The NEA and The Big Tally Book of Cultural DNA

by John Holbo on November 21, 2004

Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias (and again) are happy to take Chait’s hint: abolish the NEA.  Well, the NEA did two nice things for me this week, so let me tell you what they were. First, as mentioned, I’m studying the NEA’s Reading At Risk survey. I’m glad someone does this kind of stuff. Who knew reading literature was strongly correlated with attending sporting events? (Maybe the NASCAR folks aren’t hating on this arts stuff so badly after all.)

But this survey is hardly matchmaking Eddie Punchclock and Suzy Housecoat to the Divine Muse of Art. This brings me to item two. NEA support for The Capital of Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeyland Review. The DNA of Literature Project. This is just fantastic. It’s great. Wonderful! Searchable and everything.

Welcome to the DNA of literature—over 50 years of literary wisdom
rolled up in 300+ Writers-at-Work interviews, now available
online—free. Founder and former Editor George Plimpton dreamed of a day
when anyone—a struggling writer in Texas, an English teacher in
Amsterdam, even a subscriber in Central Asia—could easily access this
vast literary resource; with the establishment of this online archive
that day has finally come. Now, for the first time, you can read,
search and download any or all of over three hundred in-depth
interviews with poets, novelists, playwrights, essayists, critics,
musicians, and more, whose work set the compass of twentieth-century
writing, and continue to do so into the twenty-first century.

"There is no other archive quite like The Paris Review interviews.
The National Endowment for the Arts could not be more pleased or more
proud than to make this resource available free to the American public."

—Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

A callow critic might object that taxpayer support for this sort of thing still
amounts to wealth transfer from everyone else to the artsy fartsy
classes. (And if these writers are so all-fired American, why are they
pretending they’re French?) I do admit the force of this libertarian
argument. But I think:

1) No one’s going to get too upset that high-quality PDF’s
from folks like Hemingway, Faulkner, et. al. are being released in the
wild. (Not just to US citizens, to the world! Cultural outreach.
Winning hearts and minds. Yes, most of these personalities are too
prickly or lofty or insane to be ambassadorial. And drunken. But I
understand that is not a preclusion to an ambassadorship,
traditionally. In the 19th century, it was a tradition to post literary
men as ambassadors. Anyway.)

2) Implicit in this approach is a maximally democratic conception of the NEA’s mission. (Maybe the libertarians won’t buy it, but they should be a little placated.) To explain:

The standard objections to the NEA are that projects funded are leftist (so why should righties be compelled to fork over?) and elitist (so why should regular folk have their pockets picked?) Also, it is absurd that a bureaucracy should be in the new art business. The avant garde should should take care of itself, and its own. State-supported art should be derriere garde (since bureaucrats are artists at covering rears, if nothing more.) State-supported art should have something conservative
about it. Its proper objects should be aesthetic analogs to national
landmarks and wilderness areas. The NEA should be the department of conserving cultural matter which lots and lots and lots of people have already pretty much come to accept would be a loss to everyone if it went away.

I think it’s not, in fact, fair to charge the NEA with falling down
on the job under this description of the job. It’s a pretty
conservative outfit. (It’s just you only hear about it when it isn’t.)
I personally don’t even object to a few of my tax dollars going
for a little speculation in art futures. It seems to me that sometimes
works out and (unlike bad wars) doesn’t cost too much when it doesn’t. But let us  continue to push the democracy angle.

