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The Free Market
The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership


May 1996
Volume 14, Number 5

Who Should Pay For Art?
Michael Levin

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 in Minneapolis.

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 should 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 the 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 do 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 society. 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 gave 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 bought 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 his 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 them.

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 popular 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 innovation--but doing so ignores how quickly Rite became a repertory staple. Having something to say, it found its market niche.

Centuries ago the leading art consumers were the royalty and nobility, who--let's face it--seldom 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 benefactors 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" dispense 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 edge, 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 word "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 the 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 agency.

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 on 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. This 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. Lacking 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 should 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.

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Michael Levin teaches Philosophy at the City College of New York

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