Should Government Fund "the Arts"?

No more than they should fund worship.


Editor's Note: This originally appeared at the website of The Economist on August 29, 2012, as part of a debate on public funding of art and culture. Read the full exchange here.

Last year, Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic Party's Senate majority leader from Nevada, attacked a self-evidently heartless budget proposed by the Republican Party which trimmed $61 billion out of annual spending of nearly $4 trillion. He complained that such "draconian" cuts would eliminate federal arts funding and mean the certain death of "an annual cowboy poetry festival" that draws "tens of thousands" of people to his home state of Nevada every year.

First they come for the cowboy poets, Reid seemed to be saying, next they'll come for, what, the San Francisco Mime Troupe (a group previously singled out by Rocco Landesman, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, as also threatened with elimination by budget cuts)? The barbarians were already past the gate, Reid seemed to warn, and the slaughter of innocent cowboy poets was upon us like the Goths upon Rome.

Now that the laughter has died down—it's taken a while and was extended by revelations that Reid grossly exaggerated the number of people attending his beloved high-plains hootenanny—at least two things should be evident even to the most diehard supporter of public funding for "the arts."

The first is that government support of specific institutions or individuals is in no way necessary or sufficient for the production of "art" (however you choose to define that gloriously nebulous term). What more do you need to know than the one point on which Alan Davey and Pete Spence agree: Britain—the very birthplace of Dr. Johnson and Dr. Who—didn't start using serious amounts of tax money to fund art until after the second world war. How did culture in Old Blighty ever survive so long? 

A second point is that governments everywhere are dead broke. Not just a little light on cash until the next payday, but up to their eyeballs in hock for generations to come. It's bad enough that future generations of Americans will be paying off today's tab that we've run up by building bridges to nowhere, waging the war on drugs and bombing Afghan villages into the Stone Age. Should they also have to pay for cowboy poetry and mime shows that they hopefully will never have to actually attend? It's well past time to ratchet down government spending on everything that is not absolutely essential to the political functioning of a country.

That doesn't mean art—or artists—will be starved. In the United States,Americans spend about $150 billion a year on movie and theatre tickets, books, MP3s and the like. Philanthropic giving by foundations and individuals adds another $13 billion a year to that already grand sum. Maybe every quilting bee, experimental opera and short story anthology won't be funded in a world without government subsidies, but out of such tragedies great art might be a-born.

There's at least a third reason to stop state funding of the arts, and it's the one I take most seriously as a literary scholar and writer. In the 17th century, a great religious dissenter, Roger Williams (educated at Cambridge, exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony), wrote the first case for total separation of church and state in the English language. Forced worship, said Williams, "stinks in God's nostrils" as an affront to individual liberty and autonomy; worse still, it subjugated theology to politics.

Something similar holds true with painting, music, writing, video and all other forms of creative expression. Forced funding of the arts—in whatever trivial amounts and indirect ways—implicates citizens in culture they might openly despise or blissfully ignore. And such mandatory tithing effectively turns creators and institutions lucky enough to win momentary favour from bureaucrats into either well-trained dogs or witting instruments of the powerful and well-connected. Independence works quite well for churches and the press. It works even more wonderfully in the arts.

Editor's Note: This originally appeared at the website of The Economist on August 29, 2012, as part of a debate on public funding of art and culture. Read the full exchange here.