The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 14, Number 5
Who Should Pay For Art?
The dialectic goes like this. First, an artist--I use the term broadly--exhibits something
pornographic, blasphemous, or otherwise egregiously offensive. His opus may well be an action,
as when an HIV-positive "performance artist" had his back cut open before a surprised audience
Next, the perpetrator turns out to have received public funds, suspiciously often from the
National Endowment for the Arts. Incensed conservatives then demand an end to subsidies for
these outrages. Liberals charge censorship in reply, as op-ed pieces condescendingly explain that
art is meant to "shock" and "challenge."
Extremes like bloody backs distract from the main issue, which is not whether taxpayers
subsidize grotesque performance or perverse photography, but whether they should subsidize art
at all. Market theory, of course, follows one simple rule: those who want something should be
ones to pay for it. In particular, those who want art, or a specific kind of art, should put up the
money, whether by purchasing tickets or becoming a generous benefactor.
If connoisseurs cannot sustain the work they favor, they and the rest of the world will have to
without it. When a lover of the outdoors cannot afford a house with a picturesque view, no one
suggests that others be forced to build him one; why are admirers of degenerate snapshots--or
ballet, or abstract expressionism--entitled to more?
Art socialists offer reasons to spare. For one thing, they say, art benefits everyone, all of
Surely, though, what literally benefits everyone will attract enough voluntary support to sustain
it. Genuinely popular artists, like Norman Rockwell and Frank Sinatra, never needed anybody's
taxes to keep going.
A few years ago the head of the financially pressed Negro Ensemble Company inadvertently
the game away when he told the New York State Council on the Arts: "If the people of New
York State want to see our plays, they will have to subsidize us."
Not quite; if the people of New York State had wanted to see their plays, they would have
more tickets. The one NEC production I saw I found superb, but too few people agreed for the
company to stay in business. The benefits of the NEC were evidently lost on most recipients.
But that's just the problem, say subsidy defenders. The average unimaginative person left to
own devices will waste his cultural dollar. A market catering to his tastes will churn out
enjoyable mediocrity--show tunes instead of Schoenberg. Adventurous, stimulating art requires
that people support what they may not initially appreciate. This argument dovetails nicely with
the business about Great Art as shocking and challenging.
One can almost hear the capital letters when subsidy advocates talk this way, as if Art were a
single beacon illuminating all before it. Such pretensions slyly suggest, among other things, that
art is an indivisible good, not only deserving everyone's support, but apt to vanish unless the
support is publicly coordinated.
Don't worry: the next Braveheart is in no danger of going unmade while
everyone waits for
someone else to finance it so he can see it for free. Anyone who wants to see a flick must buy his
own ticket--as must anyone (at least at the moment) who wants to see serious drama. So long as
there is an audience for Chekhov, however narrow, there will be Chekhov for that audience. Or,
as Sam Goldwyn almost said, if most people want to stay away from Uncle Vanya,
you can't stop
Anyway, the opposition between art and enjoyment is nonsense; historically, art has always
sought to please and inspire its patrons. Titian was popular because people liked to look at what
he put on canvas. The world cannot get enough Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Even works with
disturbing content, like Goya's Disasters of War etchings, have been expected to
interest the eye.
No masterpiece has ever been disagreeable for its own sake, and no true master regards
rejection as proof of his own greatness. Highbrows may cite incidents like the disturbance at the
premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to prove that popular taste opposes
so ignores how quickly Rite became a repertory staple. Having something to say, it
Centuries ago the leading art consumers were the royalty and nobility, who--let's face
acquired their wealth through voluntary exchange. Still, aristocrats bought what they personally
preferred, with funds universally regarded as theirs by right, so in that sense artists courting their
favor were competing in a market. Aristocratic taste was often pretty good, as when George I
commissioned Handel's Water Music for public relations purposes. It could even be
progressive--witness Count Waldstein's support for Beethoven.
Church composers also worked within a competitive market, trying to please both
and the faithful. When liturgical trends demanded greater clarity in the Mass, Palestrina rushed to
provide it. When Lutherans demanded new music for their new liturgy, Bach rose to the
occasion. The music survives its original setting: the revival of Gregorian chant has been driven
by mass consumer demand.
