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« Charlie B Part 4 | Main | Good News »

July 24, 2003

Free Reads -- Brian on Arts Subsidies

Friedrich --

One of the innumerable postings I haven't yet been able to pull myself together to write is on the theme of "Government arts funding ought to be cut off -- and not because I dislike the arts, but for the good of the arts." The NEA has done some very fine things and it's also sponsored some very bad art, but in my posting I focus on neither of these facts. What I dwell on instead is the bureaucratizing of the arts; the spawning and feeding of a huge arts-administrator class; the politicizing of art. Funny how it's all happened during the exact years that the NEA has been in existence, no? Let's pull that feeding tube, and enjoy watching that awful beast die.

Part 2 of this unwritten posting would argue that lots of arts support is inevitably needed -- while the market is great, it's still hard to dispute that much terrific art doesn't do so well in the market. So let's have lots more private-sector arts support. I picture myself teasing Hollywood especially. Imagine the arts foundation that Eisner, Streisand, Spielberg and Geffen could put together. Why don't they stop bitching about what the government doesn't do and start sponsoring the kind of art they themselves approve of? Identity-centric performance art? Go wild, avant-gardists. Not only could no taxpayer complain, it'd act as an incentive for art-loving righties to pull together a competing arts foundation -- bring on the nautical watercolors and duck paintings! If Latina lesbians think their own art isn't getting enough support -- well, start your own damn foundation. May the NEA die, and may a thousand competing private arts foundations flourish, in other words.

Brian Micklethwait's 'way ahead of me on all this, I'm pleased to report. You can read his pro-art arguments against government subsidies for the arts here.



posted by Michael at July 24, 2003


You might find this interesting, too:

Subsidies to the Arts:
Cultivating Mediocrity
by Bill Kauffman


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on July 24, 2003 6:26 PM

I included the URL for Bill Kauffman's essay in my previous posting, in angle brackets, as is my habit.

Let's see if it shows up without the brackets:


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on July 24, 2003 6:34 PM

"Government funding for the arts is a pact with the devil."

"Government funding for the arts is the liberal's version of the defense budget."

Posted by: City Comforts on July 25, 2003 12:51 AM

Eisner DOES support the arts: that Gehry concert hall in LA you hate so much is privately-funded (as was Gehry's Experience Music Center in Seattle) and indeed I vividly recall the large choral symphonies from Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke that Disney commissioned for the Millennium.

The problem is that those commissions were the exception, rather than the rule. What's unarguable, I think, if you compare US opera companies and orchestras with those in continental Europe, is that such groups tend to be much more interesting when they receive state subsidies than they are when they're privately funded. Here, the NY Philharmonic appoints the most boring of conductors to do four nights in a row of Brahms and Berlioz; the Met has enormous difficulty funding new productions of any but the most mainstream operas. If we want a vibrant musical arts scene, with (gasp!) actual commissions, the state has to be involved. Why do you think so many of the big composers of the post-war era have come from the UK? Easy: BBC support.

The private sector is certainly good at throwing lots of money at things like painting, where individuals can buy art for themselves. It's much less good at throwing money at things like new symphonies, where the benefit goes equally to everybody who listens to it.

Posted by: Felix on July 25, 2003 3:08 PM

Hmmmm, Felix, it sounds like a problem in the creation of "public goods." But as I recall, you were missing in action in our little discussion of "public choice." You might recall a central insight of "public choice" economists: that while it is traditional to point out market failures (which are rife when dealing with public goods) and insist that these failures must be corrected by the government, that there are also such things as government failures, and that the cure may be worse than the disease. Just a thought.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 25, 2003 4:11 PM

Let me try to understand what you're saying here, Friedrich. In the case of public goods like roads, trucking companies (and commuters, etc) get lots of benefit from them, but would never build them on their own, and so it's necessary for the government to step in and do the road-building, correcting the market failure. On the other hand, when the government starts building lots of roads, often it winds up in the pockets of the contruction companies, who persuade it to build a lot of roads which wouldn't have been built by even a perfectly efficient market. So that's a government failure. If the government goes too far in that direction, we get environmental damage, fiscal deficits, and all manner of things which together could be worse than not having any roads at all... OK, work with me here... meaning that the cure is worse than the disease. Not likely, but hey, it's only an example.

