“The sweet sauce.” Herbert Read, the great British critic, poet, educator and anarchist wrote: “Culture is the sweet sauce we pour over the stinking fish of society!” That ‘sauce’ is no more evident than in so-called philanthropic foundations. If you are ever on the south east corner of Broadway and 65th Street in NYC just look across the street, a few feet above eye level, and you will see, in three dimensional stainless steel letters, eighteen inches high: “The David H. Koch Theater.” For the past forty years it had been the New York State Theater, the venue for one of my favorite performing groups going back to my teens – The New York City Ballet, whose performances, under the aegis of George Balanchine, were electrifying. It now bears the name of one of the most reactionary despoiler-plunderers of our financialized society at the expense of the poor and working families.
I deeply regret that I could never walk through the door of that space despite my love for the dance. Happily there are other venues for dance in the city not yet corrupted by big money.
But I must disclose my inconsistency. Three of my favorite ‘cultural’ places in ‘The Big Apple’ which are immune from the general tumult of that overcrowded city, which most people confuse with ‘excitement’, are the Cloisters, at the northern tip of Manhattan Island The Frick Collection at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue and the Morgan Library at Madison Avenue and 36th Street. We have the Rockefellers to thank for the Cloisters, Henry Clay Frick to thank for The Frick Collection and J.P. Morgan to thank for his magnificent library.
At this point I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. The amassed fortunes which created the foundations which underwrite these temples of culture are drenched in the blood of workers and their families going back more than one hundred and fifty years. This history of carnage against the working class is not hidden – it is out there for every public school child to read about – for example Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” The Ludlow Colorado Massacre, April 14,1914. A Rockefeller owned coal mine. Miners striking for better condition and wages were mowed down by machine gun fire. Two dozen killed including women and children cowering in cloth tents. The Homestead Strike, July 6,1892 near Pittsburgh. Workers demanding better pay were invaded by Pinkerton mercenaries paid for and controlled by Andrew Carnegie’s hit-man Henry Clay Frick while Carnegie conveniently sailed off to Scotland. Many dead on both sides. in 1902 J.P. Morgan refused to negotiate with the anthracite miners of Eastern Pennsylvania, striking for decent pay and an eight hour day, until Teddy Roosevelt sent in 10,000 federal troops and took over the mine.
The same philanthropic flim-flam goes on today to cover the stench of capitalist exploitation of not only American labor, whose wages are dropping, but the poorer low-wage countries of the ‘Third World’. It’s not only the Koch brothers who seek legitimacy in slathering on the ‘sweet sauce’ of cultural patronage, but Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, many of the oppressive Arab states, Bank of America, Citi Bank, Ford and a whole passel of rapacious corporations funding foundations to launder their image.
Why don’t we celebrate this apparent generosity? By law these foundations, to keep their tax free status, are required to spend only 5% of their endowment in a year. This expenditure includes paying inflated salaries to their staff. If these same corporations would pay a reasonable corporate tax and not hustle off-shore to the Cayman Islands, Ireland or Bermuda, perhaps cultural organizations would not have to go hat-in-hand begging to keep their doors open. And maybe, just maybe the States and Federal government would have enough dough to fund another Federal Art Project so important in keeping artists alive and working during the Great Depression.