02 July 2011

Why the Arts Matter

When it comes to government funding for the arts, self-proclaimed "fiscal conservatives" angrily regard it as a completely unnecessary use of money.  Well, guess what:  They're 100% correct.  Sure, it's unnecessary.  But in every case where someone crunches the numbers, the amount spent on the arts isn't even a rounding error; it's the government equivalent of change between the couch cushions.  Guys, if you're complaining about high taxes, gutting funding for the arts might get you a dollar back.  But that's not a convincing case, is it?  One could say the same thing about the proverbial mayor's nephew's crony desk job.  So, I guess someone needs to explain why the arts matter.

I just moved from Ohio*. You know what Ohio is like? Endless cornfields, endless strip malls, franchise restaurants. The biggest year-round attraction where I lived is a soulless, plastic mall. The downtown is in shambles and the biggest club in town is a redneck bar.  There's an orchestra in the town, I guess, but the only way anyone would mention it would be. . . well, in a response to this post.  If you want a taste of diversity, you have maybe one option and a dozen places that serve steak & potatoes.  It's like living in Brave New World without the sex. This is what happens when culture is purely dictated by the market -- the market has no culture.

Aside from running organizations that are inherently incompatible with profit motive (like a regulatory agency), government is one of the more convenient ways to subsidize unprofitable sectors of society. Just don't confuse "unprofitable" with worthless. Life's more interesting with art in it, and America's hardly starving.** Without the funds to let artists, dancers, musicians, etc. keep doing what they do, you've just got more bored slobs to deflate labor pool wages.  At our current unemployment rate, do we really need more of those? If an artist is willing to do something s/he likes for a pathetic wage. . . hey, I get that it's technically a drag on society, but yeesh, catching the austerity bug over this is like whining that a book in your trunk is slowing your car down. At least they're doing something besides just collecting welfare payments. Yes there are private sources of funding, but be honest here: They're already tapped out, and especially unreliable during times of economic hardship.

On the other hand, if something can make enough money to profit, it'll be done by the private sector without any help because someone will eventually get the brilliant idea to, well, profit off it.  The pop culture side of the "arts" sure doesn't need any help, but that's not what's art funding is for (if government money's going to, say, James Cameron, sure, I'll say we have a problem).  And while the buggy whip industry should expect to collapse without any government intervention, it's in society's best interest to at least preserve something with historical or cultural significance, such as the first buggy whip factory. Turn it into a museum or something so it has a revenue stream so it's not completely funded with taxes, but I personally wouldn't mind if it was subsidized to an extent. I'm certainly not suggesting a significant percentage of funds go to the arts. But that's the thing; the arts don't get a significant percentage of our tax dollars!

I can accept the case that it's a more efficient use of funds if the government gets out of funding the arts. I'd certainly axe all spending for arts if America literally had people starving in the streets. But now? This level of austerity is ludicrous. Be very, very careful what you wish for here.

Long story short:  Government spending on the arts is insurance against your neighborhood turning into fucking Ohio.

*For those of you who are from Ohio and resent this. . . suck it up.  I admit I exaggerated a bit, but if you're going to make the case that Ohio does have culture, then this post was written in the name of supporting the very examples you're inclined to bring up.  If there's an occasion to take an ego hit in the name of progress, Ohioans, this is the moment.

**I'm not saying this to downplay the misery of long-term unemployed individuals, but in terms of economic activity, America is well away from any crisis. Frankly, the suffering here is inexcuseable for precisely that reason; our hardships are entirely due to mis-allocated resources and disregard for the social contract.  Our leaders insist people work for a living, but don't do anything to put people to work. We don't have a food shortage, so we might as well pay our artists to do what they do.  That puts them to work in their own way, and as the unemployment rate indicates, we don't need more cogs!