Thursday, April 14, 2011

Problems With Government Funding of the Arts

Every so often you read someone somewhere advocating more government involvement in the arts. You get it from both the left and the right. The right want government involvement to help steer content; the left just want money thrown at them, and naively imagine that it won't come with strings attached. Since there is no way that government is going to just throw money at everyone who decides to call themselves an artist, we have to consider the real consequences of government funding of the arts. That is, we have to deal with reality.

The reality is this: government does not fund entrepreneurs. Of any kind, whether it be entreprenreurial businesspeople or entrepreneurial artists. Of course, in both cases, that is where innovation and growth occurs. Government supports what is known, what is well-established. That is why they support the building of opera houses, large theaters that will show popular plays, and symphonies. Subsidies go to established organizations and businesses. Entrepreneurs are funded by venture capital, if they are funded at all. Peter Thiel funds entrepreneurs -- but one may jsutly wonder, where is the Peter Thiel of literature and art? Artists are often on their own, which is no doubt why so many dream of government funding. But government funding will never come -- it is a waste of time to dream of it, because no government is going to fund entrepreneurial activities. All governments are too conservative in that manner, and will always be. That is their nature. And that is as it must and should be.

This is why Nietzsche correctly observed that there is an inverse correlation betweenthe strength of a nation's government and the strength of a nation’s culture. All a government ever does is support those that have already established themselves as not needing government’s help. Further, with government money inevitably comes government restrictions. Who wants their art controlled from Austin, TX, let alone Washington, D.C.? I don’t want my plays to have to conform to Republican or Democratic world views. Nor do I want my survival attached to my ability to bribe — er, donate to the campaigns of — elected officials. Worse, there is good evidence that government-funded art comes in at the end, when the culture is dying, to try to prop it up. When government funding comes to dominate, that is truly the sign of a dying culture.

When something is subsidized, you can expect it to grow. Subsidize culture, and of course you are going to have a “vibrant” culture. But its a false vibrancy, much like the housing bubble created a false strong economy. Every fool will take advantage of the cheap money, and eventually everything will end up wrecked. You have to understand that my opposition to government involvement has everything to do with my loving the arts and culture and wanting it to actually be strong. A bubble is a cancer on the economy — including the cultural economy.

In any case, there is no evidence the U.S. is hurting for artists of any kind. There are more, and more successful, artists of all sorts than anyplace else ever before in history. That’s a result of the free market and a general lack of government funding. Regardless of what Britain does and how it does it, you have to be pretty clueless about American politics to believe that government funding here is ever going to be untouched by partisan issues. One side demands the government not fund anything even remotely religious or potentially offensive to a wide variety of groups, while the other side demands the government not fund anything deemed anti-religious or offensive to their sensibilities. What the heck is left? Never mind works that are explicitly political, or are understood to be. That’s what happens when the U.S. government tries to fund the arts, as anyone who has paid attention to the news knows. In a real sense, this is fortunate, because real innovation has taken place as a result, without the threat of a bubble economy developing. You’re going to have a stronger culture and art scene when you have people who are serious about the production of art rather than who are in it because they are following the easy money.

Of course, many people complain that the average person doesn't support avante garde work, so the government has to. It's true that the average person is conservative in their tastes. The tastes of the average filmgoer, for example, is conservative and not avant garde. Many complain about how this means the avant garde films have to go to the art houses; but what these people don’t seem to understand is that without the free market, there wouldn’t be art houses for such films to go to. The market is actually providing the minority with their tastes, as well as the majority with their tastes. Sometimes, an art house film goes mainstream. The market allows everyone to get what they want, and does not impose anyone’s values on others. This of course is the problem for those who want government to fund their avante garde work. They want to impose their tastes on others. I, on the other hand, do not want to impose my artistic values on anyone else — I am happy to pursuade, but unwilling to use government force to impose it on others or to force others to support works they don’t like.

The bottom line is that if you want works of a certain kind, you should feel free to try to provide them. Sell pieces, or tickets —- get private funding from those who agree with your vision. That’s how it really works with private funding: you provide the service, and get people who agree with your vision and service to donate the money. Or buy the piece. Voluntary giving or exchange are the only ethical forms of funding art.

I would love to see a more vibrant art scene in the U.S. -- in the world in general. But government funding will destroy what does exist, not improve it. Here in Dallas, the publicly funded opera house, Dallas theater, and DMA give us the great works of the past — which have their place, to be sure — but they are not spuring anyone to create new works. They do not contribute to a vibrant art scene. Private galleries, private theaters, etc. do. Create a market for these things, and the art scene will flourish. Look to government, and you will stagnate it.

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