State funding and the arts

This is related to the discussion here about accessibility and classical music. I was pointed (thanks John!) to this essay by David Pountney about state funding and the arts.

There are two points in his essay that I want to comment on. The first is this question of elitism, which invariably comes up in any discussion of the general public and the fine arts. Pountney makes a distinction which is worth emphasizing: that although music and the performing arts are necessarily ‘elitist’ in that they require people of rare talent, training and skill, this does not mean that the audience is or should be drawn only from the wealthiest or the most educated. (This leads back to the discussion here a while back about accessibility in all its various forms: for classical music to be considered ‘accessible’ in the cultural sense, it first has to be accessible in the financial sense.)

The second is about state funding for the arts. I live in the United States, the land of opportunity vast income disparity, poorly funded public schools and increasingly limited social mobility. State funding for the arts is touchy around here. Pountney is talking about the UK, and his point, in response to an argument about a lack of state funding being ‘liberating’ for artists, is that well, it isn’t liberating at all — and he points to us as an example.

This point is well taken. Venues that rely on private donors tend to be conservative, because you pretty much have to please most of the people most of the time or else the money will dry up. You certainly don’t want to piss anyone off or offer performances that are too confusing or unusual.

The interesting thing about this problem of money and the arts is that if you start hacking your way through it, you end up more quickly than you might expect in the middle of an argument about the nature of the state and the proper purpose of government. The question boils down to: is it in the best interest of society to fund art that will not be accessible to everyone? On one hand, you have the argument that having affordable fine arts out there is a good thing, and makes for a better society, even if everyone doesn’t like or doesn’t understand the art in question. On the other, you have the claim that the government should not spend money on anything that doesn’t benefit everyone – i.e. if I don’t use it, it’s wrong to make me pay for it.

I think the fallacy in the second claim is obvious enough that it doesn’t require extensive refutation. I attended a private university, for example, but I definitely want to live in a society where people have access to (relatively) inexpensive, high quality public universities. I don’t own a car, but I decidedly prefer living in a country that has well-maintained interstate highways to one that doesn’t.

But the argument in favor of the arts, the one about it being part of building a good society, can be a tricky claim to make because the concept of ‘a good society’ is extremely slippery. Some of my fellow Americans appear to have a version of ‘a good society’ that is a nightmarish combination of Mad Max and fundamentalist Protestantism. I try to avoid these people, but they are out there, and they vote.

But if we take it for granted that a good society involves things like roads and not being shot, and ask more specifically how the arts benefit people who have neither the time nor the money nor perhaps even the inclination or preparation to enjoy them, the best answer is probably actually an argument about opportunity and human potential. You want arts in society because you want to make sure that the best aspects of human nature — our ability to think, and our capacity to create and enjoy beauty — have the chance to exist. Schoolchildren from the poor parts of Detroit need to be able to hear good music because there are going to be a handful among them whose lives will be transformed by it. This is probably an elitist argument by some standards, but I think it’s the best one we’ve got.

9 thoughts on “State funding and the arts

  1. I’ve been thinking about this issue and other closely related ones since the fair city of Toronto elected a particularly thick, right wing, populist goon as mayor. He was, of course, elected on a platform of “reducing waste” which, as ever, is ConSpeak for cutting services. His first target was public transit but he also went after the arts and libraries and many other things. The good news is that for the most part City Council isn’t buying it but anyway it got me thinking.

    I think we have the discourse framed wrong. We tend to talk about taxation and public spending in terms that suggest that all public sending is a burden or imposition on taxpayers. I think we need to think about which goods are best provided individually and which socially and we need to do so in terms of what makes a city a better place to live. I’m unapologetic about framing the question in urban terms because cities are the natural habitat of civilized human beings (only since the advent of that most anti-social of inventions, the car, has anyone suggested different) and the arts are an urban phenomenon, with very minor exceptions. Cities are social spaces. They demand a degree of co-operation between citizens if they are to work. They require that many things that might be provided on an individual basis in the countryside be treated as social goods (clean water, sewers, snow clearing) and they provide an opportunity to enhance the quality of life through the provision of other social goods; parks, libraries etc. So do the arts make a city a better place to live? Every urban society in history seems to think so. Does it make sense to treat the arts as a social good, accessible to all citizens? Only societies as dysfunctional as France under Louis XIV seem to think not (admittedly that might not be a bad parallel with the USA today).

    For me the case for the arts is integral to the case for urban living. In other words the case for civilization itself.


    1. I agree that framing the issue of taxation as always a burden and never an investment is a problem — this is how we get to where we are in the US where no one wants to consider that hey, taxes PROVIDE US WITH STUFF, often stuff that is much cheaper and better provided socially than individually.

      And large cities are definitely an example of this working in practice, both for the arts or libraries and for mundane things like transit or parks. Cities are the only places where a person of moderate means can 1. easily get to performances and 2. afford them. And this does add value to society as a whole, no question.

      I think this would be a tricky argument to make in terms of policy, though, because you’d basically have to state flat-out that the most immediate and tangible benefit goes to cities and people who live in cities. I think in the US at least we already have a problem with the perception that ‘art and music are for snobby people who live in cities and think they’re better than you’ and as a result funding for things like the National Endowment for the Arts and even public broadcasting has become bizarrely politicized, because it gets turned into an argument about other things that are not actually about art.

      Which I suppose sort of raises the question that if we’re that divided, are we really a ‘society’ any more that can socialize/share benefits in any meaningful way? Which is kind of frightening if we’re not.


      1. “would be a tricky argument to make in terms of policy, though, because you’d basically have to state flat-out that the most immediate and tangible benefit goes to cities and people who live in cities.”
        I was reading this and thinking of the basic education system here in the US… but then somehow lost my line of thought… will come back at some point.


      2. the most immediate and tangible benefit goes to cities and people who live in cities.

        But most people do live in cities. Besides, the countryside is massively subsidized in its own ways; subsidies to agriculture, infra-structure that has massive per capita costs etc. The US and Canada (and maybe France) still have this ideology that it’s more natural to live outside a city (based on some romantic image of the yeoman farmer or sturdy peasant). It’s a crock of course. That “sturdy easant” is a massively subsidised capitalist dependent on the atrocious treatment of migrant and undocumented workers.


        1. This is true. I have great objections to both the way urban areas in the US subsidize rural ones without acknowledgement much of the time that this is what is happening, and how the voting/constitution system is set up to give an advantage to rural areas disproportional to the number of people who live there. There is nothing wrong with living in a rural area, but there’s this Jeffersonian romantic notion attached to it that causes all kinds of problems.

          I don’t think that the city-focused argument is incorrect – just that it’d be hard to get a strong majority behind it precisely because of those problematic romantic notions of what rural life ‘means’ and how to value it.


          1. “just that it’d be hard to get a strong majority behind it precisely because of those problematic romantic notions of what rural life ‘means’ and how to value it.”

            I do think we have to take on the argument though. It shouldn’t just be the peasants that revolt!


            1. Agreed. It’s tricky, but it should be done, and done often and noisily. (And, as Tha dieu suggested above with her reference to education, there are ways to do arts funding, i.e. more money for arts in public schools, that might ultimately be focused on urban areas, because that’s where dedicated music students/listeners often end up if circumstances permit, but which would benefit students living even in the tiniest rural towns.)


              1. And there are ways that urban based arts organisations can serve people in rural areas. COC has the Xstrata Studio Ensemble tour where they tour works created for kids to schools, many of them in very remote areas. Not too many major opera companies operate north of the Arctic Circle! Still though, without the urban base, tours like that would be impossible.


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