Hazem Saghieh

On Culture and Money: Neither This Option nor That

There is mounting evidence that when money is used in a certain way, or from a certain position, it can harm the creative endeavors it seeks to support. This can be seen, at least in the West, on several levels.

The British-American writer Tony Judt identified the reasons why we no longer see the emergence of intellectuals like Zola, Camus, and Milosz. He goes over broad social shifts: the men listed were among a tiny minority who made a living, either partially or fully, by writing, and their position was closely tied to print media. This had been the case in Europe from the late nineteenth century till the nineteen-sixties when the status of writing as the most effective tool for communicating and circulating ideas began to decline. However, nothing declined to the same degree as the readership of newspapers and magazines in which intellectuals write.

Thus, in a sense, we went back to the eighteenth century, a time when elites only communicated with other elites. In turn, we saw the rise of the “television intellectuals” phenomenon, which draws its material from the interests and concerns of what had become mass societies. The economy of cultural life has also changed. Intellectuals do not own the newspapers any longer; they are now owned by people with business interests that push them to demand that the intellectuals ensure they do not harm the owners’ interests when voicing their opinions. Because of this funding, greater degrees of loyalty are now demanded in the media, and so the critical intellectual who makes a living from writing began to disappear, and his old instruments, such as newspapers and magazines, began to recede.

As for the expanding categories of intellectuals, they included pundits and technocrats that support a political party or lobby; those who work at think tanks, which conduct research on the topics their centers are concerned with; investigative journalists, who consider their duty to be monitoring the violations committed by the authorities (this task, however, is inherently compartmental); and academics, who have constituted the overwhelming majority of influential intellectuals since mid-seventies.

If we looked into the reasons and implications, we would find that money directly and circuitously plays a role, crowning a course that had begun decades before it made its great leap in the early eighties.

Indeed, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills noticed this trend in education as early as the nineteen-fifties. And it has not stopped growing since, rising in parallel with increases in funding for universities and funders’ control over the materials and curricula that are taught. He wrote about how “past experts” in the sciences and the arts had been independent, more innovative, and more likely to seek new formulas and discoveries. Mills argued that economic interests had bulldozed education through technology, making the production of technology that could be sold and useful to the economy education’s task, not making breakthroughs that change our understanding of the world. This strengthened the link between knowledge and profit, as shown, for example, by the pharmaceutical industry’s contributions to the funding of medical research. As for the professors, their focus on teaching functional knowledge began to rise, which led to the introduction of business faculties after the idea of tying business to academia had been a joke. Knowledge’s subordination to business also left it highly fragmented: before, professors had been widely knowledgeable about the world and familiar with other knowledge disciplines.

Today, on the other hand, their fields of expertise have become narrow, and they cannot link their specialized field to broader streams of knowledge. As the lives of professors become more bureaucratized and administrative tasks take up increasing amounts of their time, the presence of bohemian and subversive creators in art has been declining. With what the Frankfurt School called the “culture industry,” which produces works that coopt protest and promote mass-consumed goods, art has become more contained.
Today, the percentage of creatives from poor backgrounds continues to decrease due to the “high cost” of becoming an artist, from studying in rich schools to having a social network and owning a studio or office or workshop…

Part of this criticism is correct, and the other is overblown. Accepting its exaggerations would imply skepticism about every institution, all knowledge, and all elites. This is the shortest route to populism, undermining mutual trust within societies, and rendering their members fragmented atoms. On top of this, its exaggerated aspects obscure the fact that the West, which is in decline and sick with neoliberalism, has maintained its distant lead as the world’s primary source of culture and knowledge because it is the only place in the world where failures, abuses, and violations are debated and can be made rectifiable.

Few populist excesses are rising like the condemnation of any sort of link between money and culture. Money’s “raid” on culture is presented as an assault that engenders nothing but the degradation of culture, with serving capital becoming its only function (keeping in mind that many of those who raise this slogan do not object to receiving funds for themselves and their projects).

This claim, as well as the assumption that cultural degradation is the inevitable outcome of money and culture coming into contact, goes against an infinite number of basic truths. Indeed, creative endeavors, in all their forms, have been associated with material wealth and not being obliged to do other work to meet one’s needs since the time of the ancient Greeks. Even European Marxism, Marx’s Marxism, linked the flourishing of intellectual and creative pursuits to abundance, and they did not sanctify misery or present it as conducive for opening up. Even worse given the immense number of statist experiences (communism, the Nazis, and others) that attest to the perils of such intervention, many of those advocating for a separation do not hesitate to demand that the state intervenes in culture in place of the private sector.

Are we to believe, in this case, that human culture paid dearly for the ecclesiastical paintings of the Renaissance and the sculptures that decorated Florence and other Italian cities because popes and rich families had funded them, and that Shakespeare’s work brought shame to culture because Lord Chamberlain had supported him financially? Should we condemn the music of Bach, whom some have called “the composer of Lutheran churches” in Germany? Should we turn our eyes away from the works of Goya, who spent much of his life painting the kings and princes of Spain? Or should we close al-Mutanabi’s book of poetry because its author had been paid to praise his prince Saif Al-Dawla? This is merely a tiny sample of ingenious creatives whose names would not fit in a volume.

It is true statesmen and clergymen are not patrons of the arts anymore, but the ties between culture and money have remained in place to the extent that they have remained requisites for producing creative work. As for the matter that needs to be discussed, it is related to how best to guide the use of this money and the wisdom of the person with the money, such that the greatest number of people, indeed everyone if possible, can critique and undertake creative endeavors.