J. Carter Brown

In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts

VTR Date: May 4, 1993

Guest: Brown, J. Carter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: J. Carter Brown
Title: “In What Spirit The Americans Cultivate The Arts”:
Alexis de Tocqueville
VTR: 5/4/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And the very presence of my guest today enables me at long last to deal with questions that first occurred to me as a young American historian four decades ago, as I worked on my Mentor edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic study of Democracy in America.

For “the influence of democracy upon the intellect in our country” and “the spirit in which Americans cultivate the arts” were themes that particularly distinguished Tocqueville from most other 19th century foreign commentators on the very essence of our new nation.

And certainly few other Americans have been better situated to observe and evaluate the arts in our own times than J. Carter Brown, the distinguished Director Emeritus of that extraordinary American jewel, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Recently named Chairman of Ovation, the newly planned fine arts television network, Mr. Brown is also Chairman of the Leadership Council of the National Cultural Alliance, a coalition of 41 arts and humanities organizations representing broad cultural interests in the United States.

Now, obviously, after nearly a quarter century as head of the National Gallery, Mr. Brown is going to remain a major presence in America’s cultural life. And I want to begin our program today by asking for his near 21st century comment on Tocqueville’s mid-l9th century observation that “democratic nations … will … cultivate the arts which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object it is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful”.

Now, if you think that’s a correct observation on Tocqueville’s part, what’s been the impact in your life experience of that observation?

Brown: Well, I think it certainly was true of the 19th century, the great period of American expansion, practicality above everything and materialism above everything .. we had a continent to conquer, and we had a lot of practical things to do first. But, as you remember that great quote from President Adams, who said that each generation will be liberated to do something a little more intellectual. I see a trend. I am very hopeful that we are moving as a nation away from a narrow pragmatism in the arts and that we will have a sense that there are qualities to quality that are their own reward.

Heffner: What are those qualities that make up their own reward?

Brown: Well, I was fascinated … John Nesbit recently has been studying these trends as he continues to do, and he sees the world as becoming increasingly global in terms of its economy and interaction. But, by the same token, the world fractionating back to sense of roots, sense of familiar, sense of ethnicity, sense of something that relates to the spirit. And think as we become more and more at sea at this hugeness of our world that the arts, and some sense of cultural roots, will become more and more important.

Heffner: Then why have we had so much difficulty in the past dozen years in terms of our national endowments and getting support for them, and getting them to support all kinds of cultural activities?

Brown: I think those difficulties are greatly exaggerated. When you think of the number of grants and the success that the endowments have brought as catalysts in terms of the multiplier effect of other donaflons and the growth of dance companies and symphonies and operas in this country, the fact that a fringe political position should have found this to their short-term interest to make a fuss over I don’t think at all negates the long essential support there is in this country for the flowering of our civilization.

Heffner: Do you really mean to dismiss it as a fringe element … political element?

Brown: Well, I think that you look back at what was upsetting the apple cad in the previous Administration and this was a very vocal minority.

Heffner: Still with us.

Brown: Oh, I’m afraid … yes … it’s still with us. But I think that a lot of that can be put aside with the right leadership and a sense of getting on with the shared values that these great classics have to do with all the things that everyone believes in … the importance of the human spirit .., of tradition and continuity in our lives … but the ads cannot be dismissed as simply some kind of pablum that … or anodyne that makes us feel good. Artists have traditionally been out there at the cutting edge … have been criticizing us, have been making us take a new look at ourselves, and that is often very uncomfortable.

Heffner: Well, it is that level of discomfort that has led to the troubles.

Brown: That’s right. But it’s such a small pad of the spectrum … that’s what people don’t seem to understand. There’s still an enormous amount of cultural transaction that goes on in this country that is not doing that. And there is not lack of legitimacy in any part of the spectrum, it’s all part of what arts do for a civilization. But one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Heffner: Your definition of “arts”? Broad? Wide?

Brown: Well, on the new…

Heffner: What do you…

Brown: …on the new television channel … the Ovation channel … we plan to do fundamentally the major performing ads of music, classical music primarily, but significant jazz, too. Theatre. Dance. Literature to the extent that poetry and drama relate, and then the visual ads … museums, ad, architecture. And that’s all … we’re going to specialize This is called, I believe in your trade, “narrowcasting”. We want to go after a specific set of parameters and stick to them.

