Monday, December 6, 2010

Paying for Art

It is popular for artists -- most of whom are Leftists or even Marxists -- to complain about the corrupting effects of money and the free market on their art. Somehow one of the best indicators of value ever invented -- money -- devalues art. There is nothing farther from the truth.

One of the great insights in David Mamet's "Theatre" is the role of money in making great plays and great audiences. He argues that for an audience to enjoy the play, they have to pay for it. More, they have to pay for each and every performance. In other words, he even argues against subscriptions, which undermine choice:

A subscription audience is a dreadful audience. It is almost inevitably sullen. Why? It has been dragged out of the house. These subscribers are not theatergoers, though they may again be, under different circumstances; they are bargain hunters, who have been sold a bargain. "Six plays for the price of five" sounds like a good idea at the time, but in practice it functions like "all you can eat," where the only way one can make sure one has gotten one's money's worth is to make oneself sick. (95)

He observes that this undermines the sense of adventure that attracts people to the theatre and makes it part of the experience. More, by buying your tickets up front, you eliminate the element of scarcity from the equation -- and if something is not scarce, it is not valued much, if at all (how much, on any given day, do you really value air -- even as absolutely important as it is?). Also, it protects the playwright, actors, and theatre from risk -- and, thus, from learning anything at all. As a result, they cannot (and will not) improve.

"Government subsidy functions similarly" (97), as observed in my previous post.

The audience has to pay, and it has to pay for each and every chosen play in order for it to be a good audience. And a good audience is one that educates an attentive playwright and actors. An audience that hates your work is still a good audience if they sincerely hate it (as opposed to being sullen for the above reasons).

The audience, in the actual theatrical interchange, must have two qualifications: (1) it must have come to be delighted, and (2) it must have paid for admittance. (105)

Why must they have paid? Because "The ticket price is a sacrifice entitling the audience" to enjoy the play:

The audience members must pay. The payment transforms them from critics to entitled consumers. In the car business they teach that "nobody walks on the lot unless he wants to but a car." The equivalent of walking on the lot is payment for admission.

The audience members coming to be delighted, and paying for the privilege, will eke form the drama the enjoyment to which they are entitled. If the drama is not enjoyable per se, they will read the program, go to sleep, or leave. (106)

More, neither the audience nor playwrights "may or can express its desires save through the unfettered operation of the free market" (120). It is one thing to say you liked something to got for free; it is another to say you liked something you paid for.

Let me give an example. My brother is an artist, and when he was younger and just beginning as an artist, he had the romantic notion that he was going to give all of his art away. People would value his art because it was inherently valuable. I told him if he really wanted people to value his art, to charge hundreds or thousands of dollars, and then it would be valued. Well, he mostly ignored me, and gave many paintings away. Yet, he also sold a few pieces to a few friends. This set up what turned out to be a perfect experiment of his theory vs. mine. As it turns out, when he went over to the homes of friends he had given art to, he could never find it displayed; but those who had paid for their works displayed the works prominently. My brother stopped giving away art piece after that.

If you fill a theatre with critics or students, you will never get the feedback you need to be a successful actor or playwright. You need a paying audience. Only a paying audience will create art that will last the ages.


  1. This reminds me of Paul Cantor's lectures on the serialized novel (available here: and Shakespeare's theatre (available here:

  2. I'm not sure that my point is relevant, but here it is anyway. The great Bordeaux wine classification of 1855 was based on price. In other words, in trying to determine the relative value of these ineffably artistic products--wine from different estates--, experts measured value by how much people were paying for the different wines. Things were simpler back then (and a franc was worth a franc.)

  3. Could you imagine the French today allowing a spontaneous order solution to determining the value of wine?

  4. I don't agree with this at all.

    In London theatre is heavily subsidized, and students, the disabled, the elderly and others often can see it free or nearly free, yet London audiences are among the best in the world. Londoners (and British audiences in general) value Shakespeare, avante garde theatre, museums (which are completely free) and galleries, and much more, and they value them far more than American audiences, as evidenced by their coverage in the newspapers, their demand for more subsidies year by year, their exportation of theatre, public opinion and knowledge of theatre, etc etc.

    There is theatre in many neighborhoods far from the West End too, often free (just like music in pubs and clubs is often free and greatly enjoyed) and often well attended. Many amateur productions are put on at low cost and are free to attend, and they are well enjoyed, as the audience often feels kinship with the actors and producers, as they themselves do or hope to one day put on a similar show. etc etc.

  5. Well if, as your last comment implies, the audience consists mostly of people wanting to be actors and playwrights, then it's not surprising they are a good audience.

    There are certain to be cultural differences -- some cultures are more interested in theatre than in others. So you can't compare an audience in one culture to an audience in another, let alone a nonpaying audience in one culture to a paying audience in another. You would have to compare a paying audience to a nonpaying audience in the same culture.

