Welfare for Wagner?

NEW HAVEN: Across Europe and America, men in black tie and women in Kenzo and Armani gowns are once more summer pilgrims to places like Bayreuth, Glyndebourne, and Glimmerglass. Once again, too, state coffers are tapped to support these privileged retreats. Perhaps, then, it is also time to ask once again a basic question: should the state continue to ladle out generous subsidies for such an elite activity?

Consider a thing of indisputable beauty and spiritual depth: the Roman Catholic High Mass. Does its grandeur mean that the state should subsidize it? For those who say yes, the case for a subsidy for opera seems straightforward, almost inevitable: if it is appropriate to subsidize the Mass, why not “The Magic Flute”?

For liberals like myself, the case for state-supported opera is more complicated. Whatever else liberalism is, it has always stood for the separation of church and state. Given this commitment, subsidy for the opera raises an obvious question: Since liberals are opposed to the establishment of religion, how can they justify supporting the establishment of one of the great totems of secular humanism — the operas of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and other lesser saints in the secular canon?

This question reveals a split within the liberal tradition. On one hand, there is the anticlericalism of the French Enlightenment, best represented by the cultural policies of the French Republic since 1870. On this militant view, there is an easy distinction between the Catholic Mass and “The Magic Flute”. The Mass seeks to sustain the future of an illusion, in Freud’s famous phrase, while “The Magic Flute” is a triumphant demonstration of the spiritual grandeur of the modern spirit. What, then, could be a more suitable task for militant liberalism than to subsidize the latter, while separating itself from the former?