Today, government funding is impersonal by design: committees following "guidelines"
appropriated money they never see for work their members will not have to live with. Yes, art
must experiment as old techniques and modes of expression are exhausted. But the way progress
seems to occur is that every so often a genius like Stravinsky or Picasso or T.S. Eliot brings off
something genuinely new, causes a stir--and is widely imitated. Modern mass media, instantly
disseminating and thereby dissipating novelty, have accelerated this process.
One byproduct--accounting for much of modernism's trash--has been the idea of a cutting
of being different as an end in itself. And the one institution consistently controlling the quality
of this torrent of newness has been the market. Today, for instance, arresting images are more apt
to be found on theatrical posters than on the walls of modern art museums. And for melodic
invention, one looks to stage and movie scores, which receive not a penny of public money,
whereas concert-goers must be tied down to endure "serious" modern compositions of the sort
funding agencies love.
The market for new art has its lapses. At the low end is rap--springing, be it noted, from a
population sustained by welfare. At the high end, we find Andy Warhol and those Julian
Schnabel collages of broken crockery that fetched millions in the 1980s. But the market also
gives good taste an opportunity to laugh last, at trendoids stuck with their depreciated soup cans.
Public art carries risk for no one but the taxpayers.
State-supported art has traditionally been labeled timid, conformist, and conventional--in a
"academic" (after England's Royal Academy). The label still sticks; only the orthodoxy has
changed, now rejecting craftsmanship and embracing nihilism and multiculturalism.
The avant garde is more predictable than punk rock. There is money to be made betting that
next installation at one's local modern art museum will include TV monitors, dismembered
female mannequins, and black-and-white photos--along with a label thanking some public
This orthodoxy will only become more entrenched under the NEA's new standards, which
emphasize, again predictably, "outreach" to "nontraditional audiences." Translation: more angry
murals by black artists, more Shakespeare skewed for bored Hispanic children, more famous
women you've never heard of.
Art socialists may admit that some worthless art gets funded, but the classics get funded also.
Government money helps keep museums open and local opera companies in business. In fact,
these expenditures are said to be investments. Whenever a reduction in municipal contributions
is suggested here in New York, one hears that $4 returns to the city for every $1 it spends on art.
Let's first ask why it is so vital to have art forms that outlive their popularity. Masques are no
longer produced. You don't see much Morris dancing anymore. Must opera, for instance, always
be with us? Handel began to compose his great English oratorios only after people stopped
attending his Italian operas.
Whenever the market gives signs that opera's time too may have passed, art socialists dwell
the emptiness of life without it, forgetting, as usual, the issue of opportunity cost. Were big city
opera to die, resources now diverted to sustain it on life-support would flow elsewhere, perhaps
toward chamber ensembles in the suburbs. Musicians will always want to perform; subsidizing
opera only delays the emergence of forms of performance that might attract new audiences.
(Those successful "superstar" concerts with Luciano Pavarotti were opera minus the costumes
and overheated plots.)
The payoff of tax-funded art cannot be verified, and is suspect on principle. Government
interference with the market--job training, keeping loggers from trees--is almost always called
"investing in America's future." If that is what it is, America needs a new broker, since she is
currently $5 trillion in debt.
It never occurs to art socialists that people have less to spend on worthy institutions like
museums for the same reason that they have less to spend on everything: they are taxed too
heavily. Public spending induces distortions, which then become the excuse for further spending.
Many important holdings of the great art museums were once the private collections of
fabulously rich men, donated after their death. Taxes have made it much more difficult for
individuals to acquire art on that scale, and thereby discouraged philanthropy, forcing curators to
seek help from the state. If people were allowed to keep more of their money, there might even
be enough for opera, or cycles of symphonies by Mahler.
When all else fails, and public funding of art faces real opposition, liberals cry censorship.
accusation turns truth on its head. You censor someone by actively hindering his self expression.
Refusing to help someone express himself is not censorship; still less is it censorship
to refuse to
force others to help him. What liberals call "censorship"--such as ending the NEA--is respect for
freedom: the freedom not to support what one does not wish to.
Defenders of subsidies tell a story about Twyla Tharp, the noted modern choreographer.
the patience to fill out forms when she applied to the NEA, she instead submitted a note: "I write
dances, not grant applications. Send money. Love, Twyla." And she got it.
This incident is supposed to show what wonderful free spirits artists are, and why society
support them. But consider that the money she was asking for was someone else's before it was
forcibly transferred. An indulgent Uncle Sam has fostered arrogance in his more creative nieces.
Michael Levin teaches Philosophy at the City College of New York