it, Garber, the author of 13 previous works and the editor of 12 collections of essays, argues that universities should take on the job of arts patron, partly because the arts--a.k.a. culture--used to be the very foundation of a well-rounded, liberal education.
Garber begins by explaining her use of "patronizing" as a double-entendre: America both supports the arts through grants from private donors, foundations, corporations and government, and condescends to the arts by considering them entertainment or recreation rather than serious endeavors. As a result, arts in America are both overvalued--treated as transcendent--and undervalued, in that they are considered inessential, an "add-on," as she puts it, in comparison with the real world of politics or business or science.
Both could be addressed if universities entered the mix. For one thing, she says, "universities are already accustomed to managing grants from government, industry and private sources." Funding for the arts could easily be channeled through the university, too--laden as they are with scholars capable of evaluating artistic worthiness and pledged to allow academic freedom. This would "help to reverse the trend toward thinking of the arts as a recreational ('extracurricular') activity rather than a serious and arduous career."
What's more, Garber asserts, the time has come for "Big Art" (and even "Big Humanities"). Just as universities have invested in "Big Science," deploying vast teams of researchers to advance science, and "Big Sports," making football, basketball and other team efforts an integral part of university life, they could transform the arts by funneling money.
Perhaps, but I find Garber's assertions unpersuasive. I'm not even convinced there's a problem to solve. Yes, only a small proportion of Americans regularly participate in what used to be called the high arts. But it's hard to see how giving universities control of funding will change that. Arts participation (and presumably appreciation) is highly correlated with higher education in general, experts say. If elevating the arts to a more central part of American life is the goal, money should go to educating more people. How artists and arts institutions get their funds is immaterial.
Besides, given the decidedly liberal leanings of most college campuses, I'm not sure the arts would benefit from the creation of a class of uber-patrons drawn from the professorial ranks. The existing diversity of donors, along with the market for art, makes for a diversity in arts creation, and that works fine for me. True, Garber says she is not advocating universities as patrons instead [her emphasis] of private philanthropy, but she suggests no additional source of funding that the universities would "channel."
Most of Garber's assertions are contained in the last chapter of "Patronizing the Arts." They are preceded by a meandering history of arts patronage in the U.S. and occasionally in Britain. But too often the recounting is selective, superficial and sometimes pointless. There's a long discourse on American poets laureate, for example--by the end of the book, I was still not sure why.
Garber clearly set out to get people to think about the arts, and that's a worthy goal. But her vision--and that is what this book is--seems unlikely to provoke the deep conversation she would like to have. It is too narrowly drawn to attract the wide audience a real discussion about the arts and humanities would require.