Monday, January 23, 2017

Public Funding of the Arts

This is just an essay stitched together from ideas and facts borrowed from other, wiser and more knowledgable, people. I recently ran across a comment from a perfectly intelligent left-leaning fellow (a Scot living in Spain) to the effect that there should be no public funding of Art.

Firstly, what's the point of Art anyways? It's a luxury we permit ourselves when times are good. Did you manage to gather a few extra edible roots and bugs this summer? Hie thee to the cave, and get to daubing pigment on the walls! Is this notion of agriculture and trade working out? Mix pigments with eggs, and apply the colors to wooden panels, for the education and delight of the ruling classes! And so on.

In these modern times, much of the world especially here in the west, has a surplus of resources, at least beyond the minimum required to survive and bear young. Some people choose to devote some of this surplus to work we call Art.

In these same modern times, we have come to the conclusion, generally, that Art is good for us. It enlarges our minds, delights our senses, and so forth. While people argue about whether this Art or that Art is worthwhile, the general consensus is that Art as a notion is something good for us, something our society ought to be making and consuming, that it is indeed something we should spend a portion of our surplus on.

But how should that spending occur? Those who oppose public funding will sometimes suggest that the artists should simply support themselves through sales of Art (the Scot remarked on above stated exactly that). This falls apart as soon as you admit that Art which is not particularly marketable might also be worthwhile. What about the artists whose work takes a great deal of time to come to fruition? Making Art in order to sell it to purchase the needs of life will color the work, as anyone who compares Art photography with Commercial photography for as long as a millisecond can see. And so forth. No, forcing the artists to support themselves through sales of work probably isn't what we want as an overall solution. Of course, some artists will sell work and buy food, there's nothing wrong with it. But it doesn't give us all of the Art we want.

Capitalism, while remarkable efficacious, isn't a magic and complete solution for much of anything. It certainly doesn't seem to cover Art very well at all.

Well, there's private funding, right?

Yes. Yes there is. Private funding, however, is fickle. In the USA there are a small handful of pretty good opera companies. Perhaps 3 that are really quite good. Funding is largely or entirely private, and is an increasing struggle as the fickle wealthy turn increasingly to funding medical research, hospitals, and so on. Art is on a down cycle, Medicine is up. In large swathes of Europe, I am given to understand, the attitude is that Opera is basically a utility. You can no more operate a city without an Opera Company than you can without a Sewer System. Without opera, you might as well be living in Australia, or the United States. That simply won't do. The result is that there's a fair bit of public funding, and a lot more very good opera in Europe.

Opera companies are, it turns out, quite expensive to operate, and to excel they really require reliable funding. It takes decades, at a minimum, to build a really good company, and if your main donor decides to buy a wing at the new hospital one year, well, that sets you back quite a bit.

Public funding is necessary, as I see it, to fill in those gaps. To support the unpopular artist, the long-term project, to cover the gaps when private funding fails. Isn't this always the role of public funding for anything? To cover the gaps between what we collectively want, and what can be funded properly by other means. To fill those gaps, we pay taxes and hire people to spend them as wisely as they might.

Of course you can argue that the result is My Tax Dollars going to fund terrible art. Yes, that's going to happen. There's no way around it, you take the good with the bad. You can argue that it's a way to funnel My Tax Dollars into the hands of greedy art dealers, and that's probably true as well. I don't see anyone saying that ought not fund fire departments, because it's just a way to funnel tax dollars into the hands of greedy hose manufacturers.

There is no doubt that government funding of the Arts is wasteful and rife with graft. The annual budget for the USA's National Endowment for the Arts is slightly more than the cost of a single F-35 fighter (without engine), which is a deeply inferior military aircraft that the USA absolutely does not need, but will end up buying some thousands of eventually.

Your country is probably not as bad, but I expect you can think up some pretty good examples. There are more immediate areas deserving our attention on the point of graft and waste.

Furthermore, graft and waste appear to be simply part of the package to one degree or another. In order to collective fund the things we want but cannot otherwise fund, we accept a modicum of graft and waste. It's the way of the world, although railing against it is also a good idea.


  1. The main problem I see with public funding of the arts is The Golden Rule.

    As in, he who has the gold, makes the rules.

    Unfortunately, artists are no more immune to being "bought" than any other group of people.

    As such, the type of art that usually gets public funding is the type of art that its funders want to see made. And this is often not the type of art that best serves the public purposes you've outlined.

    While some publicly funded art is edgy as well as intellectually and aesthetically challenging, an awful lot of it ends up being watered-down and purely decorative. While usually nice to look at, this type of art doesn't offer the viewer -- or society as a whole -- very much benefit beyond a pleasant appearance.

    And worse, because of its fundamental nature -- it's public art, not private art -- this generic and frequently bland art often ends up being the type of art that most people see most of the time.

    In fact, over time, for many people, it comes to define for them what "art" is and is not.

    In the long run, I think the public's exposure to most publicly funded art creates perceptions about art generally that ultimately serve to diminish, in the public's mind, the value of all art, be it public or private.

    So while the graft and waste that's inherent to our system of government concerns me, as a self-funded photographer whose photos are very rarely of the purely decorative type, the potential for public funding of art to close people's minds to art of a more challenging nature -- such as my photos?! -- concerns me even more.

  2. What if we just called it "Public funding for entertainment and adornment"?

    Entertainment and adornment are good. I understand that everybody, regardless of their social and/or economic status find value in such distractions from the monotony of daily life.

    Let's compare it to a bridge across the Ohio....Oh! On second thought, even though both art and the bridge present a social benefit, there is really not a good comparison there. Maybe a better comparison would be public funding of art and public funding of diversity in society.

    In my view, the problems with public funding of art is the fact that, in the final analysis, it is little more than public funding of an ongoing dispute of what Art is, and how/why it should be appreciated: "This is art, children. It has value. Those in denial, i.e. those who oppose opening their wallets to support it without question, are cruel, selfish, bigots who wish to undermine the progress of society."

    Public funding of art is better presented as public funding of art jobs. In America, I think that is already being nicely handled through colleges and public funding of college loans.

    Throwing something into the government and hoping it retains its purity of purpose is like throwing something into the ocean and hoping it does not get wet.