Heffner: But if you … if you narrowcast … what opportunity do you have then to broaden the base, and if you are looking for the kind of support those who indulge in the networking of programs usually look for, you’re going to need a broader and broader base.

Brown: I hope we don’t get caught up in that as an end in itself. What’s exciting is to see that those audiences grow lust by virtue of the quality of the experience being offered. We certainly found that at the National Gallery. When became Director we had, I think, my first year when I took over, we had just finished a year in which we had about 900,000 visitors. Over the course of the 23 years that I was there that audience grew up into the many millions, somewhere between 5 and S million a year. And that’s just people who came through the doors of the two buildings in Washington. We also developed an enormous television audience. We had an extension service that sent materials into classrooms, free of charge, to all 50 states, thousands of communities. We’re now just working on a video disc project, the inter-active technologies are coming on stream. I feel a great sense of growth in all of this. And I think it grows not by lowering the standards, or pandering, or going cynically into some kind of promotion. It is because the quality attracts … and “try it, you like it”, and then the circle widens as people tell one another how rewarding it can be.

Heffner: What about numbers, now. If you were to scratch the surface, if you were to scratch America, how many people will you find interested in what you consider the arts, what percentage of us? And is that percentage increasing?

Brown: Well, this National Cultural Alliance has just sponsored a survey and the numbers are quite encouraging in some ways, and also challenging in others.

Heffner: You’re a master of words.

Brown: (Laughter) Well, its

Heffner: What do you mean by “challenging”?

Brown: Well, they show that way up there, over 90% of Americans feel that the arts are important to our, our lives. And that’s very encouraging. I was frankly surprised. I thought fewer would. But, then when you get down to how much money they have spent on symphony tickets that week you find that many people feel that there are other things in their lives that are competing for that time and those dollars. And that they are not participating in the arts as much as they would like. Well, there’s the opportunity, and that’s the challenge. And I think television is the great medium to broaden that base. When you think of the numbers … cable is now in almost 60 million homes … that’s a home, times the number of people watching it six or seven hours a day … whatever it is. When you have just a tiny market share, you are already reaching more people than we can squeeze into the National Gallery with a hit exhibition, (laughter) day after day. These numbers are considerable. And I think with grazing, with people shopping around the dial, they will come upon things, and we’ll make some converts.

Heffner: Market share … I don’t know that lever thought I’d hear. Carter Brown use that phrase.

Brown: I am a graduate of the Harvard Business School, after all.

Heffner: Yes, but, that is…

Brown: (Laughter)

Heffner: …we’ll forgive … we’ll forgive you for that. Seriously, isn’t there something self-contradictory about using market share as you talk about, not an arts and entertainment channel … we have that. And there are those who would say it was largely entertainment. You’re serious about not making this an entertainment … is that true?

Brown: Absolutely. And I think maybe audience share is more like what one means, but the technical term in television is that the area which a station serves is called a “market”. I, I think it’s very typical of de Tocqueville’s analysis that the American psyche is tuned to a commercial definition of all things. And that’s what we chip away at in our trade, and I think with some success.

Heffner: Let me ask you about the potential for success here, when we know in almost every community in this country, the educational structure is finding itself stripped more and more of cultural activities … funds that once went to support music activities, art activities, fine art activities … no longer available. Doesn’t this indicate to you something about our national priorities?

Brown: But what’s exciting is that our national conscience is finally waking up to the disaster that our secondary education has become. And there is a great deal of movement now in terms, not only of Presidential goals for the year 2000, but our new Secretary of Education is very arts minded, and we have a response on the part of the business community that’s finding our educational system is simply inadequate to providing the new kind of work force that we need. Because what we need are not people from the Rust Belt age of just becoming automata, and doing repetitive motions as if they were part of assembly line psyche, we have to recognize that what is now prized are people who can work together, who have problem solving abilities, who have imagination, have a spark of creativity. An education system that was geared to the old industrial mode can’t handle that. So what is gradually dawning on Americans as we fight our way through this crisis … I mean out of the 15 industrial nations, we rank 13th in educational effectiveness … is that we’ve got to do something. Now what we’re going to do, I predict, is move the arts more centrally, into the educational process, because what we are now learning about learning is that the whole cognitive process has to do with more frames of mind in Howard Gardner’s great book, there are at least seven that he points out, ways in which one is intelligent. So, the question is no longer how intelligent is this child, it’s going to have to be “how is this child intelligent”, and if we can bring the arts centrally in so that that kind of enthusiasm in learning commitment affects everything else, where it’s been done, the scores go up in all the other subjects. And the drop-out rates goes down. We just have to get that word out to the school boards and the local power blocks that hold American education in fief because of a misunderstanding of what really can be accomplished by it.

