Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Economist Debates: Art Funding

Occasionally I check out the Economist Debates from the Economist magazine.  These are a series of written debates, penned by well credentialed people of the specified subject.

I find it interesting to see how often I disagree with the conclusion of the voters of these debates.

Let's have a look at a recent debate.  I quite like picking apart the written words of my intellectual opponents.  (Even if that has prevented BBQRibsNoNapkins from responding again.)

As ever, my comments are in bold.

"Should government fund the arts?"

"The Proposer's Opening Remarks"
by Alan Davey

The proponents of the "dismal science" of economics can find reasons for not engaging in many kinds of human activity: study of the humanities, playing in an orchestra, the pursuit of athletics, reading, even the study of economics itself.

Is he insulting economists?

So what on earth was economist J.M. Keynes thinking when he established public funding for culture in Britain with the formation of the Arts Council?

John Maynard Keynes, for those who don't know, is a well respected British economist, who is famous for "saving capitalism from the communists," as my college economics professor taught it.  Anyone who favors big government, but not socialism, uses Keynes' ideas to support government spending.

Keynes was in favor of the government stimulating the economy. His ideas were used to support the New Deal, and other big government programs, which were the attempt hasten the end of the Great Depression here in America.

What were the results?

"We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong … somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. … I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. … And an enormous debt to boot." - Henry Mogenthau Jr., U.S. Secretary of the Treasury during the Great Depression

So, "what was he thinking?" He, a believer in government spending, was in favor of?'ll never guess.

Britain after the second world war didn't have much by way of arts provision. So Keynes had a mission—to make sure that the conditions could be created for an artist to walk "where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction; he does not know it himself. But he … teaches us to love and enjoy what we often begin by rejecting."

Keynes wanted to promote art. Cool.  

If he does it with his own money, and other money voluntarily contributed, then that is an admirable task.  But he wanted to use the taxpayers' money, immediately after the biggest war in history, weather or not the taxpayers thought that art was a good investment.  They had a country to rebuild; he wanted more paintings, at someone else's expense.

It was essentially an attempt to address market failure; the market, of itself,  would not provide a sufficient range of high-quality art or develop the infrastructure that was needed. He wanted to educate audiences to know for themselves what was good and what was bad, so they would increasingly take chances on things and trust artists to inspire and challenge them. If you like, it was the spiritual arm of the emerging post-war consensus-slaying the sixth giant of lack of possibility for most people of encountering the marvellous, the beautiful, the surprising and the questioning.

For every instance of a "market failure" that I've ever heard, it was not the market that was failing, but the government's interference with the market that caused the "failure".

Here's my response to that most classic of all market failures: monopolies.

To get back to art as a "market failure," let me point out that every time a "market failure" is found, such as not enough art funding, it is only deemed a failure by people who are unhappy with the results.  

"There's not enough art around here.  Why, it must be a market failure. Because when I want something, and don't get what I want, its the market's fault." says the claimants of "market failure.

Is art good? Its fine. 

If you want to put your time and money into art, that's fine.  If you want to force others to put my money and time into something, that they may or may not want, then that is a form of slavery.

He never assumed it would be a straightforward nationalised/state-funded model—far from it. Artists needed freedom to create and he had seen the results of overtly political state sponsorship and appropriation of art during the second world war. So money invested in artists was a research and development investment. People would pay through the box office, but government investment would make the prices affordable. Had he been alive now, he would also have seen the possibility of the third arm of arts funding—corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy—providing those with the money did not call the shots and dictate the art that was made.

"People would pay through the box office," and then pay some more through the government with their tax dollars.

"...providing those with the money did not call the shots and dictate the art that was made."

guy with money: "I'll give you $100 for a painting of my dog."

artist: "I'm the artist, and I'll paint what I want.  And you'll be required to pay for it anyway."

I can see why this is the preferred arrangement for some.

Keynes went beyond his dismal science into the realm of feeling, and that was the beginning of the mixed economy of arts funding which drives Britain's rich creative economy today.
Our mixed funding model for the arts works well and is the envy of countries around the world. At just 0.05% of overall government spending, Arts Council investment at just under £380m a year is efficient fuel for our creative industries.

Britain is very rich, only a bit more than $1 trillion in debt.

"Since we're in debt, I've got a great idea! Let's spend more on statues that no one understands!"

It's fun to spend others' money foolishly.

The organisations we fund are not subsidy junkies. They have the mindset of entrepreneurial small and medium-sized enterprises always looking to develop new income streams. The contribution of music and visual and performing arts to the British economy exceeds £4 billion in gross value added, and the creative industries overall contribute £36 billion. In contrast, the economic downturn in America is starting to bite into its market-driven model, with at least one of its world-class orchestras facing bankruptcy.

If its good for government funding small art businesses, why shouldn't it also fund every other business?  Oops. I forgot, it does that too.  And the results? 

I'll move to Britain and start my own mud pie art business.  I'll only ask for 0.05% of that 380 million pounds per year.  It'll be a very "efficient fuel for [my] creative industry."

I'd love to see how those 4 and 36 billion pound figures were generated.  If they are true, then why is Britain only spending 0.05% of its budget in art?  With that kind of return on investment they should be spending 100% of their budget on art.

People aren't going to the opera, we're going let's spend spend spend on a woman giving birth as "performing art."

But even Keynes recognised that the argument for public funding of the arts should never be purely economic. [Of course not.  We should be forced to like it too.]  Sixty years of public investment in culture has created that possibility he dreamed of; it has created something vibrant and vital that says who we are as a nation.

But why do I need to pay for your art?

The opening ceremony of the Olympics was a perfect example—a cultural spectacle viewed live by an estimated 900 million people worldwide. Its creator, Danny Boyle, cut his teeth in the subsidised theatre. It was intelligent, coherent and had deep expertise, craft and tradition from the funded arts sector behind it—from performers to technicians.  It was the result of years of training for many: training as exacting and as worth investing in as the sportsmen and women who came next.

The opening ceremony would not have existed, of course, had Britain not publicly funded the opening ceremony's creator's life.  Why, he would have starved to death, had we not publicly financed his life.

We're in a recession but do you know what us underemployed masses need? Government funded dancers, that's what.

Those who run our great cultural organisations are leaders, impresarios, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who know how to make a little money go a long way. They contribute to growth, through the development of creative skills and economic regeneration, as well as the visitor economy. More than that, they make this country a better place to be for its citizens. That's why they are worth investing in.

I'm still waiting for my government check for Tim's Mud Pie, Inc.

Is his point: that is that art is good and therefore we should publicly pay for it? 

If Britain's taxpayers should be forced to pay for everything that is good, why stop at art, why not also pay for: car racing, peanut butter cups, pancakes, slinkies....

(I probably shouldn't be giving them ideas.  Although they most likely subsidize all of these things already.  They wouldn't exist without government, after all.)

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