The Definition of Good: Why Art Funding Works

Home Is Where the Art Is

Visual Arts Features NEA
The Definition of Good: Why Art Funding Works

If you read Paste, then you care deeply about the culture. Perhaps you’ve heard that Trump and Congress plan to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This has been a long-term goal for the political right, and they’ve failed every time. This go-around, with the White House in tiny, sympathetic hands, there’s a chance they might succeed.

Per the A.V. Club:

The Hill reports that President-elect Donald Trump intends to eliminate the National Endowment For The Arts and the National Endowment For The Humanities, and privatize the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, the government entity that partially funds both NPR and PBS. The cuts, which were hinted at by unnamed members of Trump’s transition team, are part of a so-called “skinny budget” being pushed forward by conservative think tanks, and which is apparently being adopted by the administration, and will remove a whopping 0.02 percent from the $3.8 trillion federal budget.

Reader, you clicked on this article. You probably don’t need convincing that art is worth saving. But perhaps you have friends who are skeptical about the project.

Allow me to present an argument for public funding of the arts. I think it’s ironclad.

1. Art is essential

Let’s begin with the atom of the debate: art is good. There ought to be more of it. This is a self-evident proposition, and I doubt that anybody except contrarians and obvious YouTube trolls will protest it. Art is good, and art goes on.

We have evidence of deliberate, patterned, abstract etchings made by Homo erectus half a million years ago. This notion of art as a luxury—as a commodity for a time of plenty—is make-believe. Art is absolutely essential to us. You know what hominids did, after they’d handled the problems of food, water, and shelter? They made art. That was number four on our big list. We made art before we were even human, before agriculture and the wheel. Art goes bone-deep. A society without creative expression is, in my experience, unheard of. It’s always been a top priority for us.

For all its wonderfulness, art has never been a big-bankroll kind of profession. It is not profitable in the way that law or fishing or piracy is. We can debate why this is, but it’s always been that way.


2. Art needs funding

If you want art to exist, and you agree art is not profitable by itself, then you agree that art should be funded. We fund other essential human needs. To paint or sculpt or make music, food is occasionally required—not often, but regularly enough to avoid the unfortunate “Skeleton period” that poor artists eventually turn to. Art needs a support structure. Michelangelo and Rembrandt survived because they had patrons. Make pretty need food put in mouth.

If we agree that art should be funded, then we only disagree about how it should be funded.

3. The public should fund important matters

We all agree there’s this important body called ‘the public” and that it comes to together to co-exist and fund projects. In the past, this happened through barn-raisings and ten-hour songs to bring the rain down. Nowadays, we still like to give a hand, but mostly we assist through the medium of money. Since you’re reading this on the Internet, a project which was originated and grown by public funding, I assume you agree with this.

There may be some dubious causes you think the government shouldn’t fund, like nuclear missiles or the state of Egypt, but you probably have no problem banking out for fire trucks, highways and the army.

After all, being part of a nation is like being part of a family: we might not like everything our relations spend money on, but we still believe in pooling our dough. I don’t like that my cash funds drone strikes, and I’m not wild about it going to pay for additional security around Trump Tower. But I realize that in a democracy, I have to pitch in. Fair is fair. You don’t take your ball and go home if you lose a game.

If you agree with that, then we’re already in concurrence about public funding. The question is just what the public ought to fund. And here we run into some difficulties, as the professor told the farmer who tried to raise a singing mule. What gets funded and what doesn’t?

4. We should get a lot of bang for our buck

Like all of us, the government is looking for a deal; the best result for its dollar. Social Security is a great deal because for a little tax, the society gets a lot back: old people don’t starve when they can’t work, merchants get a new class of buyers, working parents don’t have to worry about funding their elderly parents, while putting bread on the table for their own children. Likewise, we fund the cops because it’s a pain to go and hunt burglars on our own.

Sometimes you have to put in a lot of money to get a lot of effect. As the Center for Global Development puts it, “In 1966, there were approximately 10 million to 15 million cases of smallpox in more than 50 countries, and 1.5 million to 2 million people died from the disease each year.” For centuries, mankind dreamed of eliminating the disease once and for all. In the 20th century, we finally did it. The World Health Organization went to work, and the biggest donor of all was the United States. “The annual cost of the smallpox campaign between 1967 and 1979 was $23 million. In total, international donors provided $98 million, while $200 million came from the endemic countries.” Smallpox was declared eliminated in 1980. For the cheap price of several hundred million, an eternal plague was banished from the face of Earth.

A bargain is usually a good argument for spending money. Suppose you’re walking down the street and someone is selling legit, real diamonds for a nickel. Perhaps you’re not a person who likes, or even thinks about diamonds, or has no ambition to become rich, or wealthier than you already are.

You would still buy the diamonds. Of course you would. Missing a sale that good is total lunacy. There are additional justifications for purchasing diamonds: you could sell them later for a greater profit; maybe you’ll come to love diamonds once you own a couple; maybe you want to be known as That Clever Person Who Got Diamonds for Practically Nothing. Or perhaps you just have a feeling that a life that includes diamonds is—in some hard-to-explain-way—much, much better than a life without them.

6. Art is actually super-cheap for what you get

The inexpensive diamond deal is the exactly the same bargain the public receives when it funds the arts, except in this case, everybody gets to share the goods. The cost of funding art is very, very low compared to everything else we collectively spend money on. And the result is priceless.

If you’re still opposed to public funding for the arts after all of this, it is probably for two reasons:

A) I don’t like the art the government funds.
B) It costs too much.

