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The Economist Debates Arts Funding

Post #1570 • August 29, 2012, 6:24 PM • 5 Comments

The Economist is hosting a week-long debate on the question, Should governments fund the arts? For the motion is Alan Davey, Chief executive of the Arts Council England. Against the motion is Pete Spence of the Adam Smith Institute. Guests chime in throughout the week. Today's guest is Nick Gillespie, Editor-in-chief of Reason Magazine, who notes,

Governments everywhere are dead broke. Not just a little light on cash until the next payday, but up to their eyeballs in hock for generations to come. It's bad enough that future generations of Americans will be paying off today's tab that we've run up by building bridges to nowhere, waging the war on drugs and bombing Afghan villages into the Stone Age. Should they also have to pay for cowboy poetry and mime shows that they hopefully will never have to actually attend? It's well past time to ratchet down government spending on everything that is not absolutely essential to the political functioning of a country.

This relates to a discussion on the new artCrit as to whether it's time for the NEA to go.

The NEA doesn't spend much money by US government standards, but it appears to have decayed into a harmful institution with little likelihood of making a positive difference. In short, it is amazingly effective at maintaining the status quo with very few resources...

Personally, I am with Spence and Gillespie. And yet when Mitt Romney proposes to defund the NEA, as he said in an interview excerpted by Politico:

“[F]irst there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs—the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.

I consider the nation's drug policy. Not that Romney needs to go easy on them, but rather, if we are going to criminalize drugs (we shouldn't), we ought to criminalize them according to toxicity. And if we're going to cut spending (we should), we ought to do it in order of percentage of the budget. No one is talking seriously about cutting spending unless he is talking about Medicare and related programs, Social Security, various safety net programs, defense, and interest on federal debt in that order. Social Security spends the entire FY2011 NEA budget every twenty hours. Cutting defense by that amount would represent a reduction of .02%. By all means, cut the NEA 100%, right after you cut defense 10%, which is five hundred NEAs. Otherwise you're wasting our time.



Chris Rywalt

August 29, 2012, 7:38 PM

I suppose I'd need someone with a grasp of economics to explain to me how a government can be "dead broke" given they're the ones issuing the currency.

I remember once trying to deposit my federal refund check and being told I had to wait three days for it to clear. I couldn't understand why I had to wait. Presumably you wait for a check to clear in case the money isn't in the account. But if a check from the IRS isn't worth anything, I have news for Mr. Bank Representative: Nothing behind the counter is worth anything, either.

I'm not saying governments can't be broke because they can always print more money. That's a naive argument. The more serious argument is, the government can't run out of money as long as enough people have faith that the government is good for it. And when people stop having that faith, all of the money in the country is worthless, so everyone's broke. Except Franklin, because he has gold bars and, one would hope, enough ammo and judo to stop people from taking it from him.


Will Rosie

September 1, 2012, 5:59 PM

The UK has the same problem. There used to be a lot of money available, and the Arts Council newsletters were full of projects to tender for. The government should fund the arts, but it is far better for them to give money to third sector organisations who will make the most out of the cash, and not just burn it. Governments will always cut arts first when the coffers are empty, yet there are ways of ensuring you still get cash for public art. Me, I just change the focus of a project to be about community involvement, youth engagement, or whatever the target groups are at that time. Fostering good relationships with civil servants and showing you can deliver effective, community-enhancing projects will tend get cash flowing your way.


Walter Darby Bannard

September 2, 2012, 10:13 AM

Government arts funding, which had a heady start with Nancy Hanks and Henry Geldzahler in the '60s, proceeded to commit suicide in later years by becoming irresponsibly confrontational, thereby making itself a political football.

I worked with a number of art advocacy programs in government many years ago and most of the government people were quite well-intentioned and practical in their decision-making. Unfortunately they had little direct art experience and felt that they had to respect whatever the art people—the "experts"—said, which led to disaster.

I am not an advocate of these programs, but the amounts spent are so negligible that it would seem that a few years of careful shepherding, staying away from political dangers by having a pragmatic mission statement, spending money on community projects and attending to the real economic and life-enhancing benefits of arts programs could develop grants that would have measurable positive benefits and stop provoking congressional attention.


John Link

September 4, 2012, 11:32 AM

Speaking specifically of our NEA, it has had its chance. And it blew it. At its best, it serves the status quo, a status quo that will always say it needs more money than it has, but in truth has plenty enough.

Art serves the community by serving itself and that is something no committee of government adjudicators could ever understand. When they tried, as Darby points out, they bowed to "experts" who happened to be destructive, not art.

Franklin's math is right, it won't save any money to speak of, but eliminating it would rid the government landscape of one piece of litter.


Piri Halasz

September 4, 2012, 6:32 PM

I thnk some of us tend to become rather too narrowly ensconced in our particular discipline and even our own particular tastes in contemporary art. People who kiss off the NEH and the NEA as patronizing "cowboy poetry and mime shows" have obviously never troubled their pretty little heads with actually looking at the websites of the organizations in question and seeing what they actually do fund.

Granted, a lot of it is purely ephemeral, but there is also funding for historical art and culture of all kinds, not just in the visual arts but also in the fields of music, theater, film, literature and the dance.

And it is predominantly high culture, as opposed to pop culture—classical music as opposed to country-and-western or rock concerts, Shakespeare as opposed to Spiderman, translations of foreign authors who don't concern themselves with girls involved with hornets' nests. Also, in the realm of the visual arts, museum shows of very worthwhile historical art as well as contemporary nonsense.

Indeed, most major museum shows of historical art couldn't get off the ground if they didn't get grants from goverrnmental sources as well as corporate and private ones. I'm particularly aware of this phenomenon because I attend a lot of media previews of museum exhibitions, where they hand out press releases about the shows in question. These press releases always list various donors of funding, and it is almost unheard of to have a show that doesn't list a number of such donors.

I would suspect the same or similar situations obtain in the other arts as well, because high culture is not a big money-maker in our society. This is because it doesn't appeal to wide segments of the population. Despite the growth of museum attendance promoted by the staging of contemporary idiocies, this audience still doesn't rank in a class with attendance at sporting events, for example, any more than concerts of Mozart, Beethoven, or even Philip Glass draw crowds on the order of Justin Bieber.

Look at the coverage of art and culture on US television, which appeals to a national audience. Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a prime time network show that dealt with classical music, abstract painting or Chekhov. I'm not saying that TV should cover these subjects, I'm just saying the fact that it doesn't cover them should tell you that they're not mass phenomena. However much so-called the "high" art of the museums has become diluted with populist inroads, on balance the popularity of middlebrow culture is still far more pervasive and deserves to be combatted with whatever small amount of governmental spending can be diverted to it. And, however much the advocates of postmodernist art may congratulate themselves on making art more "accessible" to the masses, we are still not that far removed from "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939).



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