The Vom: A monthly diatribe, rant, provocation against the conventional wisdom
In politics, there are certain lines that, when uttered, mean you can stop listening to the person who’s talking. These lines—and there are many of them—are a clear, unambiguous signal that the speaker has no idea what he or she is talking about.
There are many of these lines: “Marriage has been unchanged for centuries.” “Natural fluctuations of the Earth’s temperature.” Anything with the word “postcapitalist.”
One of the more popular these days is, “We shouldn’t subsidize arts. Let the market decide.”
Ah, yes, the great debate about public money used for the arts. And the eternal argument: If the arts were worthwhile, the market would reward artists with buckets and buckets of cash.
The market! We should just let the market decide the prices and worthiness of entire sectors of the economy. We should just let the market keep the arts—in Minnesota, they’re almost a billion-dollar industry—chugging along.
Is this the same market that is the sole arbiter of the prices and worthiness of agriculture? Because family farmers and agribusiness and ethanol producers and food multinationals all receive enormous quantities of raw, unfiltered money from the government.
Manufacturing—surely, the government doesn’t interfere with this cornerstone of American enterprise! Apart from tax shelters, of course. And sweet land deals and mineral rights leases. And all those other piles and piles of money corporations get from the feds and the states when they threaten to move their shops to Indonesia or China.
Energy, broadcasting, mining, forestry: Every one of these sectors is dependent on shared, publicly held resources that are for all practical purposes donated by the government to private enterprise.
Banking? Investments? Let’s not even start on how wrong the market was there. Those most shining examples of capitalism - saved by the sheer force of the public.
Professional sports? Millions of people watch every weekend and they sell thousands of tickets at a go. These folks must be rolling in money! Surely the market allows them to build their own high-tech stadiums with no help from the... Oh.
So let’s not pretend—not even for a second of the most delusional Ayn Rand-fueled tirade about the evil of taking public money—that there is an American industry that isn’t gleefully benefiting from the intervention of the U.S. government in its markets.
But not the arts. No, the buck stops at the Mapplethorpe exhibit, I’m afraid. The arts alone must compete on sheer merit, on the ebb and flow of supply and demand. Capitalism isn’t acceptable for capitalists themselves, not when there’s a big government safety net to bounce against when they make a few billion terrible decisions, but the arts are sooo different.
Alone in American commerce, the arts—not retail sales, not investments, not transportation—must survive the harshest conditions the markets can create without help, without intervention.
Why are the jobs of ushers, technicians, electricians, box officers, designers, carpenters, and building managers—and all the others who are employed in the arts sector—worthless compared to the jobs of bank clerks and autoworkers?
(Rhetorical question, so I’ll give a rhetorical answer: The reason these jobs are different is akin to the Myth of The Welfare Queen as a reason for welfare reform. Just as anti-public assistance types have to rely on ugly, racist caricatures to sell their casual fiscal cruelty, anti-arts funding types have to rely on ugly, anti-intellectual, often homophobic caricatures to sell their economic foolishness. You can hear them bellow at the rallies, “Who wants to give their tax dollars to a poet from New York City?! He writes about putting things in his—well, I’m not even gonna say, now, y’all, ’cause it’s just not right. No sir, it’s just not right. Now, I don’t know much about that fancy art, but I do know...” blah, blah, blah. And no one, not even arts supporters, often call them on this bullshit.)
(Another aside, sorry: Which is our fault. For people so fixated on the idea of "engagement," artists often do little of it outside of people who already like us. And then we wonder why we suffer the political consequences.)
The good of the one is sometimes the good of the many
The counter to my argument is that the arts aren’t necessary in the same way that food (sold at massive profit with government subsidies) and health care (sold at massive profit with government help) and easy credit (sold at massive profit with government bailouts) and energy (sold at really massive profit with government tax breaks) and the National Football League (sold at massive profit with the government levying dedicated taxes on their behalf) are necessary.
Let’s set aside the fact that the phrase the “the arts aren’t necessary” more or less assumes the American polity has roughly the same spiritual, intellectual, and creative capacity as a lower-end MP3 player. Let’s just take a look at what this unnecessary art gets the economy. Because I’ll grant that a creative piece of work proper (that is, any one particular "vase" or any one particular "play") may not be necessary to a healthy economy. But for a dynamic culture and a stimulated population—the kind of population that will be required to dig this country out of the worst economic crisis of a century—the arts and industries like them are particularly needed. (Editor's note: How many times did President Obama use the words "creative" or "creativity" in his speech Tuesday night to goose the American entrepreneurial spirit?)
If any other industry returned as much to the economy and society as do the arts for every dollar the government invests, every politician and think-tank shill from D.C. to Juneau would be thinking about how to spend more money on the sector, thinking about how to attract more of these types of organizations to their communities. If another industry returned $11 for every dollar invested (as the arts do in Minnesota), no legislator would attempt to drive them out in a fit of faulty pseudo-populist logic and shortsighted self-righteousness. They would not be bidding them such a quick adieu.
What's more, the fiscal miracles arts organizations are able to pull off annually with such minuscule budgets shouldn’t be punished with further cuts. Arts administrators should be flying to Wall Street and Detroit to teach the CEOs of banks and car companies how to do their jobs properly. We should be teaching obscenely expensive seminars to these failed, public-dependent MBAs on how to squeeze every last use out of every last penny they have. Because that’s what arts organizations do day in, day out.
There is no shortage of studies that prove—unequivocally—that arts funding is beneficial to a society. U.S. regions with stronger arts have more dynamic, creative populations. Dynamic, creative populations innovate in many fields. Populations which innovate are rich. Rich, rich, rich, gloriously, sinfully rich. Committing to funding the arts isn’t just a commitment to putting up plays and dance recitals and sculpture. It’s a way that a society encourages and rewards invention.
Funding the arts not only shows that a People thinks big, inspires and is inspired but actually attracts and nurtures people who think big and are inspiring.
Funding the arts not only shows that a culture aspires to something greater than consumption, that the people want to be smarter, wiser, better educated, more aware of the world around them - but actually attracts, nurtures, and helps create a smarter, wiser people (who make better economic and moral decisions).
Funding the arts not only shows that individuals are treated with respect when they say they want to make things bigger, faster, stronger, higher but attracts, nurtures, inspires, and helps drive people who make things bigger, faster, and stronger.
That’s what arts funding does: It's not just a symbol but a way in which Americans can be and are more than a sad collection of automatons who’re bold only when it’s easy. It helps put some life, some aspiration, some ideas behind all that money and labor. It is, in part, what keeps us dynamic and motivated and thinking ten steps ahead. It shows that we don’t think active creativity should be reduced to passive entertainment.
It’s important because, in broad terms, creativity is creativity is creativity. There is not much difference in the spirit behind a civil engineer compared to a pharmaceutical research scientist compared to a playwright. They’re all hunting for something, and they all feed off one another’s discoveries. Go visit any halfway respectable scientific research university town: The majority of them—the people the United States is so proud of for their incredible achievements—embrace the arts.
They understand you can’t separate scientific progress and artistic progress. Neither can you separate economic progress from them, either. Quality of life isn’t measured only by achievements in medicine; it’s measured by achievements in pottery, too.
You absolutely need both on the balance sheet.
So, sure, you don’t have to fund the arts. But when you do, just call it what it is: a cultural revenge killing, not sound fiscal policy. And I can guarantee that, thirty years from now, there won’t be anyone willing to praise that legacy.