An Our Word Roundtable
Part three of a four-part roundtable discussion on art and politics (and some other things inbetween). Go here for parts one and two.
Drew: What about the rest of the statement, the attack on “corporate indifference”? What do you think that means?
Mitchell: Well, I suppose there’s a positive side to what he’s talking about. What I mean by that is this: if you assume that Corporate America is “conservative,” then you’re saying that in order to get your political message across you have to do so in a way that makes it more palatable to the public at large. And that means putting it in a more entertaining framework so the corporate suits think it’s something other than what it is. You trick them into backing it because they don’t know what it is they’re putting on. So, assuming that the production they cloak it in has any artistic merit, this could be a good thing. It forces a political message to at least be entertaining at the same time.
Judith: But Ross has also got a point – corporations don’t really care about anything other than the bottom line, and they’ll cut arts funding in order to increase the shareholder return by one penny. Look at what ChevronTexaco did with the Saturday Met broadcasts.
Mitchell: Chesterton would say, I think, that business has a responsibility toward contributing to a culture that enhances the lives of their employees, in more ways than simply making them wage slaves. And while you can certainly make the case that the lack of corporate funding is simply the free market at work, you still have this shift in corporate thinking. Back in the 60s there was a TV show called Voice of Firestone, it had started on radio in 1928 I think, and had moved to TV in the late 40s. It was considered a prestige show, classical music and entertainment, but by the early 60s it had a very low rating and the network - I think it was ABC - wanted to move it out of the way of their more successful shows. Well, Firestone didn't care about the ratings; it had always been good publicity for them, and the audience was loyal even if it was small. ABC wanted to move the show to a later time slot so it didn't drag down the ratings for the rest of the network's shows, and Firestone says, wait a minute, if you put it on at 10:30 it's gonna be too late in the evening for our viewers.
Judith: Because their demographics skewed to an older audience.
Mitchell: Right. Even then the classical music audience was older. And finally Firestone says, in essence, look - this is our show and if you don't put it on at a reasonable time we're going to take it off the air altogether. And that's what they did, and they put all their advertising money into sports. And that's how you got things like the Firestone Tournament of Champions in bowling.
Drew: Your point being, I'd assume, that this was a case where the sponsor was interested in more than making money - they actually felt they were contributing something.
Mitchell: Right. And Judie's example about ChevronTexaco, I wonder if the extra bucks they made by pulling out of their Met sponsorship was really worth it to them.
Judith: I'm sure they thought so. You can never have enough money, right? [Laughter]
Mitchell: And I don't know how you get this back to the idea that corporations are some tool of conservative politics. Maybe they've supported the Republicans in the past, but as I've said, that's hardly a conservative position. To the extent that conservatives have become advocates of entrepreneurship and competition, they're exact opposites of Corporate America, who wants to protect their own status quo. And this is really a pet peeve of mine, this assumption that corporations are conservative institutions, because politically speaking they aren’t.
Judith: Conservatives are seen as guardians of the status-quo, protecting art from deconstruction. Maybe that’s what they mean when they talk about corporations being reluctant to fund controversial material.
Mitchell: But I think you have to get away from this idea of Corporate America as being a conservative bastion. As I’ve said before, and I’ve written a bit about this, in all the important social issues – immigration, diversity, abortion, competition in the marketplace, personal liberty, religious freedom – Corporate America is solidly on the liberal side politically. And face it, if we’re talking about liberalism on campuses – which we haven’t been in this discussion, I know, although we’ve talked about it before – then the CEOs and HR heads that are running corporations today came straight out of that milieu. Can we really be surprised that they’d have a liberal mindset?
Judith: A lot of them vote Republican, though, and give Republican candidates money.
Mitchell: You’re being the devil’s advocate now, because you know conservative and Republican isn’t the same thing at all. And all these corporations are so concerned about being socially responsible, but apparently that doesn’t include the arts.
Drew: Unless it’s some kind of avant-garde project. Or something that will bring them credit from the social elites, for being "relevant."
Mitchell: Xerox was that way in the 60s, always sponsoring socially relevant programming. They even entered into a deal with the UN where they sponsored a series of movies that put the UN in a good light - not overtly, necessarily, I mean in this case it was still entertainment first, politics second, with good writers and all-star casts, and Xerox made it possible for these shows to be on without commercial interruption. And they faced all kinds of opposition from groups like the John Birch Society, but they went ahead with it anyway. And I'm not slamming Xerox here, I'm just making the point that corporations will fund programming when they get good publicity from it, and that usually means some kind of liberal cause.
Drew: Or if they get politically blackmailed into it by some special interest group.
Judith: What about conservative boycotts of offensive shows?
Mitchell: I suppose we're getting a little far afield here, but that's a good point. That's another reaction against what the average person might see as the cultural elite.
Judith: You think those boycotts are products of the average Joe, as opposed to conservative interest groups?
Mitchell: Well, in the sense that the average viewers aren't insisting on having shows laced with their own favorite political content. I think they're just lobbying for political-free content, in not having these TV shows preaching to them. So boycotts may be organized by a group, but I think that average viewer is just fed up with preachy entertainment, which turns out to be not very entertaining.
Judith: Depending on what kind of entertainment it is. It could be the kind of thing that corporations are very attracted to – something that’s new and different, to show that they’re hip and with it. They try so hard, and they don’t really understand what they’re doing, but they want to be attentive to their customers, so they give them what they want. Neat way of avoiding personal responsibility.
Drew: If you want to take another side trip here, let’s look at movie and TV studios as part of corporate America. They aren’t interested in developing art, for the most part. They deal with the lowest common denominator, and for them the bottom line is profit. It's like Mitchell said with that Voice of Firestone example. So you’re not going to be able to sell them on programming as a public service. They’re only interested in ratings and box office returns.
Mitchell: But when they start pushing the liberal agenda, they might give the show more slack. They’ll shower it with critical acclaim, give it a bunch of awards, and then blame the public for not supporting it.
Judith: We’re not smart enough. We don’t have enough taste.
Mitchell: And in some cases they’re right. But if you look at the demographics, what makes money nowadays is the stuff that panders to a particular age group, and that isn’t exactly the group that the three of us belong to. [Laughter]
Drew: Speak for yourself. [Laughter]
Judith: But there really is a sense that everything is changing before our eyes, that the things we used to have are going away, and they aren’t coming back. Do you suppose all generations have felt that way?
Mitchell: To some point, I suppose.
Drew: But the difference today is that culture has become so fragmented. There’s something for everyone, hundreds of TV and radio stations out there, so you don’t have to compromise, you don’t have to produce anything that appeals to any kind of mass audience. With a channel for everyone, there’s no such thing as a shared experience anymore, except for a big news event or the Super Bowl.
Mitchell: And what does that do to our culture?
Drew: It doesn’t help it, that’s for sure. No shared experience, no common language that people speak, where somebody mentions something and automatically everyone else knows what you're talking about.
Mitchell: And in its own way, that’s as much of a political consequence as anything we’ve talked about here.
Judith: A lot of what you see on TV isn’t art, and it doesn’t make any pretension to be art. Those that do are less likely to be actually artistic, and more likely to be political.
Drew: And so we’re right back to where we started.
Tomorrow: the conclusion.