Back in April of this year, Jonathan Jones, the art critic at The Guardian, defended Bob Dylan against criticisms that the musician, during his recent tour of China, failed to speak out for the artist Ai Weiwei who was being detained by the Chinese government. At the end of his blog, Jones makes an interesting observation:
We live in a time when people feel pressured to make sententious, pompous and completely false statements about the arts. Art does not have an inherent social or political responsibility. Today, with arts funding slashed, there are even more temptations than usual to pretend otherwise–to insist that art can save derelict urban areas, that it can heal the sick and make flowers grow. But the very language that claims to defend art can smother its wild nature. A work of art, if it is any good, is enigmatic, remote and takes centuries to understand.
As those who have been reading my blog undoubtedly know, I take art very seriously. I agree with Nietzsche that it is “the highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life.” I also agree with Eliot that literary criticism (let’s say arts criticism in general) is a “distinctive activity of the civilized mind.” Indeed, art and criticism are important hallmarks of our shared humanity. To quote Nietzsche again, “without music, life would be an error.” So I am not an enemy of the arts. But Jones is right: art cannot heal the sick or make flowers grow. Art is personal, enigmatic, and challenging. It is also necessary; thus, it has existed, does exist, and will continue to exist without direct federal funding. So, picking up on the issue of arts funding getting “slashed,” is an organization like the National Endowment for the Arts inherently necessary? And what business do individual artists have accepting federal funds?
Travis Korte takes up the issue in a piece he wrote for The Huffington Post back in March. In it, he argues that “arts advocates must abandon the federal funding model.” By “federal funding model,” he means a model by which an organization like the National Endowment for the Arts funds individual art projects rather than fostering an environment in which many diverse projects could mutually benefit. Is such an environment possible? As a matter of fact, it already exists.
Korte cites an example in which indirect sources (such as cheaper flights from Australia to California) helped fund arts in Los Angeles:
Los Angeles gets money for its Department of Cultural Affairs from a portion of hotel tax revenues, so when it got cheaper for Australians to fly across the Pacific, hotels filled up and helped fund the arts.
That contribution was small, but there are countless factors like it in transportation, communications, tax incentives and copyright law that play a much larger role in determining what gets funded than does the federal arts budget. Within limits, wider expressways mean more trips to city centers, faster internet means more YouTube videos, and larger gift allowances mean more museum donors.
Korte cites economist Tyler Cowen, author of Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding. In this book, Cowen demonstrates just how little a role (less than 1% of public support for the arts) the federal arts budget actually plays in funding art projects. According to Cowen, individual and corporate donations to the arts amounted to $30 billion in 2003, while NEA funding peaked at $175 million in 1992.
So why do people still argue for the economic value of direct government arts subsidies?
In a review of Cowen’s book in The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Shawn Ritenour writes:
Arts organizations such as Americans for the Arts make the claim that there is what amounts to a Keynesian arts-spending multiplier. The argument goes something like this: every dollar spent supporting an arts organization generates some multiple of income for the economy as the arts organization spends on factors of production such as printing of programs and local advertising and because arts events and museums draw tourists who spend money on parking, dining, and hotels.
Cowen dismantles this assertion by noting that any arts institution that is likely to attract tourists and hence generate more entertainment income is also likely to be viable on its own and does not need subsidies to exist. If an arts institution needs government subsidies to survive, the chance that such spending truly generates the biggest economic bang for our buck is slim at best.
You might be wondering, as I have: “What if some (or even most) important art is not economically viable?” If that’s the case, I counter: “What right does the artist have to make the uninterested American taxpayer fund the artwork? And why would the artist even want the burden of an unwilling patron whom he or she cannot please nor repay?” The work can and should be funded (if funding is even necessary) by interested parties.
Another problem with placing the burden of funding on the uninterested taxpayer is the subjective nature of art. I have discussed previously how, even with strong, established criteria by which to judge art, the judgment is not immune from personal taste. As Ritenour points out, those who favor direct government arts subsidies assume that “government arts bureaucrats have the ability to discern between good and bad art.” Korte makes a similar point when he discusses the tendency for publicly funded artworks to cause controversy:
On top of the federal arts budget’s inefficiencies and lack of influence, there’s the intrinsic trouble of centralizing something people are expected and even encouraged to disagree about. Someone will always be offended. Hell hath no lobby like a fundamentalist scorned, and under the current system extreme positions can’t be ignored.
Thus, the case against direct government arts subsidies is a strong one. However, Ritenour points out that Cowen’s case for the efficacy of indirect subsidies is less convincing (though this relates more to Cowen’s argumentative strategy than to his overall point). For example, among the many supported examples of effective indirect subsidies available to artists (e.g., tax incentives, copyright law, higher education, etc.), Cowen includes accidents of employment (e.g., William Faulkner working as a postmaster, Whitman working for the Department of the Interior, etc.) and even imprisonment (because Thomas More, Donne, Bunyan, Defoe, Voltaire, Wilde, London, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn all produced great work while in prison). Cowen’s aesthetics are also questionable. Ritenour writes:
He goes on to argue that clothes, personal looks, sports, dreaming, sex, and toys are all art forms, pointing out that people rarely if ever suggest direct subsidies for the production of these things. He claims that such a broad understanding of artistic culture works against direct subsidization. True, but it also works against taking Cowen seriously.
These faults in Cowen’s argument are damnable, to be sure, but I still think that the following conclusion is sound: the National Endowment of the Arts is not worth all of the fuss that it relentlessly generates. Projects that it funds directly can surely benefit more from indirect funding sources. And the NEA’s overall impact is only a fraction of the impact of individual and corporate contributions to the arts. Yet we continue to debate the NEA as if we were debating the importance of art itself. Korte writes:
Saying we should abandon national arts funding is not the same as saying we should abandon the arts.
Indeed. And a loss to the NEA is not a loss to the arts; perhaps it might even be a gain. As the example of Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment in China demonstrates, art and government do not–and should not–make good bedfellows.