State-supported arts elitism seems to work OK for countries like – well, France. The Academy and  Immortals and all that gloire.
But we Americans have our own academy awards; we call our Immortals
‘stars’, to indicate they are not entities subject to sublunary
corruption. Obviously no state support needed. American literary and
arts culture couldn’t be strait-jacketed into anything like the French
Academy. I remember reading a funny story about Sartre coming to
America and wanting to meet Nathanael West. (I hope I’m remembering
this right.) He asked his agent to help him meet ‘the author of Miss Lonelyhearts.’
His agent tracked down some astonished spinster, authoress of a romance
novel of that title. She came to the meeting, wondering what this
famous Frenchman wanted with her. Eventually Sartre figured out that
West was dead, killed in a car accident. (Something fishy about this
story. West was already a screenwriter in Hollywood by the time of his
death, so Sartre’s agent must have been a bit of a slouch.) Sartre
marvelled that, in France, all writers of West’s caliber are drawn to
the center – the hub – Paris and the Academy. They become part of the
establishment. You could find them through the establishment, which would be keeping tabs. They wouldn’t succeed
and continue to toil in atomistic isolation, Barton Fink-fashion. I
don’t know whether it’s true that all French writers, or the vast
majority, join the state arts apparatus/culture. Perhaps it was more
true then than now. But it is most definitely not true, never
has been, of American artists and writers that they are prepared to do
any such thing. But it is a basic tenet of good government that funding
needs oversight and control. You can’t give money to people who won’t
be accountable. It wouldn’t be wise. Forcibly extracting money from
some folks to give to other folks to do as they like – without any clear correlative obligation – is a headache recipe.

If there isn’t a demonstrably elligible arts elite (I’m not hating
on the artists myself; I’m just saying the libertarians have more than
half a point); if Hollywood doesn’t need the money, what’s left? What
can the government do better than individuals, plus the market? What can the people deputize the government to buy, arts-wise, with the expectation that the government will do a better job? For that matter, what conservative model can be hit upon that won’t utterly alienate the proponents of new
art (who will inevitably be griped if funding for such is cut, but
perhaps they can be placated.) For that matter, what is to be done
about the division between high and low arts. Unclear as it is, it exists; or is at least perceived to. Which is sufficient for acrimonious polarization.

One possibility (which might or might not fit in with Matt Yglesias
‘vouchers’ proposal) is a kind of redistributionist transfer. Take arts
dollars from the rich to give to the poor. This would do for the poor
what they can’t do for themselves. But I don’t see this line as at all
promising You ought to forcibly redistribute, if at all, with an eye
for securing necessities, not luxuries. (Yes, I know art is necessary
for the soul. Still.)

It seems to me there is a potentially correct answer, however. The NEA could buy: cultural DNA . The NEA could plausibly do, on a larger scale, what it has done with the Paris Review. Pay to have culture set free. As is often the case, Timothy Burke says it best , articulating a view of cultural value and a threat to it [emphasis added by me when we get to the threat]:

I look at my DVDs, my television shows, my books, my comics, my computer games, at something like The Avengers
and I think to myself, “This is not the best world that ever could be,
but it’s a damn sight better than any other historical world that
humans have inhabited so far”. Some despair at the size of it all, some
despair at its variety, some despair at what they see as the lack of
variety. Some bemoan the ironic nostalgia or pastiche of popular
culture, others complain at its superficiality, and still others of its
immorality or vacuity.

Not what I see. What I see is the
unlocking of human imagination, the democratization of creativity, an
explosion of meaning and interpretation and possibility. Of course the
cultural world is beyond any of us now, too big to know or see or
understand. So are all the stars in the sky, but that doesn’t lead
anyone to call for a permanent shroud of clouds to blot out that
hateful infinity. I love the profligacy of modern popular culture, I’m
delighted by the thousands of clever and interesting texts, songs, web
pages, comic books, films, television shows, performances, artworks
that appear every day, even knowing that I’ll never see or know about
most of them.

Embracing the whole doesn’t require you to embrace
every part of that whole. You can still hate a particular book, a
particular film, or a particular system of cultural production. You can
still shake your head at the short-sightedness of the Hollywood system,
complain of the glut of dully imitative Top 40 songs, or bitch about
massively-multiplayer computer games. It’s just that no act of critique
calls into question the phenomenon of the cultural moment itself, the
architecture of modern global culture.