The second objection is easily dealt with. Respectively, the arts organizations that Trump suggests cutting cost almost nothing. Philip Bump illustrates this quite well:

If you were at Thanksgiving and demanded a slice of pecan pie proportionate to 2016 NEA spending relative to the federal budget, you’d end up with a piece of pie that would need to be sliced off with a finely-tuned laser. Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three [NEA, NEH, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which The Hill reports is slated to be privatized] programs would be like spending less than $10. adds this footnote:

For comparison, the proposed border wall (which would be, of course, in addition to the wall that already exists) between Mexico and the United States could potentially add up to $38 billion to the debt, according to an MIT Technology Review report — assuming Mexico continues to refuse to fund it.

Each of these three programs received $148 million in 2016. That’s a fragment of a piece of a crumb of a percent of the federal budget. The government spends about $440 Million per year on printing alone. If you’re okay with the government buying paper, you should be okay with them keeping ballerinas from starving.

7. Money is not the same thing as importance

Perhaps you feel that some art isn’t very good. I understand that, because I don’t like every piece of art that gets funded, either. Some of it is silly, and some of it is offensive, and some of it is dumb, to be sure. But don’t the same standards apply to art that is funded by movie studios and wealthy collectors?

Private funding cranks out dumb, silly, and offensive stuff in bulk. The worst movies of last year were Dirty Grandpa, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Independence Day: Resurgence; Zoolander 2. Those were made without public money. In fact, the same proportion of good stuff to okay stuff to bad stuff is fairly consistent across all of art

“Why can’t the market pay for it? Why doesn’t that work?” Because if we’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s that the market is a really bad device for determining what in life has value. Do you expect the same market, which assigns little value to the jobs of workers and sends factories overseas, will be able to decide what art is?

Is popularity the only rule for what makes something good? Is that how it works? Ask yourself, is that honestly how value is determined in the world? Popularity can be decent indicator that something is swell, but it’s not a perfect indicator. The Beatles are the most popular group of all time, and Van Gogh is probably the most popular painter of all time.

But there’s a difference. The Beatles formed in 1960 and got their first hit in October 1962. Van Gogh died obscure in 1890. When other artists think it’s worth their time to forge your work, that’s when you know you’ve hit it big. But serious Van Gogh forgeries didn’t start popping up until the winter of 1927. Did Van Gogh suddenly become a great painter, thirty-seven years after his passing? That would have been a hard trick, for a dead man. The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh was always magnificent, but everyone was clueless.

In the history of the world, haven’t there been lots of people and lots of ideas that have been unpopular, only to be adored later on? Most of you reading this know what it is to love something that is unappreciated by everyone else. If you do, then you probably agree with me that popularity is not the best guarantor of What Matters.

And although there are lot of works of art or creativity that do become popular and beloved, it doesn’t always happen at the right time. The market didn’t pick up Van Gogh when he needed the help, and it didn’t come to rescue the Mississippi Blues Men from poverty, or any one of thousand other cases. The market, and popularity, are not smart ways to pick what art matters.

Poverty helped kill Van Gogh. We’re trying really hard to not kill Van Gogh again.

Humans have been making art for a very, very long time, and we’re still not sure how to tell what will be good. There’s no simple system to explain it. If we knew, we could make great art every time. But we can’t.

We know that it takes all kinds to make the world: our favorite stories are about common-looking people who turn out to be heroes, quite to the surprise of everybody else. If that’s the case, then we need to have a world where all art is encouraged, including art that isn’t popular or profitable.

8. The people who are trying to cut funding are only doing it to score political points

If all of this is true, why is the far right so eager to gut these programs? Symbolism. It’s political football to them.

Philip Kennicott writes in the Post:

The NEA has evolved into an organization that operates and has impact in every state, that has served returning veterans, bolstered state arts agencies and worked with all manner of groups and state and federal partners to build stronger and more resilient communities across the country.
Never mind the role the NEH has played in the creation of documentaries and the education and enrichment of teachers who might not otherwise have a chance to escape the grinding cycle of teaching to the tests, which never stop coming. Never mind that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting creates the best and most enriching programming for children that is widely available without cost to the poor and the isolated.

Art is very, very cheap for us, particularly because that money—which is not a lot, when you’re talking about the budget—is shared among so many people doing so many things. And there’s no mystery about what happens when you have official government funding of art.

Funding art is not some big experimental project, where we don’t know what the result will be. We’ve run this test before. We know the results of this process.

What do you get when you fund the arts? What you get is civilization. That’s been obvious since the dawn of time. The monuments of Greece and Egypt were funded by the government. The rulers of Florence and Rome funded the Renaissance. The Hapsburgs, monarchs of Austria, funded the great composers of the 18th and 19th century. The record is clear.

9. In conclusion

Friends, in closing, let me borrow a page from an old American exemplar, one Gordon Gekko, from a little movie titled “Wall Street.”

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that funding art — for lack of a better word — is good.

Funding art is right.

Funding art works.

Funding art clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the human spirit.

Funding art, in all of its forms — funding writing, funding painting, funding music, funding movies—has marked the upward surge of mankind.

And funding art—you mark my words—will not only save the creative people of America, but that other malfunctioning masterpiece called the USA.

Thank you.

Jason Rhode is a writer from West Texas. It is rumored that he is funded by a global network of shadowy conspirators who may or may not be the Knights Templar and the founders of ABBA. Follow him on Twitter at @iamthemaster.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin