17 February 2009

Government Funding of The Arts (i)

Some would say that the primary importance of government funding of The Arts lies in freeing the artist from the constraints of the marketplace, hence enabling them do what they want rather than merely doing whatever is going to make them the most money. Advocates of this position can point to copious examples of artworks in all disciplines which alienated audiences of their times only to later become widely acknowledged as masterpieces.

Others (particularly detractors of the avant-garde) argue that artists can't be trusted to create anything worthwhile when decoupled from the demands of an audience. This group also cites copious evidence in the form of great works which were created out of economic necessity and/or narrow stylistic demands, essentially taking the position (though they would never freely admit to it) that the price fetched by a given work of art is the best indication of its inherent quality.

If you couldn't guess, I identify more closely with the first group than the second. However, there's a lot more to it than this simple dichotomy. If the criteria for getting funded are just as artistically shackling as the marketplace yet still without being directly tied to it, then this merely gives us the worst of both worlds. Yet it seems that this is exactly what goes for "supporting" The Arts right now: prospective grantees are handcuffed by a myriad of extra-artistic obligations imposed as a condition of getting funded (usually involving educational outreach), so much so, in fact, that the perceived quality of the work scarcely seems to matter to those granting the money to back it.

If facilitating the creation of the next great masterpiece is indeed the goal, giving grants is a bit like playing the stock market: you look at the past performance of prospective grantees and invest in the ones whose history indicates, somehow, a likelihood of success in the near future. Yet we know from history that the ratio of enduring artworks to forgotten ones is almost impossibly small, and that there are no safe bets in this realm, even among established celebrity artists. When funding thus appears to be wasted even in the eyes of the arts community (i.e. by virtue of the near total neglect of the commissioned work after its premiere), it can't possibly be seen in a much better light by the rest of society.

In a democracy, the government cannot possibly support the "right" artists, whether that be all of them, none of them, or any possible subset. This is what gets detractors of government funding so upset. By the same token, every artist is the "right" artist to support in the eyes of at least one person (themselves), and probably in the eyes of at least a few of their audience members. This is what gets arts advocates so upset.

What is conspicuously absent here is any acknowledgment of the vast diversity encompassed by a term such as "The Arts." Indeed, the political necessity of referring only to "The Arts" generically rather than to specific art and artists is by far the most glaring weakness in the current dialogue, not only because it allows detractors to ridicule government support by cherry-picking examples of frivolous-sounding projects, but because it is quite disingenuous to behave as if one believes all art is created equal in the first place.

This is where the supposed extrinsic values of various arts come into play, as in, "If we cannot agree on which of two Mozart symphonies is the better piece of music, at least we can agree that listening to either of them will make your baby smarter." Such extrinsic values (we'll save discussion of their validity for later) are seductive because they are the only sources of consensus that one can appeal to in art, for no single person truly believes that all art is good aesthetically, even if they'll say so in public to keep from offending others.

The essence of democracy is variously said to lie in rational thought, in compromise, or simply in what's good for the 51%. This is anathema to art. Where artists and audiences compromise, where aesthetic judgments become rational, and where a simple majority opinion is good enough to claim the establishment of a broad consensus, art is no longer itself and has become something else. Whatever conclusion we arrive at through these means with regard to whether or not the government should fund The Arts, we can only hope that art remains in such a condition that either position is problematic. This may be a headache, but it's also a sign of life.

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