I’m very concerned at
the danger of a modern enclosures movement, where the quiet eddies and
subcultural nooks of global popular culture get dragged inside giant
corporate conglomerates and intellectual property law is used to
sterilize rather than liberate the work of cultural creation. It’s a
real danger we face, a reason for vigilance. The twin dangers of
regulatory zeal and monopoly ownership could kill the beautiful
profligacy of global popular culture at the cusp of its greatest

I’m less willing to credit complaints about
cultural imperialism, because I don’t see in the outpouring of global
popular culture the monolithic, unvarying homogeneity that most of the
chief complaints about cultural imperialism attribute to modernity. I
don’t see expressive culture as a zero-sum game. But it’s true that
those forms of expressive practice which are fundamentally antagonistic
to a cultural marketplace—the equivalent of usufruct ownership of land,
the kinds of cultural practices that are unowned and unownable,
collective and communal, and that require a protected relation to
power, are threatened by the explosive force of market-driven popular
culture. My feeling about that is the same feeling I have about
gemeinschaft in general: good riddance. There is a thermodynamics to
hermeneutics: almost no meaning, no idea, is ever truly lost or
destroyed forever. The solids which seemingly melt into air are still
there, and any sudden cooling of the atmosphere crystallizes them anew,
often in surprising or unexpected places and forms. All that is lost
are the forms of social power that reserved particular cultural forms
as the source of social distinction or hierarchy, all that is lost are
the old instrumentalities of texts, performances, rituals. The
achievement of liberty loses nothing save the small privileges of
intimate tyrannies. Culture, even in the premodern world, is
ceaselessly in motion and yet also steady as a rock. In getting more
and more of it for more and more people, we lose little along the way.
The existence of South Park does not kill opera or gamelan.

maybe you don’t buy all that. If not, you probably won’t buy what I’m
about to say. But if you do – well, here it is. The modern enclosures
movement – e.g. copyright extension and its fundamentally evil ways and
means – is nearly irresistable. But there are ways of working around,
potentially. There are mountains of works in the Library of Congress
that could be bought for a song (including many songs) because they are
of little commercial value. But they are not bought for that very
reason. But, taken in mass, these troves are of great cultural value.
(No one thinks the Library of Congress is a bad idea.) The NEA could be
charged with buying up and releasing the cheap stuff into the
public domain. (All the other stuff can find its market in the usual
way: through the market.) Let the NEA make it available online, in
relevant forms: PDF, mp3, maybe even QuickTime. A National Public
Library, not just for borrowing but there for the taking. Cultural DNA
to be worked into new, rich, strange cultural products.

Now I realize that the Paris Review is not exactly cheap, so
it may seem that I am picking an incongruous jumping-off point for my
public domain dream. But these interviews are not exactly hot
properties either. I am sure their public release cost a moderate
sum. But once you pay for this thing, it’s forever (if you make that a
condition). The public library builds and builds. So you buy some
expensive items to be the jewels in the crown. For the rest, you
bargain hunt. Here it seems to me there would be room for serious
economies of scale: tracking down and bargaining with the owners of the
obscure old stuff. Books, magazines, tapes, archival matter. If you buy
by the truckload, with a dedicated bureaucratic staff to handle the
legal paperwork, I’ll bet it goes better. Plus the more you buy, the
more people use it because they come to know that it’s there. Plus it
would not be unreasonable to legislate the right to a government agency
to release stuff as public if certain reasonable efforts have been
made, and failed, to track an owner. (If the owner shows up later,
there could be reasonable legislative measure to insulate against
unduly costly legal problems.)

Obviously libertarians might object that they aren’t interested in
cheap old stuff, so why should they be forced to pay? But it seems to
me (admittedly on a priori grounds) that this might be a case in which no private model could substitute. It’s a money-loser. It just loses with cultural dignity.
That is to say, it projects to recover its costs in cultural creative
destruction and reformation of all it releases. This consideration
ought to extract grudging tolerance from libertarian types.

Also, there’s high and low art in this category: old, commercially
unsaleable classical music recordings; not just old pulp fiction.

Also, the proposal is politically non-toxic. Releasing stuff online,
in this day and age, is about as democratic as it gets. The past is a
less partisan country, in hindsight. If absolutely necessary, you could
have red state and a blue state allowances. Speaking of the stars in
sky – as Timothy Burke does, for cultural products are as numerous and
energetically enduring – I am reminded of a fine old Tex Ritter song. (Sadly, our vinyl is in storage, but
memory is undimmed.) You can listen here to a snippet. Mostly it’s spoken word poetry.


I dreamed I was there in hillbilly heaven
(Oh what a beautiful sight)

Last night I dreamed I went to hillbilly heaven. And you know who greeted me at the gate? The ole
cowboy-philosopher himself, Will Rogers. He said to me, he said "Tex, the Big Boss of the riders
up here has asked me to kinda show you around. Now, over yonder are a couple of your ole compadres."
My, was I glad to see them, Carson Robison and the Mississippi blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers.

