Funding for which arts?

Jesse’s recent post, about how words like “art” don’t have universally agreed-upon, precisely-defined meanings, reminded me of a book I just read by one of my favorite bloggers, economist Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. He’s gotten a lot of media and internet attention in the past couple of months for his e-book The Great Stagnation, but the one I’m referring to is an older volume called Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding.

Good and Plenty makes the case that although the U.S. government ostensibly spends little on arts funding, compared to Europe for example, we also have huge de facto, indirect subsidies of art through copyright law and tax policies that encourage private giving. Those indirect subsidies are actually much more conducive to a thriving arts sector than Europe’s centralized funding, Cowen argues.

One of the many things I like about Cowen is his cheeky but serious way of challenging the ostensible reasons people have for their beliefs, or societies have for their institutions or laws. (This is something his friend and colleague Robin Hanson does even more persistently, by the way, over at another of my favorite blogs, Overcoming Bias.) The form of the argument is basically: You claim that the reason you do Y is because of X. But if you really believed X were the case, you would also do Z, which you don’t.

So in addition to the question of how we fund art, Cowen also asks why we’ve chosen to define “art” (for funding purposes, at least) to include certain things but not others. For example:

  • What about fashion? Clothing design exhibits beauty and creativity just like sculpture, and a beautiful piece of clothing arguably has higher positive externalities than a beautiful sculpture (because the owner wears it in public, other people get to appreciate its beauty, unlike a privately owned sculpture which sits at home).
  • What about sports? Many sports showcase stunning displays of grace and power, just like dance. And sports games, and seasons, have a lot in common with drama: protagonists, antagonists, triumph and defeat. “The drama in sports, of course, is real rather than staged, but presumably this should contribute to its aesthetic merit,” Cowen says.
  • What about toys? “Most young children are deeply concerned with matters aesthetic,” Cowen says. “They are fascinated by colors, shapes, sounds, and textures… The toy presents the child with an aesthetic package, so to speak, which the child either loves or rejects. When children they love a toy, they are truly passionate about enjoying its aesthetic qualities.”

Yet our government doesn’t subsidize fashion, or toys, or sports (at least not for artistic reasons; local governments may fund stadiums and so on , but that’s for other reasons, like economic development). So that would seem to cast doubt on the reason people generally give to justify funding the arts — that they provide people with enjoyable and moving aesthetic experiences — since those reasons should also suffice to justify subsidizing things like sports and fashion and toys, which we don’t.

Of course, the big differences between the traditional arts and Cowen’s examples are that the former have (1) more cachet, historically, and (2) less commercial viability. But we still have to explain why we should spend the money to prop up the traditional arts when there are other sources of aesthetic enjoyment that don’t require any propping.

7 Responses to Funding for which arts?

  1. Jesse R says:

    Usually when this question comes up my line of reasoning is that arguing what is or is not ‘art’ is silly – if someone says something is art, then it is; the focus should be on whether it is good art or not.

    However in this context it’s a somewhat different proposition. The truth of why governments fund certain arts and not others is not exactly one of definition of art, but rather one of ascribed cultural value. Specifically the value we attribute to art that makes people feel sophisticated and cultured when they’re ‘appreciating’ it. This seems at surface quite a pretentious and vacuous reason to fund something, but I do think that there is value in funding artistic expression as a concept removed from markets and popularity. Good art is often appreciate only by the ‘early adopter’ set to begin with, and if we remove the curve of social behaviour we end up with a flat-line of mainstream formulaic homogeneity (think Britney).

    Personally I think that a balance between government funding and market mechanisms is probably the best idea. Somehow leaving the cultural artistic development of society entirely to the whims of the most avaricious seems like it might not be the very best course of action.

    There is something very US American about the underlying premise though – that the art that the ‘everyman’ enjoys should be encouraged the most. I’m of the view that we should aspire to that which is best rather than that which is most popular. The reason for this is that I think popularity has a regressive effect in terms of social progress – it descends into groupthink idiocy. Conversely when we laud that which is the most creative, innovative, breakthrough, beautiful above that which pleases the status quo, we see a progressive effect. Well, at least that’s what I suspect to be the case.

