Public Funding for the Arts: Riposte!

August 22, 2011

If my dueling partner Jonathan Abarbanel wants to throw down about public funding for the arts, I'm happy to oblige him. Here are only a few of my arguments against:

  • If the Pentagon ordered a bunch of hammers at $87 apiece and we taxpayers urged our Congresspeople to inquire as to the validity of this expense, one answer we certainly would not tolerate would be, "WE are the experts in what the military needs; how DARE you ask us whether hammers should really cost $87!" But when taxpayers urge their Congresspeople to inquire as to the validity of the expenses of pubic funding for the arts, what we in the arts community say is, "WE are the experts in what constitutes art; how DARE you ask us whether putting jello in one's jockstrap is really an artistic statement!" S/he who shells out the gold makes the rules, here as elsewhere, and as long as we're paying for things we get to ask, and keep asking, whether they're worth it. That doesn't mean I minimize the value of art; I just expect it to live up to the standards of other publicly-funded goods such as education, social services, scientific research and the military, namely, the ability to respond rationally when challenged about the purpose and cost-effectiveness of any expenditure. The fact that the people who make these challenges are often boobs and ignorami is beside the point; we're asking for the money so it's our job to justify it. If justifying it seems oppressive then don't take the money.
  • "But it's only a tiny bit of money compared to what the government spends on other things!" True but not relevant: our Congressthings are charged with minding the public fisc, and if they choose to concentrate on minute expenditures to score political points that's annoying but not invalidating. Some of us on the left remember fondly William Proxmire, the Senator from Wisconsin who regularly gave out Golden Fleece awards to government projects he deemed ridiculous, including that mythical $87 hammer, even though Proxmire was also willing to attack serious research that just happened to sound funny ("Sex at High Altitudes," when what was really being studied was how far up into the mountains food crops could be planted before compromising the reproductive capacity of the bees who fertilized them, certainly a legitimate line of inquiry). If it's a government expenditure, taxpayers and our representatives get to question it. If this bothers you, don't live in a democracy.
  • "Concerns about censorship are overblown in an historically free society like ours." No, actually, they're not, or we wouldn't spend every year fighting with Congresspeople about whether what we do is worthwhile. Some of them, at least, would ban art if they could--those are the same people who keep taking Huck Finn off library shelves--but since they can't they use the two-pronged approach of ridiculing it publicly and starving it. That ridicule has taken its toll on public enthusiasm for the arts, and has succeeded at least in part in stereotyping artists as elite ninnies slopping at the public trough. Making people believe that what they or their neighbors create is a waste of space on a crowded planet is a kissing cousin to censorship, and that's a very steep price for the arts to pay for a tiny bit of tax revenue.
  • I suspect without knowing that public funding for the arts is the proverbial bad money driving out the good--that private patronage is diminished rather than fostered by the availability of public support. It's easy for people to think that the arts are "taken care of" by the government and that therefore they can/should give their philanthropic dollars elsewhere. Just as international agencies have to struggle to secure support because the public overestimates wildly the amount of foreign aid the government provides, so probably the struggle of arts groups for support can be attributed in part to the public's wild overestimation of the size of the government arts budget. Thus, if we want more money for the work we value so highly, we should put the arts squarely back in the realm of private patronage.
  • (Bonus of private arts patronage: the more money David Koch has to spend to support Lincoln Center, the less money he has to spend purchasing right-wing governors.)  

Jonathan? I'm listening! I'm waiting to hear, "A touch, a touch--I do confess it."