Heffner: Would you object strenuously if someone were to say to you that what Ovation will do, in all likelihood, whatever your intentions, is to bring about a further dichotomization between the very rich and the very poor … the culturally rich and the culturally poor?

Brown: I’m so delighted that those aren’t necessarily the same, that the … I was just talking with an interviewee yesterday about someone to help us with the programming, and adduced so many examples where these, these cultural quiz shows are won, over and over again, not by the academics, but by a taxi driver some place, or an eccentric who just knows an enormous amount about that, from whatever economic strata. So I am basically bullish about that. I think that it is a bum rap to say that this all stratifies out. And certainly the channel will be there for anyone … I mean the more democratic, you can’t get.

Heffner: Well, let me ask you, with all due respect to the Harvard MBA. What market share do you aim for? In ratings? In numbers?

Brown: Yeah.

Heffner: We’re talking “Americanese”.

Brown: Well, I mean, you know, even point one is already a lot of bodies. And, you know, once a month we plan to do a major production. At the beginning, it will have to be mainly acquired material. But you get up to 1.5, I mean you have really begun to reach a lot of people. And every time someone has an experience like this, then it has a cumulative effect. And what I’ve been excited by is the response just to this announcement. Carol Vogel, who wrote this up in The New York Tim she was just going to put it in her art column and her editor said, “No, this is much too interesting … do a whole article on it”. Came out in the middle of the week there in The New York Times you know, several pages in. The response she said she got from that one article is greater than any article she’s ever written. The number of people who were writing, ‘how do I get in touch with Ovation? How does one get involved in it? What is it going to do? Tell us more about it.” There is a felt need out there ,.. television except for great oasis like your program, Sir, has been starving people who really feel the arts are essential. And I’m a great admirer of public broadcasting, and, of course, that has a much larger audience which comes in anyway, and has a great track record. But we have had wonderful initiatives from the good folk in, in PBS to say “let’s do some things together, the more the merrier’. And I believe that that’s been proven in my Harvard Business School way with shopping centers … you don’t have just one each of every kind of retailer in a shopping mall. They’ve found that each one reaches more people if you can develop that kind of scene, and I hope that with digital compression, and several hundred channels becoming available on television in the space of little over a year that we will have enough channels doing this so that people will find it part of their way of life.

Heffner: Are you thinking in terms of ‘pay-per-view”?

Brown: We are considering all options. And in certain cases that may be … but if we’re carried as part of the, of the cable system as it exits. That’s great, and then who’s to predict what the future lies in terms of delivery. We’re going to really be in the software business, and if they come in through other ways, if you have finally people with their PCs being able to interact … the whole technological revolution in terms of visual quality … I have watched the National Gallery and they are digitizing the entire collection. In the old days broadcast with 400 lines and through the air with ghosts and people not setting their dials and so forth … it was very hard to talk about paint, about what is authentic and what’s a forgery because the image just didn’t have the resolution. Now with the future digitization, it is incredible, you can just … if you want to go in tight, you just start going in, and you go in and finally it breaks down into “pixels”, like a wonderful Cubist mosaic. But you’re down to just a little brush stroke by that time. So, the technology is there, there is extraordinary movement … all of it’s happening terribly fast, but that is a side issue. I think the main issue is the software … is the mind, what goes in, and there we want to help.

Heffner: Why do you feel that the mind needs quite all that much help … and that’s not coming out right. I, I guess what I’m trying to indicate in my own inept way … I’m trying to raise the question as to whether “enough already’ may not be the war-cry shortly … that if you do what you intend to do, and do it expertly, that you’ve got too much of a field to cover. One gets a little suspicious of quite so many efforts in a field that requires the intensity of purpose and where less maybe more.

Brown: So you would argue that we should cut down to just one publishing house, and that we should reduce the number of books in our libraries, and the number of magazines available. I mean I think that is the fabulous strength of the intellectual market of ideas, that one has choice.

