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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Public trust, private gain

Nonprofit culture and private commercialism: Each is vital. But mixing them is becoming common and problematic.

February 15, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

A football season that ended with Janet Jackson having part of her bustier ripped off during the CBS Super Bowl halftime show began last fall with Britney Spears having her pants torn off during an ABC television broadcast. These bookend events are less noteworthy for their T&A quotient than for bracketing a certain commercial angle -- the monstrous hybrid -- which is emerging as a major issue in American cultural life.

Here are three examples, starting with the ABC fiasco:

* The September television show was titled "The NFL Kickoff Live From the National Mall Presented by Pepsi Vanilla." The broadcast was the culmination of a four-day commercial takeover of the Mall -- America's greatest work of landscape design and democracy's hallowed front yard -- by corporate sponsors ranging from Reebok to Coors Light. After Spears' striptease came a videotaped message from President Bush, who declared that the NFL event "celebrates the values that make our country strong." The program led Washington Post television critic Tom Shales to a different conclusion: He lamented that giant corporations had been allowed to "spill a ton of garbage" all over a precious public space.

* In December, a judge held hearings to determine whether a powerful group of Philadelphia business, political and philanthropic leaders, fronted by the chairman of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, could dismantle the Barnes Foundation, an irreplaceable artifact of early 20th century American cultural history. The Barnes is a suburban school with an extraordinary art collection, displayed in a setting that is the artistic epitome of pragmatist philosophy -- the leading American social doctrine between the Civil War and the Cold War. The coalition's plan was to pluck the famous collection from that unique site and deposit it in a new museum to be built downtown, in hopes that it might become the linchpin of a long-stalled commercial redevelopment project.

* Currently, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts -- among the nation's oldest and most prominent -- is renting out part of its revered collection of French Impressionist paintings to a Las Vegas subsidiary of one of the most powerful corporations in the American art world. The rental, virtually unprecedented in the modern American history of nonprofit art museums, is in direct conflict with professional practices enumerated by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. The deal is expected to gross in the low seven figures, to be split between the corporation and the art museum.

'The monstrous hybrid'

In the cultural sphere, the past two decades are studded with illustrations of the privatization of American public life, which has been underway at least since the Reagan administration. As these three examples from the past six months suggest, however, the phenomenon may be approaching something like critical mass.

At the very least the scale has swelled, not to mention the brazenness. So it might be worth stepping back a moment to ask: What gives?

The answer: Commercial values are now so routinely applied to the nonprofit sector that American cultural life has severely warped. The farcical result is what Jane Jacobs, the legendary independent scholar, once helpfully characterized as "the monstrous hybrid."

Jacobs' powerful 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," changed the way we think about urban experience. Three decades later, as the Reagan era crested into the first Bush presidency, Jacobs coined the term "monstrous hybrid" in her book "Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics." She employed lengthy Platonic discourse to examine the competing ethical structures that sustain social and economic life.

Two distinct ethical systems govern human behavior, Jacobs proposed. When they collide -- as they have lately on a grand scale in Washington, Philadelphia and Boston/Las Vegas -- a monstrous hybrid is born.

One system she called guardian culture. Guardians protect. They work in the military and police, government legislatures and courts, churches and schools. They work in art museums too, where they protect our collective artistic patrimony. Guardians have no profit motive.

The other system is commercial culture, where profit is the aim. Elements of guardian behavior are displayed by all animals, but commercial culture is novel. Trade and the production of goods are uniquely human endeavors.

The book has the virtue of neither demonizing commerce nor glorifying guardians. Each is simply what it is. Both are essential. And when they follow their intrinsic ethical guidelines, they help societies prosper.

What's good for the guardian is generally bad for the commercial order, Jacobs wrote, and vice versa. Each system claims a discrete -- and contradictory -- ethical system.

When commercial culture operates according to guardian morality, or when guardians adopt commercial ethics, all hell breaks loose. Conflicts erupt. Decadence follows.

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