I dreamed I was there in hillbilly heaven
(Oh what a beautiful sight)

He introduced me to Wiley Post, and he showed me the Hall of Fame with all the gold guitars and fiddles
hanging on the walls. Then he said, "Tex, step over this way, there are two more of your friends I know
you’ll want to see, they’re waitin’ for you." There they were standin’ side by side and smilin’ at me–
Hank Williams and Johnny Horton.

I met all the stars in hillbilly heaven
Oh what a star-studded night

Then I asked him who else do you expect in the next, uh, say a hundred years? He handed me a large book
covered with star dust. We’ll call it the Big Tally Book. In it were many names and each name was branded
in pure gold. I began to read some of them as I turned the pages: Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry,
Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Tennessee Ernie, Jimmy Dean, Andy Griffith, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter (Whaaaat?)

Tex Ritter? Oh, well, that’s when I woke up. And I’m sorry I did, because …

I dreamed I was there in hillbilly heaven
Oh what a beautiful sight.

Big Tally Book’ became a minor (very minor) graduate school joke.
Whenever anyone committed the sin of introducing a technical term as a
convenient abbreviation, then didn’t actually use it, you put them in
their place by saying, ‘ let’s call it The Big Tally Book instead’.
Except only about four people would get it, oddly enough. (It could be that the line
is "Will called it the Big Tally Book." Then the joke doesn’t work as well.)

The concept of a Big Tally Book, with every name branded in pure
gold – immortal, uncorrupted – is perfectly culturally sound. It’s just
not quite the French Academy. But it is less offensive to "guys named Jethro who own pickup trucks," as Chait puts it. Obviously Jethro listens to New Country, not Tex Ritter, but at least he probably wouldn’t get mad if the NEA bought up the rights to obscure old country music albums on the cheap and released them for free as mp3’s. (I realize that Tex Ritter has some commercial value, but not much. He’s about equivalent to old Paris Review interviews, I wager.)

Now I know what you’re thinking.


They want to the government to pay for their old country albums vinyl collections as well as their back issues of Paris Review. And they want plum posts as government craphound-advocates for the public. You could be right, you could be right.

Makes sense to me.



ben wolfson 11.21.04 at 5:46 pm

mp3 is a closed format, plus it’s lossy. The gummint should release its audio as FLAC and ogg files. (only serious.)


Adam Kotsko 11.21.04 at 5:47 pm

It’s almost like the state paying reparations to the public sphere after allowing/encouraging the development of excessive copyright laws in the first place.

And even if that’s a stupid analysis of what you’ve said, I still think it sounds like a great idea.


dsquared 11.21.04 at 6:19 pm

As I remember it, the Academie Francais isn’t supported financially by the French state; it finances itself by the sales of its dictionary and out of an endowment fund created by years of legacies and gifts. It even has a bit of cash left over to carry out charitable works. It’s what you might call “a self-perpetuating cultural elite”.

I dealt a while ago with the argument from market failure for subsidising the production of works of art; there is a missing market. Future generations will enjoy things like “Piss Christ” for hundreds of years – they’d be correctly modelled as capital assets with a very long depreciation life. But there is no way that we can collect payment from future generations for their enjoyment, so in equilibrium, works of art will tend to be underproduced. I’m guessing that this would suggest that you need to sponsor avant-garde art more than anything else, as this is the case in which the ratio between the enjoyment we get today and the enjoyment of future generations is the smallest.


Jackmormon 11.21.04 at 6:20 pm

My understanding is that the LOC is already doing some of this work. I haven’t really checked it out yet, but a Sept 10, 2004 NYT article points to the American Memory Collection at:


The problem with some of these databases, though, is that they’re a bit user unfriendly.


spacetoast 11.21.04 at 6:27 pm

I’m not sure Tex Ritter in particular is a great example of not being commercially viable. I think an expensive Tex Ritter box-set just came out last year. Also, I wonder how implementing this sort of thing would affect certain kinds of“hipster infrastructure”. I don’t know whether it’s something people care about, or ought to care about, but I think a lot of small businesses are sustained, to a significant degree, by filtering and repackaging exactly this sort of marginal content. I’m ambivalent, but there is something to be said for the cool antiquarian/? record store as a neighborhood constellation, or whatever.