Heffner: But you see … you use the phrase “market of ideas” … the marketplace of ideas … in the past it would seem that the competition in the marketplace of ideas has usually demeaned, diminished, down-graded the product itself. Indeed, with quite so many publishing houses competing and perhaps lowering their standards, perhaps we are not as well off as if there were fewer. And I’m just raising the question as to whether getting into this business

Brown: If the bottom line has to be the bottom line, that happens. But when you think of the flip side of that what has been made possible by Gutenberg and the advent of moveable type is that instead of any book being available only if laboriously hand copied out, and so you were stuck with the Bible and Aristotle. You now have this spectrum of audience. So that a little magazine can reach its audience. And magazines is the perfect example. I mean when I was growing up LOOK, and COLLIERS, and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST … I mean where are they today? The idea of being all things to all men, and I hate to say, maybe the broadcast networks are beginning to feel this. It is that specialized magazine that gets to its audience and pays its own way because its advertisers know where their advertising dollars are going in terms of people they want to reach…

Heffner: Well…

Brown: And I think it’s a great future.

Heffner: At what point is someone going to say to you, “J. Carter Brown, what you’re doing is … you’ve become an entertainer, and though you say it’s an ads channel, a fine ads channel, perhaps, you’ve become an entertainer’. You think that’s going to happen?

Brown: I think Shakespeare was an entertainer (laughter) and that there obviously is an intrinsic aspect of the arts which engages the emotions and satisfies our aesthetic senses. And does things that some entertainment does. But the difference is in the quality and in the depth. And the arts don’t need a second layer of entertain zing added on to them to try to make them more palatable.

Heffner: I, I don’t understand.

Brown: You don’t … if you have a play that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and it has an effect that it has on a viewer, you don’t have to hoke it up with lots of people explaining every few minutes or going through a lot of visual gymnastics in order to make it more like MW. The play has an intrinsic quality, and I believe that the standards of our station will have that loyalty to the essential integrity and quality of the work of art. That’s all I’m say. So it really … we’re not going to slide off into trying to glitz it up as a kind of instant gratification entertainment channel. I mean people will have to come to it with a certain willful suspension and a certain interest. At the same time, my experience at National Gallery is that you don’t have to talk down to an audience. You show the stuff that’s absolutely great and you don’t pander, but if it’s good, they come. And that’s my faith.

Heffner: Will the Cultural Alliance participate?

Brown: Well, the great thing about the Cultural Alliance is that it is not only arts, but humanities, too, and it is the first time, really, that all of these organizations … I mean you mention 41 … but those are groups of sub-organizations, so it’s thousands of organizations across the country that have thrown in their lot to do something. And the first thing we’re doing is we have been rewarded by the Advertising Council of America with their having adopted the arts and humanities as their cause for next year. And that is very exciting. This is going to give $20 or $30 million dollars of free print and media attention to an awareness that people can try this, it’s available in their local communities. That, I think, is already quite an achievement for this organization.

Heffner: Doesn’t make you a little bit uneasy, have an ad “Take a fine painting home for the evening”

Brown: (Laughter)

Heffner: ..or something like that?

Brown: No. Wait until you see … it’s been done by a very intelligent advertising firm in, in New York, and the, the pitch is “there’s something in it for you”. And I think there is and I’ve wrapped my life around that principle.

Heffner: That’s interesting, we just have a couple of minutes left … “there is something in it for you’, could you elaborate a little further upon that?

Brown: Yes, I think that the American that de Tocqueville was talking about was obviously interested first in getting a roof over his head, and home-steading, or whatever. But I think that as we grow, as a society we recognize there are enormous benefits and rewards from taking advantage of the cultural opportunities that now abound. And there is something in it for virtually everybody once they eat that first peanut, I think they’re not going to want to stop.

Heffner: Even in a nation which we are working harder and harder, more and more hours, less and less leisure time in fact.

Brown: Such a pessimist.

Heffner: Well…

Brown: That makes it quality time

Heffner: Almost a…

Brown: …all the more precious, yeah.

Heffner: Makes it more, more precious.

Brown: Yes.

Heffner: And you feel that we will take advantage.

Brown: I think some will, it’s a wonderfully polymorphic society and I don’t think you should rule or may it by fiat, but the statistics are that more people go to cultural events than to organized athletics, they pay more for those tickets and the viewership on television of sports is declining. And I think that the arts are on the rise in this country. I know there are problems, firing school teachers, people knee-jerk reaction on how to cost-cut. But I don’t think that’s the long term trend.

Heffner: I like your optimism. Last week I took my grandson to the Yankee Stadium, next week I’ll take him to a fine museum. Thanks very much for joining me today, J. Carter Brown. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, please write THE OPEN MIND, F. C. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, ‘Good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.