The final installment in this trifecta of turn-offs deals with the idea of return on investment. In casually following the blogospheric reaction to the threat of cutting NEA funding from the recently passed stimulus bill, I found this study cited more than once by well-meaning commentators, specifically the statistic that every $1 of arts funding returns $7 in revenue to the government.
Artists and audiences alike have long since grown weary of artworks being judged sheerly by the amount of money they fetch. Indeed, in many circles, to express such an opinion would be to mark oneself as a spectacularly naive and shallow observer. Yet when arts funding is in jeopardy, it seems that few are shy about espousing a nearly identical position. Is judging the work by how much people spend on dinner before or after the show really that different from judging the work by what people are willing to pay for it directly? The former may, in fact, be worse, considering that it is even further removed from the audience's opinion of the work itself. What of those who spring for an expensive pre-show dinner only to be thoroughly let down by the evening's events? More importantly, what of art endeavors which don't live up to the $7 standard? Are they inherently less worthy of government support?
It's a long-standing cliche for jazz musicians performing at clubs to complain that in the eyes of the management, "You're just there to sell drinks." I don't think it matters whether those drinks are sold before, during or after the show; the implication is the same. Stomaching such attitudes may be part of life when dealing with booking agents and venue owners, but it shouldn't have to be part of defending the validity of one's life's work in the politcal arena.
I can already hear the reaction to what I've just written: that I'm overreacting, perhaps overthinking also, that arts advocates mean well, that no one's insulting anyone here, and that as long as the NEA funding got put back in the bill, it doesn't matter how it got there. I would be as relieved as anyone if this proves to be an overreaction, but it's hard to ignore the red flags. The first is a familiar one and need not be dwelled on for too long as I've discussed it many times before: in short, none of us became artists because we saw it as a boon to the economy, a way to keep kids off drugs, or any of the myriad extrinsic features so often attributed to The Arts in defense of government funding; more likely, it was just too damn much fun. This is, at the very least, an honesty issue.
But more important than simply disavowing the reliance on extrinsic features in the name of some abstract conception of honesty is to ask whether it is truly in our best practical interests to judge artists and artworks by such features in the first place. In this case, it is most certainly not; in fact, the return on investment standard threatens to become a bludgeon wielded against many of those whom it is disingenuously being used to defend. For example, arts events that take place in dense commercial districts where there are lots of opportunities for audience members to spend money before and after the show would seem to be favored over those that take place in neighborhood galleries or rural areas where few businesses surround the event*. Concerts in bars and restaurants where food and drink are sold would take precedence over those that happen in "performance spaces" where little or no hospitality is offered and a free will donation rather than a flat cover charge is imposed. Visual artists who buy many expensive supplies would be seen as contributing more than than those who work cheaply with found objects. And so on and so forth.
Though the dialogue has been framed to avoid dealing with artworks case-by-case and instead to speak only of "The Arts" generally, this charade can be maintained only for so long. If the return on investment standard is established as a legitimate defense of government funding of the arts, the public interest then becomes to maximize the results by funding the art and artists which promise the greatest return. How long until a subsequent study is released which identifies specific types of arts events as more or less worthy of funding based on their proven return on investment? Perhaps appealing to the generalism of "The Arts" is a blessing in this case as it prevents us from making such distinctions for the time being. However, they can't be far off.
*If you just thought to yourself that audiences buying more gasoline counts as return on investment the same as buying dinner before the show, you and I have some irreconcilable differences.