  2. Lauren Elbaum says:

    Let’s not discuss what art is best, but what art people think is best. That’s a tough one. Because the more people know about art, the more they enjoy it. (Think grokking) For example, my choir didn’t want to sing a piece written by Palestrina (1525-1594) until I gave a (rather riveting) story on how Palestrina saved polyphony. Then I played a really awesome version on youtube, and they reached a general consensus that the piece was quite kick-ass. So I would like you to remember that good-art-making starts with a good arts education. Most young children in this country come from families that are scrapping to get by right now, the median income in the United states for working men is about 45,000. Certainly not enough to take private music instruction. I would guess that most people reading this blog are not from those Socioeconomic rungs. So please, put yourself aside for a moment and take into consideration most of the other people in this country. Across the nation, arts programs in schools are being cut. They are the first things to go when a school takes a hit to their budget. Many children will grow up without an arts education. The public sector is the only thing that can help the next generation make beautiful art.

    In response to Julia’s blog, arts come in 5 basic categories. One for each of the sense. Sight, Sound, Touch(Movement), Taste and Smell. Certainly you’ve heard of culinary arts. Also, these arts can be mixed and matched together; as in an Opera or Musical’s sensual tour de force of sight, sound, and movement. So fashion would go under visual arts and sports would go under movement. I think Wayne Gretsky’s hockey playing can certainly be considered art. The sub-categories within these sensual domains are largely artificial.

    Furthermore, sports ABSOLUTELY gets funding because of how it makes people feel. Is that the pitch for funding? No, the pitch is so that a team will win… How does winning make fans FEEL?

    Yes, by all means, fund every single facet of the arts and make sure to keep the public sector going so that American’s of every background can communicate and connect to each other.

  3. davidad says:

    This reminds me of Sid Meier’s Civilization, in which the reason you (the player, in charge of a country) fund the arts is to increase your culture score, which makes foreign leaders impressed with you and more likely to be friendly in a diplomatic context. I don’t think this is too far from reality.

  4. Jesse Galef says:

    Davidad: +1 point for bringing a video game into the discussion. Now, if strong enough culture could literally take over neighboring cities like it could in Civ 3, I think the argument would be over and arts would receive massive funding. Alas, the benefits are tougher to measure than that.

  5. you gave a great response Lauren 🙂 even though I tend to agree with the person whose comment preceded yours about the ‘fallacies’ of popular ‘art’, this is still a highly subjective opinion (that pertains to a highly subjective matter) and certainly providing funds for arts programs in (public) schools is really crucial.
    It something that would benefit kids from all walks of life who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford this type of education as you point out. I really don’t understand the reasoning behind always cutting funds for arts programs more so than others. ESPECIALLY in these economic times, people need some sort of outlet to express themselves.
    Furthermore, art encourages people to have their horizons broadened by someone else’s form(s) of expression. I really think that the more traditional forms of education are really becoming outdated with the technologies that are evolving now a days, whereas art can never be obsolete or stagnant. Cutting funds for arts programs will only give more clout to the institutions that further entrench the status quo of society, which favors the wealthy while the less economically fortunate are exploited. Besides, art is a vehicle that stimulates the imagination and in many cases helps develop cognitive skills. I could go on and on LOL…

  6. David Coffin says:

    “The drama in sports, of course, is real rather than staged, but presumably this should contribute to its aesthetic merit…”

    That’s a pretty strange presumption. By that logic, all of real life would be more aesthetically meritorious than any fiction or representation. And so, then, is war the ultimate art form? Where else are the “dramatic” stakes more real? Do we increase the aesthetic value of any kind of performance by turning it into a competition?

    Real drama moves events out of the aesthetic realm, which is part of why sports are more widely valued than arts in our culture. For the same reason, lots of folks prefer non-fiction to fiction, not because the “real” is more aesthetic, but because aesthetic experiences are less valued than “real” ones.

  7. Chana Messinger says:

    Apparently video games might be art! According to the NEA, anyway:

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