Meanwhile, the woman [Rice] is still with us, more powerful and more disconnected from reality than ever. She apparently still believes there’s no point in talking to Syria and Iran. She still believes that democracy is a feasible goal in Iraq. At the State Department dinner, I watched her speak about the arts. “Arts flourish most when they happen in a democracy,” she said. “The arts give expression to human spirit and give expression to human freedom.” ~Nora Ephron
Raise your hand if you believe this nonsense. No one? Good. Art as an expression of human freedom is itself a tired Romantic fantasy. Art is an expression of the human desire for beauty and the yearning for proportion, balance and order in space and movement.
But, by any meaningful standard, it is impossible to believe the claim that “the arts” flourish better in a democracy. (Leave aside for now the obvious problem that freedom and modern democracy have nothing necessarily to do with each other.) Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but the rise of democratic politics and all manner of egalitarian flim-flam in different parts of the world have tended to coincide with a degeneration of anything like high artistic standards in those same places. Democratisation and mediocrity do go hand in hand. Excellence and egalitarianism do not go well together, and the latter will always drag down the former. If you are a believer in the virtues of democracy, you might very well say that this is an acceptable trade-off, but a trade-off undoubtedly exists.
“The arts” flourish most in societies with two things: a great deal of material wealth and a relatively high level of education that cultivates new generations of artists and creates an audience capable of understanding or at least valuing in some way the art they create. It is possible that a democratic culture might allow more people access to “the arts,” but this does not therefore mean that “the arts” are flourishing more than they would have done under a different kind of regime. To the extent that democratic mediocrity weakens the quality of everyone’s education, it is likely that the practice and culture of democracy positively harm the flourishing and appreciation of “the arts.” The arts are closely related to the classes that are always considered expendable in public school budget-cutting, because voters will usually treat these classes as extraneous and of secondary importance. The reservoirs of high bourgeois culture in opera, theater, orchestral performance, art galleries, etc. are now theoretically open to all but are, in practice, still the preserve and the interest of a relative few (and those ticket prices don’t make it easy to broaden their appeal!). Even though the federal government should have nothing to do with funding the arts, it is not surprising that arts funding takes a low priority, as there are no large constituencies that will be offended by the neglect of this.
Remarkably greater sums of wealth go towards mass entertainments of low and dubious quality, and consequently there is much more of this sort of thing available at far more affordable prices. This is the way of things in the world of mass consumption and mass politics, but we do not have to keep lying and pretending that democratic societies enjoy some efflourescence of artistic creativity because of “freedom.” If “the arts” flourish at all, it is in open defiance of the logic of democracy with its leveling, its refusal to rank and its counterintuitive claim that everyone is equal. Art is one field of human endeavour where whatever equality of nature men may have (i.e., everyone is equally human–as meaningless a statement as there can be) becomes ridiculously irrelevant in the face of the vast gaps in ability and vision that exist.