Now, with, say, opera companies. It's not in the private sector's interest to commission interesting new operas, because while I might be willing to spend $50 to go see such a thing, very few people are willing to spend $500,000 to commission it in the first place. And since no opera ever makes a profit at the box office (with the possible and singular exception of Baz Luhrmann's Boheme) it's not even a market failure that the operas aren't commissioned: it's perfectly sensible, from a market perspective. On the other hand, it's in the best cultural interests of the country as a whole that new operas continue to be written, and so that's where the government is uniquely positioned to be able to step in and commission operas for the benefit of the many (since it's impossible to commission an opera for the benefit of an individual).

Now, where and how would the cure be worse than the disease in this instance? The market is behaving as the market should -- by shunning opera-commissioning. The government is behaving as the government should -- by doing the kind of thing which the market will never do. And the public benefits by getting access to new operas, which it never would if it were reliant on the market alone.

The downside, in Michael's words, is "the bureaucratizing of the arts; the spawning and feeding of a huge arts-administrator class; the politicizing of art". Now I can see how these things are unwelcome, but what if the alternative is no new operas at all? In fine art, say, there will always be new paintings, and in Michael's world we just have a choice between paintings plus bureaucracy and paintings sans bureaucracy. I can understand why he might come down on the side of the latter. But in many other instances the death of subsidy means the death of a whole art form. Already, contemporary classical music in this country is moribund, sending the talented composers into the avant-jazz world, or Hollywood, or, for all I know, into dreary lives as actuaries. How would the addition of a few bureaucrats to the mix make matters worse?

Posted by: Felix on July 25, 2003 4:36 PM

If you guys want to brawl over Public Choice, it's ok with me. I'll stand back and enjoy the spectacle, and let my last little contribution here be this: that I think the US is simply 'way too big and diverse for a centralized arts bureaucracy to be of much help. There isn't too much dispute over what "French culture" is, for instance, so there won't be too much dispute over what the French govt should be subsidizing, although I'm sure there's networking and asslicking going on to the max. Nonetheless. In the States, though, as soon as money's put on one conception of culture, some other constituency is going to protest -- and they'll probably be right to do so. I mean, the NY Philharmonic -- sure! But why not also the Delta Blues Museum? And the retired Tejano musicians' association? All great American art forms, all things we should be proud of. And then there are further splinters: drive-in movie theaters, hot rods, customized motorcycles, Appalachian banjo manufacturers. I don't know about you guys, but I'm offended by a notion of American Culture that would exclude any of these groovy things. So a nightmare of politicking seems to me to be the inevitable result, as the various interest groups have at each other. And then the emphasis goes off the arts and onto the politicking -- which is what it seems to me we're stuck with too often these days.

So the better solution seems to me to be to can any idea of some officially-endorsed arts culture, but to do our best to get people to pitch in privately. Between youse guys and me, I think most of the arts fields should be ashamed of themselves for how little support they give to their own kind. Successful actors and performers ought to help create and fund theaters and acting schools; successful rock musicians should subsidize blues festivals and music institutions. Look after your own kind, show your appreciation to your own field. (I know a certain amount of this goes on already.) Create a mega-MacArthur foundation for your own field. Artists are too willing to think they ought to be looked after by others, IMHO.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2003 5:51 PM


As my "Public Choice" post pointed out in a small way, the problems with the creation of public goods are more complex than the bureaucratization of the arts. They include:

the quantity of a public good created by governmental decision making is often poorly related to the underlying need, in part because the public good is of different value to different voters. To illustrate this crudely, when you use the hypothetical of the government subsidizing operas, you don't discuss how many operas should be subsidized. Do you want five, fifty or five hundred new operas a year? I suspect different voters would respond very differently to this question. And, because of the different value each voter places on an opera, either the opera-haters will end up subsidizing the opera-lovers, or the opera-lovers will end up with a completely inadequate supply of operas (for their tastes) because the opera-haters won't support a higher subsidy.

Of course, the issue of quality creeps in here as well; one would doubt that five hundred (or even fifty)really good operas could be written per year. But you should remember that political decision making processes are in no way designed for distinctions based on quality. It's not possible to vote for "as many great operas as possible."

Your illustration assumes, moreover, that there is no private sector activity that will be displaced by governmental activity here, but that is also a rather iffy assumption. By subsidizing the creation of new operas, you may well be stifling the evolution of an opera into an art-form that would be more popular with an audience. The ossification of classical music and opera over the past century strongly suggest that 19th century paradigms have been on artificial life support, which suggests a sort of institutional pathology at work.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 26, 2003 12:59 PM

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