The Arts & Funding

Revered Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently articu-tweeted his view on funding of the arts in America, in light of discussions about cutting various governmental sources: “We can all imagine a land that provides no support for Art [sic]. But is that a place you’d want to Live [sic]? To Visit [sic]? To Play [sic]?”

Certainly this land without any support of arts whatsoever would be miserable. Thinking about my own consumption of the arts, I realize just how much I’ve relied on them for entertainment and enrichment, just in the last year. In that time, I’ve attended one ballet, three operas, two orchestra performances, a few local indie shows, a couple recitals, visited three art museums, and every weekend at my parish I’m treated to top quality Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and classical masses (not to mention the beautiful stained glass windows, statues, marble altars, and exquisite design elements of the building itself). I also quite enjoy playing guitar, singing, and I’ve dabbled in banjo in the past. There is absolutely zero doubt that I have personally benefitted tremendously by the artistic talents of people around me, even just in this last year, exponentially more if you consider my whole life!

I firmly believe that the arts play a role in making people’s lives not just better in a superficial way, but actually improving individuals as people. It is for this reason that I am against state funding of the arts in any way.

Show me the money!

If this seems like an absurd notion, as it surely does to Neil deGrasse Tyson, then we might have to talk about the word “support.” According to Giving USA, charitable giving reached $373.25 BILLION in the United States in 2015. Of that, $17.07 billion went to Arts/Culture/Humanities (not to mention the billions more that went to “Education”, “Public Society Benefit”, “Religion” or “Foundations”, all of which could share considerable overlap with the arts). These numbers represent a 4% increase in overall charitable donations from 2014, as well as a 6.8% increase for the arts. Of the nine categories used by Giving USA, the arts increase in overall donation amount eclipsed all but “Education” and “International Affairs.” As I said though, consider how much those categories, especially “Education” might share with “Arts/Culture/Humanities.” Does this not qualify as sufficient “support?” Put it in perspective: that $17 billion that went to the arts charitably and voluntarily in 2015 alone, is 30% more than the total capital raised by Goldman Sachs over the five years between 2008 and 2013. Keep in mind, that this money is all in essence “extra” money being given away. It does not take ticket sales for exhibits or concerts, etc into account at all.

I am not quite positive about where this idea comes from that if we don’t use tax dollars to transfer money to orchestras or museums or local arts programs, then nobody would take it upon themselves to develop artistic talents. Is there a basis for this? And if it is the case that truly nobody (or at least not nearly enough) would pay their own money to support the kind of art currently being presented in a given community, then how can we really say that it is actually making anyone’s lives better? From my perspective, if people aren’t willing to spend their money on something, then it just isn’t ultimately living up to the standards. As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, there is no real shortage of money in the arts. This leads me to think that if your particular program isn’t being well supported, instead of blaming the government for not subsidizing it, perhaps you should re-evaluate the function that your favored institution is actually serving.

One possible objection to this position is that people who are not well-off still don’t have access to arts. Although I believe that given the vast dollar amount contributed, this problem is largely exaggerated, I concede that there are undoubtedly areas of our country that don’t have a level of access that would lead to true knowledge or appreciation of a given art form. I would answer by saying that this is where the people who see this problem (they are the ones bringing it up after all) are in infinitely better a position to address it locally and immediately than a bureaucracy that can’t act independently. It might take some serious elbow grease and some marketing savvy, you might also have to solicit donations yourself, but if you truly do care about the arts in poor areas, I don’t see why you wouldn’t make the necessary sacrifices.

What about the poor?

Now, some might even say that sure, there is enough money out there and sure, it’s all well and good to tell people to solve their own problems, but at the end of the day the poor are often ignored by society at large and simply lack the resources to create art education programs or buy ballet tickets. Because of this, it’s very unrealistic and insensitive to suggest that they can afford to take the incredibly necessary and precious time away from work and family to focus on other things. This is why we need state intervention here.

Again, I am willing to concede this to a degree too, but still disagree with the conclusion. I think that with any state-imposed arts program, by nature of it not responding directly to particular needs, wants and tastes (i.e. market forces), you can never know if it is actually effective. In worst case scenarios, the art supported by this type of blind, unresponsive system might actually turn people off completely to the artistic world. Think about all the other public services in poverty-stricken areas: do they produce the results promised? I know this is venturing into another debate to a degree, but I simply want to point out that good intentions do not equal good results and frequently produce the opposite when government promises are in the mix.

A just wage for artists

This deviates slightly from the topic of government funding, but one somewhat related final point I want to make stems from an idea presented in Brian Lauritzen’s blogpost. I specifically want to address the following:

Part of the problem facing musicians is their skill set is so highly specialized  From a management perspective, then, why not just cut pay? It’s not like there are that many principal bassoon jobs out there. Where are they going to go?

But that’s precisely why these musicians deserve a fair wage. Out of 313 million people in this country, they are literally one of probably 100 people who can do this job. They’ve been training their entire lives to do it. These musicians uniquely possess the talent, the artistry, and the dedication to skillfully and movingly execute the intricacies of the music of Mozart, Stravinsky, and John Adams. They deserve to be paid like the superstars they are.

The age old question of the “just wage.” Lauritzen suggests that being exceptionally good at something, regardless of whether or not enough other people value it, should determine compensation. Some of you might recognize this sentiment as a derivative of the “labor theory of value.”  I do not intend to go into detail about the economic philosophies for and against this idea (you could spend the rest of your life doing that), but rather let’s look at this kind of situation in practical terms.

In his post he was talking about a strike by the San Francisco Symphony musicians. He suggests that the Symphony should pay them more because of how elite they are at their craft. This sounds reasonable enough. However, given that people like Lauritzen also nearly universally subscribe to the idea that we need to make art more accessible across socio-economic classes, I question how he thinks a pay increase without a corresponding revenue increase will benefit those in society that are commonly thought to not have enough access to these kinds of performances. Wouldn’t this raise have to be accompanied by higher ticket prices to make up for it? The money would have to be transferred from somewhere else; symphonies don’t have an infinite source of funds, especially the San Francisco Symphony, which has run at an operating deficit every year since 2008.

So who makes up that cost? It seems that Lauritzen would prefer to shift the burden either to the government/taxpayers (the issues with which I have already dealt with) or raise prices for their fans, in the process also making it even more unlikely than before for those of modest means to ever be exposed to Mozart, Stravinsky, or Adams. Is it more important to pay elite performers more, or to further make things harder on the poor who show interest in music?

Be the funding you want to see in the world

Honestly, one of the highlights of my week every single week is listening to the choir at my parish on Sundays. It would be a tragedy if we lost them. To try to keep them around, I think putting an hour’s wage of pay into the collection basket is well worth it. If everyone who loves art intensely and passionately translated those feelings into spending their own time, energy, and money for the greater artistic good, I think we’d see a flourishing in theater, music, painting, etc; one that would be personal, tenacious, engrained in our communities, and indestructible. We only get this by voluntary sacrifice and careful attention to detail, not by passing bills off to others who do not share our convictions.