Also, any “Jethro” worthy of his “nom de hick” is more likely to listen to, say, Ricky Skaggs, than Shania Twain or whatever. Back in my record store days, it was mostly young gay men, and the urban/suburban line-dancing crowd who comprised the “New Country” audience, and I expect that’s still the case.


Rob 11.21.04 at 6:28 pm

Personally, I always been rather tempted to respond to the libertarian argument by saying that I see no reason why we should take revealed preferences as the sole indication of what people want/need/should want. Why should we assume that the money people are prepared to pay for something is the only important way in which its value is revealed? Liberals have been aware of the problems with the market since Mill, if not before, and there is no clear reason why we should take the judgements of the market as gospel so far as art goes, but not so far as employment, pensions, health and so on. It sounds like a really good idea though: a commons of cultural DNA. I also like the idea of it being compensation for excessively strong copyright laws.


Zach 11.21.04 at 6:35 pm

“Works of art, in my opinion, are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order, and that is why, though I don’t believe that only art matters, I do believe in Art for Art’s sake.”

E.M. Forster


Zach 11.21.04 at 6:36 pm

“Works of art, in my opinion, are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order, and that is why, though I don’t believe that only art matters, I do believe in Art for Art’s sake.”

E.M. Forster


Zach 11.21.04 at 6:37 pm

“Works of art, in my opinion, are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order, and that is why, though I don’t believe that only art matters, I do believe in Art for Art’s sake.”

E.M. Forster


digamma 11.21.04 at 6:59 pm

Obviously libertarians might object that they aren’t interested in cheap old stuff, so why should they be forced to pay?

Libertarians would also argue that government is the reason that “old stuff” isn’t free, and that you should start by getting rid of the 897th Mickey Mouse Protection Act and its family before giving a government bureaucracy more power.


ben wolfson 11.21.04 at 7:04 pm

Spacetoast, Aquarius, awesome as it is, isn’t exactly a neighborhood record store.

And there’s plenty of marginal material available for free right now on soulseek and the like; it’s just a little more work to find it. Nevertheless I still go to my neighborhood store on occasion (I’d go a lot more often if they were as awesome as Aquarius or Amoeba).


Z.Z.B. 11.21.04 at 7:32 pm

Art is the last bastion of human expression. It is the link we have in the material world which touches our soul.

ZZ Bachman / The ZardozZ Portal
Have a Blog ? Ring Surf it @ ZZ OpenRing


spacetoast 11.21.04 at 7:54 pm

Ben, I don’t know how the volume of business they do compares to, say, Amoeba, but I think it qualifies as a “neighborhood store,” as regards the edifice itself. It may be that a place like Aquarius is a counterexample to what I was thinking about, considering what share of its business the store itself probably accounts for–I guess you could say that the fact that Aquarius isn’t exactly a neighborhood store (with respect to how much business it does) is exactly how it’s able to be a neighborhood store (in the sense of being tucked in so cozily there on the street)–but, there is still the online *business* supporting the other. In any case, my point was really about the patterns of interaction that develop around places that, err, one walks to, and I do think there’s a question about stuff disappearing from the street, however one wants to frame that. If that’s wrong though, that’s great!


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.22.04 at 4:35 pm

“Libertarians would also argue that government is the reason that “old stuff” isn’t free, and that you should start by getting rid of the 897th Mickey Mouse Protection Act and its family before giving a government bureaucracy more power.”

As a conservative with a libertarian bent, I would suggest that we could appropriate the reasoning behind adverse possession in land. In the US, if a squatter openly possesses land for a long period of time and represents it has his own (the period is usually 10-20 years) it actually becomes his. The idea is to encourage the efficient use of land by taking it away from those who don’t pay attention to it enough to notice that someone else is using it. We could make a non-adverse rule that if you aren’t using the copyright after 20 years, you lose it. This would tend to allow a longish copyright period for those who are actively creating and then using material, but would free our cultural heritage for much of the cheap stuff you are talking about.

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