December 2, 2016

If culture is too expensive for most, everyone pays a price

It was in 2012 that Major League Baseball ran an ad showing generations of parents sharing the beloved American pastime with their kids. But it was already too late: in 2012, the average price for tickets to the World Series was nearly $1,000 – compared with just $2 for the same seats in 1963. Cost for two to attend even a run-of-the mill baseball game in 2016 is nearly $80, what with $6 per beer, almost $5 for a hot dog, and $16 to park the car.

Using baseball’s cultural status to exploit fans is part of a long, dark trend: the tendency to milk the masses for what ostensibly belongs to everyone. In the Middle Ages, quaestores (pardoners) granted followers of the Catholic Church indulgences, which were believed to lessen the punishments of one’s sins. At first, indulgences were given for acts of piety and prayer but, over time, were sold by members of the Church for money. This practice became so common, and the prices so extreme, that the Protestant Reformation was, in part, galvanised by Martin Luther’s outrage at this industry of the Church.

The unaffordability of salvation continues to this day. One hefty toll can be seen in the price of food. We pay for belief: Kosher meat costs 20 per cent more than non-Kosher meat. We pay for health: exposure to pesticides can increase the risk of developing cancers such as multiple myeloma – yet organic foods are substantially marked-up, sometimes to twice as much or more than non-organic varieties. We pay for ethics: in the European Union, eggs are marked so we know when they come from caged hens (abusive), semi-free-range hens (better), or free-range (where they can roam, mostly free). Organic, free-range eggs are the most costly of all.

Cultural, religious and culinary monopolies can be found in any country. Construction workers for the recent Olympics in Brazil complained that they couldn’t afford tickets to any of the games’ events. Yet the owners of sports teams can make hundreds of millions in profits each year.

Tickets to The Museum of Modern Art in New York cost $25 for adults, which, as Michael Rushton – a lecturer in arts administration at Indiana University in Bloomington argues – is far less expensive than a night at the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera. Yet the comparison reveals only the blindness of the elite: yes, the opera is expensive, but does that mean that $50 is an affordable way for two college students, or two baristas, to spend an afternoon?

In London, some of the most impressive museums in the world are free for everyone. Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series puts on the world’s greatest plays for nothing in New York’s Central Park. Without constant vigilance, culture drifts from us slowly: in 1972, The Museum of Modern Art in New York was free, though you could donate what you wished.

Without public access, a culture becomes dead, an inert shell that serves as a shill for profit, while too rarefied and remote to thrive. The quaestores of modern times use health, religion, and access to sports and art just like those of the Middle Ages used salvation: to exploit people by pricing what they value too high. Only by exposing these cultural monopolies can we prevent what we cherish from moving out of reach.Aeon counter – do not remove

Jonathan R Goodman

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.