New Music and Politics

In the fall of 1992 I was in Washington D.C. to serve on a panel at the National Endowment for the Arts. The day our panel convened, Pat Buchanan declared a “cultural war” in America. The principal battleground of that war was the NEA. The next morning a staff member informed our panel that President Bush had just fired the chairman of the Endowment.

Clearly, politicians think the arts have some influence on politics.

The most prominent objects of Mr. Buchanan’s wrath were visual and performance artists such as Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe. But if Mr. Buchanan, Senator Helms and their allies had ever heard and understood the music of Cage and Oliveros, composers might have drawn even more rhetorical fire and brimstone. The vision of society embodied in this music is one that many people in political power would find threatening.

Although composers were never a primary target in Mr. Buchanan’s war, we were among the earliest casualties. Composer Fellowships were one of the first NEA grant programs to be eliminated in the ensuing assault on public funding for the arts.

Obviously politics can have a direct influence on artists.

Like many artists, I wrote my members of Congress. My representative in the House, Congressman Don Young, wrote me back stating his view that the arts should not receive government funding. The Arts, he said, should make their own way in the free marketplace of ideas.

Soon afterwards, I learned that Congressman Young was supporting legislation that would allow restaurants and other establishments to use recorded music in their businesses without paying performing rights to the artists who created the music.

I wrote Congressman Young again. I reminded him of his contention that artists should make their way in the marketplace, and told him that as a working composer performing rights royalties are an important part of my earned income. He never responded.

Artists in the United States are caught between the rock of vanishing public funding and the hard place of mass-market economics. If the business of America is business, where do people who dedicate their lives to creativity fit into the politics and economics of this country?

What role, if any, is there in American society for music that doesn’t have entertainment or commerce as its primary objective? And what impact can the new music community have on politics?

Is the most effective political action for composers and performers the creation of new music that inscribes change and contributes to the gradual transformation of society? Should we vote and actively participate in electoral politics?