IN DEFENCE OF PUBLIC FUNDING FOR THE ARTS BY LUKE SAVAGE
Luke Savage is a Toronto-based writer whose work regularly appears in Jacobin and Current Affairs.
This summer, the new administration south of the border signalled its desire to close the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. As the N ew Republic ’s Josephine Livingstone points out , both organizations have long been prospective candidates for the Republican chopping block - Ronald Reagan, after all, tried in vain to abolish the NEA in the early 1980s - considered to be a waste of taxpayer money, in spite of their relatively meagre costs and already existing private sector involvement. Of course, it should come as no surprise that a government headed by Donald Trump - a man whose surname is more or less a shorthand for gaudy plutocratic largess - has little interest in public funding for the arts or the humanities. Nonetheless, the looming end of the American federal government’s interest in subsidizing artistic enterprise is perhaps even less of a surprise given the overall drift of Western politics and culture in recent decades.
Something not unlike a miniature version of the Trump administration’s current effort occurred here in 2012, when the then Harper government killed the Arts, Culture and Diversity Program through which the Canadian Conference of the Arts, a longstanding advocacy organization for artists, had been funded since 1965. (Still standing is the Canada Council, which awards thousands of grants each year with the stated purpose of fostering and promoting “the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts.”) For ideological reasons Harper himself never seemed to care for publicly-sponsored art, justifying $45 million in cuts to arts and culture funding during the 2008 federal election by declaring:
"I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people."
Later pushed on the remark, Harper insisted it had been “torqued”, a dding that his “central message was that “the government is responsible for managing taxpayers funds.” The comments prompted a backlash but undoubtedly resonated with plenty of Canadians, whatever one thinks of Harper’s caricature of the arts community.
For this reason and others it’s worth asking: what do we lose when we (the public) leave the financing of the arts to individual patrons (usually wealthy ones) or organizations in the private sector? Are public subsidies for the arts really the anachronism we’re so often told they are? And on what grounds can they both be supported and defended?
The idea of public subsidies for the arts, by way of grants or other means, grates against what is now perhaps the dominant current in our political culture. It is a current that began its ascendancy during the 1970s and has since come to inflect the way we think about virtually
everything having to do with how the mainstream thinks about the relationship between individuals, society, the marketplace, and the state. In short, the state has been transformed into a passive actor that exists primarily to foster private economic activity; the citizen redefined as the taxpayer and society as nothing more than a series of transactional relationships between actors in the market. In this environment, it’s easy to see why any institution committed to spending tax revenue for non-commercial purposes is going to be at risk, whether it is concerned with the arts, education, or the media.
A 2012 blog post published by the business-centric Forbes illustrates this new attitude at its most extreme:
“Many communities...identify themselves as an arts community. This image translates into passionate support for public funding of the arts. But the common justifications for public funding don't hold up under careful scrutiny...Should we take money from the most productive forces in the economy to subsidize certain artists chosen by committee?”
The author’s outlook here, though perfectly coherent on its own terms, is a purely instrumental one: that is, it rests on the assumption that the purpose of all public expenditure is more or less to subsidize “the productive forces in the economy” (implicitly, businesses that generate profit for their owners and shareholders). The hold this view has on his overall perspective is further evidenced by his conception of what the countervailing argument is. He continues: “Supporters claim that subsidizing the arts pays for itself. They suggest that the arts drive the economics of businesses within a community.”
Do they? Certainly, those of us who want public money spent on social goods like quality public education, public broadcasting, and the arts may be tempted to respond to claims about their lack of commercial value by insisting that they do, in fact, “pay for themselves.”
But the fact is, once we implicitly concede that the primary purpose of art is to make money or “drive the economics of businesses”, we have already lost the argument and might as well just hand the arts over to wealthy patrons and be done with it.
Ironically enough, it was a program of the Ford Foundation that helped lay the groundwork in the United States for what would become the NEA. According to Toepler and Annette Zimmer , the foundation “helped establish the arts as a legitimate recipient of public funds and a relevant policy issue” on the grounds that they “could not be sustained by private sector income alone due to the economic characteristics of the services they produce.”
And it is these characteristics precisely that make purely economistic arguments about art and its value so problematic. True, art can be a commodity but it is not first and foremost one. To the
argument that it isn’t always an engine of growth we should be prepared to reply to the effect of “so what?”. After all, very few artists set out to create with the express purpose of making money. Were that their concern, they could become investment bankers or stock brokers instead (both would probably be easier than, say, mastering the harpsichord or the techniques of surrealist painting).
But why do people sculpt or learn to play musical instruments anyway? Why do they set out to write commentaries on ancient works of literature or read romantic poetry? Why do they bother to join acting troupes or train for the ballet? There probably isn’t a universal answer to these questions but, were there to be, it’s unlikely it would resemble anything like “to create more capital” or “to boost the productive forces in the economy.”
Artistic creation - like personal friendships, family, community, and innumerable other things woven into our daily lives - cannot exist solely within the marketplace because its foundational purposes are non-instrumental; ends in themselves rather than a means to them.
But there’s another challenge to the idea of public arts funding that hasn’t entirely been addressed. Namely, why the public part? If we return for a second to our friend from Forbes , we find him issuing a very particular argument in this regard:
“Emotionally the choice is presented as saving the arts or cutting them. However the arts are not in question. The issue is government funding of the arts.”
To paraphrase him at a little more length: the arts will continue to exist whether or not they receive public money, so why bother with it? In a sense, of course, this claim is correct. Great art flourished for centuries in Europe (for example) despite depending heavily or exclusively on the patronage of the aristocracy.
Once again, however, this is exactly the point. Why should either the creation of art, let alone the enjoyment of it, depend on having a surplus of wealth along with the leisure time and financial security that guarantees? In his 2008 comments about arts funding, Stephen Harper sought to caricature the arts community as being fundamentally divorced from the needs and concerns of “ordinary people.” But it’s in a big way ordinary people themselves who have been able to participate in the arts thanks to public arts colleges, grants, and other programs subsidized by the state. And with the means to do so removed (or at least somewhat isolated) from market or profitability considerations, their output has been much more freely produced than if funding had depended on the good taste or charity of well-off patrons.
This, while we’re at it, gets at another good reason the public should subsidize the arts. Putting aside any romanticism about the inherently political nature of art (I’m of the opinion that art can be progressive, reactionary, and everything in between) the artist who receives a public grant is more likely to produce something genuinely challenging than one who makes rent thanks to the generosity of a wealthy benefactor. This straightforward reason for this is that those with means are also, by extension, the most likely to already have power in our society and be the most invested in the aesthetics and orthodoxies of the status quo. (It’s highly unlikely, for example, that we’d have so much great revolutionary art had its creation depended on the patronage of the very people it had sought to overthrow...)
None of this is to say, of course, that the politics of public money for the arts are simple. On the contrary, deciding how funds should be allocated and to whom they should be given is always going to be somewhat muddy and controversial.
Suppose a particular government seeks to redefine the criteria through which grants are awarded in way which appears to align with its own objectives and interests? Or suppose a particular community and its experiences are historically underrepresented or marginalized within the national arts scene? What happens when a section of the public is outraged to have paid, albeit indirectly, to create a work of art it finds objectionable? And what if some of the art the public subsidizes turns out to be just, well, bad?
All of these are complicated questions, and it will always be up to the imperfect institutions of a democratic society to contest and decide on them. But between having a pure marketplace for the arts or a diverse community of artists able to practice and create without having to think too much about someone else’s bottom line, the choice seems like a very simple one to me.