    One would have to wonder if the London theatre scene would be even more enthusiastic if they were paying for it.

    I am always suspicious of any industry that asks for subsidies. If what they offered were really in such high demand, they wouldn't need subsidies. They would be able to get along without them. Subsidies inevitably go from the most productive/demanded to the least.

    A truly healthy theatre scene would be able to survive on individual ticket sales and donations.

    But in the end, the issue is a difference in culture. We don't know what the London scene would look like now without subsidies. But it seems to me that it's much like international aid: many other countries look more charitable than the U.S. if you look at government expenditures only; but they pale when you compare private donations. Would the support be there in Britain if the government weren't subsidizing? I think so. And I think it would be even more enthusiastic.

  6. I think your analysis is a bit simplistic. Remember that subsidies and redistribution do two things not just one when they facilitate purchase: they supplement both ABILITY and WILLINGNESS to pay. Many times all this does is create a bubble, as people's willingness to buy something is artificially inflated.

    But sometimes it can actually solve a problem: vouchers for the chronically ill to purchase medical care would boost their ability to obtain care, but would not add artificially to demand. Their willingness to pay would not change, only their ability. This is the crux of the Rothbard fallacy: that everything is demonstrated as if ability to pay was not separate from willingness; as if a dying man must be demonstrating the fact that he does not value food or life; as if everyone could work and earn equally, and be able to demonstrate all their preferences in the market, when in fact earning power is not equal.

    Anyway, getting back to theatre - it, and culture (and education, etc) in general, are luxury goods in the sense that the very poor in a purely market economy won't get to them until after all necessities, and only if they have enough leisure time to enjoy them, and the ability to appreciate them. What subsidies for these kinds of goods do is to make them relatively more accessible for the poor - if they are free then they need not come *after* all necessities. Once they become more common, because they are relatively easy to access, they become more accessible in other ways too--as people become cultured they appreciate these things more, understand them more etc--the society becomes more cultured.

    When these things are not subsidized they are driven only by market considerations, which means demand in the market by those not only with willingness but with ability--they are driven by the middle class who have enough disposable income and leisure time to "risk" the theatre, and they will tend to choose easy productions that they expect their friends also to attend: so you get a lowest common denominator choice of theatre. You see this on Broadway, and to a lesser extent the West End. When you have subsidies, you get instead what the society chooses in the public debate or democratic procedure, rather than the market procedure - and you get museums and galleries, small and large shows, avante garde, Shakespeare, etc etc.

  7. There are plenty of theatres that show avante garde, Shakespeare, etc. in the United States. Broadway is what it is. It shows what is popular in exactly the way you discuss. But then, so do the cinemas. There are both the popular movie houses and the art houses. Each does what it does, providing people with what they want. Theatre is no different.

    For example, today on Broadway I see that one can see American Idiot, Wicked and Chicago, among others. There's Mama Mia, The Lion King, and Spider Man. Yet off broadway, one can see "The How and the Why" by Sarah Treem, a production of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," the experimental comedy troupe Second City, and other experimental theatres such as La Mama. One can have most anything one wants in New York City. The market does not drive quality down to the lowest common denominator in theatre any more than it does for any other product.

    Of course, you may argue that most of these are subsidized themselves. Many do no doubt receive grants, including government grants. They are perhaps not quite as subsidized as the London theatres, but the prices are kept lower than they perhaps otherwise would be.

    Yet, at most of the regular theatres, the prices are no more than is a movie (especially after popcorn, etc.), so I don't buy the argument that the poor don't go because they can't. They go watch movies.

    Still, one could imagine any number of outreach programs one could have with theatre, if one used but a bit of imagination. Free Shakespeare in the Park, paid for with donations. One could get grants and donations to provide tickets for those who cannot afford them. Grants for school outreach. Etc.

    I think Mamet's point is that the artist needs to have the right kind of audience to get the right kind of feedback. Neither he (I suspect) nor I want to deprive anyone of theatre. But the playwright and the actors need to have the right kind of feedback. That means you need the right kind of audience. He has no doubt seen a wide variety of audiences coming for a wide variety of reasons, and knows what kind of audience has benefited him as an artist.

  8. Please find a completely different Understanding of Art and its relation to human culture altogether.

    Remember too that TV is now the most powerful culturally formative force in the world. Indeed our common "culture" is entirely a creation (and reflection) of the TV mind. That "culture" is or course completely indifferent too, and even hostile towards, the well-being of both human beings and Earthkind altogether.
    Remember too that most people only watch commercial TV, the purpose of which is to create "faithful" consumers. As explained in the book This Little Kiddy Went To Market by Sharon Beder. And years ago by Vance Packard and Stuart Ewen in his book Captains of Consciousness.
    And as Neil Postman told us we ARE quite literally amusing our selves to death.