All Commentary
Friday, April 1, 1988

Who Should Support the Arts?

Mr. Barger was a business writer associated with Libbey-Owens-Ford Company and one of its subsidiary firms for nearly 33 years. He has also appeared in more than 30 amateur plays arid musicals since 1954 and had a small professional role in 1987. He is married to a commercial fashion artist, and their children have art- related educations and interests.

Ask who should support the arts, and the free-market answer should be obvious. The arts should be supported by people using voluntary, peaceful means and processes. At the same time, governments should maintain the same neutrality toward the arts that they’re supposed to show toward religion and the press. This means that people in the visual and performing arts should always have a wide range of freedom in their pursuit of full self- expression. Their artistic freedom re-fleets the liberty any of us should have—and we should defend it. There is almost no justification for governments to shut down a play, ban a book, interfere with a concert, or forbid the display of a painting.

In that same spirit, however, we should not be moving in the opposite direction by making support of the arts a function of government. It’s true that we have been on that road for a long time now. One major turning point was the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965. That has become a $180-million industry with Federal support. Influential voices continue to demand increases in the NEA funds along with more subsidies for the arts by state and local governments.

Any support that’s given, however, is unfair to somebody and results in a misuse of public funds. Despite what its advocates claim for it, government support of the arts is also unlikely to do much for art and for artists over the long term.

We should be able to understand why demands for such support are made—they are often self-seeking efforts by groups of producers and consumers hoping to gain advantages at public expense. The producers include a wide assortment of people believed to possess talent in the various branches of the arts. They are writers, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors, dancers, singers, musicians, composers, and even architects. The consumers associated with them are people devoted to the arts, often as spectators or patrons. Allies of both groups are people who benefit from the arts—communities seeking funds, publishers, teachers, and manufacturers and vendors of supplies.

Buttressed by Shrewd Arguments

These individuals and groups shrewdly base their arguments on points that attempt to place all forms of art in the public interest. One idea is that culture makes us a better society; Federal support is needed to prevent our decline into cultural barbarism. Another idea is that the free market fails to provide outlets for the higher forms of art. A third idea is that the United States has been deficient by lagging behind European governments which support the arts as a matter of course. There is also the myth of the starving artist—if we neglect to support the arts, we will be condemning another van Gogh or Mozart to a wretched existence. It is also generally recognized that many highly talented artists lack commercial aptitude, and this leads to an argument that the public has a responsibility to support them.

We should be careful about buying into any of these arguments. Improving society? Nobody can really show a connection between the higher forms of art and a better society. Market failure? The free market, though scorned by many artists, actually provides handsome opportunities for talented people. Support in Europe? The same European governments that support the arts have been regarded as discriminatory by many groups. Starving artists? We feel guilty about artists who were ignored in their own time, but they could continue to fall through the cracks in a system of Federal support. The personal problems that beset van Gogh and Mozart, for example, would get them in trouble with the government bureaus who administer support to artists today. The artist’s lack of commercial aptitude? Well, many of us are deficient in this respect—but we cover these deficiencies by joining forces with others who possess marketing and administrative skills.

What are some of the problems inherent in government support of the arts? In most respects, the problems are similar to those of excessive government involvement in other activities that ought to be left to voluntary pro cesses. Here are comments about a few of them:

1) Government support of the arts must always be politicized and bureaucratized. One of the curious contradictions of those who demand government support is that they also demand absolute freedom of expression for the artist. They abhor political controls and anything that seems to smack of government op pression. They are also likely to be free spirits who hate following procedures and obeying cumbersome rules. Even the need to prepare the necessary paperwork and compliance forms is often bitterly criticized and resented, though such procedures are a necessity under any bureaucratized system.

The artists who have expectations of support without controls do not really understand the basic nature of government as organized force. Any government, whether communist or democratic, represents political and coercive forces. All the resources and powers of the government tend to be deployed to serve the interests of the political group in control and also to deal with things that threaten the very survival of the state. This is as true of the United States as it is of the Soviet Union. Either type of government must also establish bureaus and procedures for any of its activities, whether it’s running the army or supporting artists. Any decision to make something a government activity is also a decision to place it under bureaucratic management with various controls and reporting methods for measurement of results.

Control Is Logical

Artists chafe under this type of political control, but it’s unavoidable if support is to come from the government. Soviet leaders have been denounced for their heavy-handed control of artists in the past, but it has been entirely logical and proper from their point of view. The Soviet government is criticized for expecting artists and writers to follow the party line in their work. This must always be necessary, even if the party line begins to soften in the eyes of Western observers. But even elected governments must impose “party lines” on artists who receive government support. This control in a democratic society may be hidden and indirect, but it is control nevertheless. One way it is exercised, for example, is in showing a bias for or against certain types of art or expression. Right now, for example, government support of the arts in the U.S. is supposed to favor groups considered to be disadvantaged. Laudable as this aim seems to be, it is a political response, not an objective artistic one.

Support for the arts must also be bureaucratized, subject to detailed rules and regulations. We can be sure that artists and writers in the Soviet Union are carefully controlled and scrutinized by the government bureaucracy which dispenses largesse to them. In the same way, however, government officials in Western societies must maintain some records and controls over artistic ventures. They must follow a policy of covering their own actions at all times. Officials must always be prepared to provide answers for Congressional members to show that funds for the arts are being spent for “good public purposes.” This requires record-keeping, feedback, constant reviews, and all the other tiresome processes that go along with government work.

Captive to Elitists

2) Government support for the arts must be captive to elite groups. One of the arguments for Federal subsidies is that the higher forms of arts do not usually have mass appeal. Why is there no mass appeal? Well, since much art is related to entertainment, this often comes down to what each of us likes to see, read, and hear while we’re being entertained. The American public is often berated because many people are apparently willing to help country singers and romance writers become popular while displaying some indifference toward opera stars and serious writers. This indifference is not absolute, however, and some opera singers and serious writers do acquire a strong following.

One reason country singers and romance writers are popular is that they try harder to please their audiences. But creative and performing people in the so-called “higher” forms of art often convey the idea that nothing can be good if it is popular. Their work is of such high quality and meaning, they feel, that only a few people have the good sense and taste to appreciate it.

These groups of people with elitist ideas are most likely to control government programs for support of the arts. They are the ones most likely to have the required credentials and interests. The artists who have found a good market are more likely to be too busy with their own work to become involved in subsidized programs. The result is that the general public eventually is drawn to support the cultural aims and values of a small group of people.

Sometimes this group seizes control by appearing to defend the artists’ freedom. The National Endowment for the Arts, for example, has “peer panels” which make grant-making decisions to take the purse strings “out of Big Brother’s hands,” Douglas Davis noted approvingly in The New York Times (October 16, 1987). But what does this do except give the peer panel members the power to become Big Brothers in their own way? Given the jealousies and rivalries among artists, there is no peer panel anywhere that can deal fairly and’ objectively with all groups in dispensing Federal grants.

3) Government support of the arts is likely to be inefficient. This is hard to prove, because there is no market test for government support of the arts. Nobody is permitted to make judgments that are in any way related to the “outputs” resulting from certain amounts of “inputs.” In fact, creative people are the first to denounce any control that smacks of cost-efficiency and other measures of the marketplace.

Yet, even people devoted to the arts are finding fault with the actual results of, for one example, the 20-year funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. Hilton Kramer, a former art critic who edited an arts-centered magazine, had this to say about the NEA’s performance:

“In general I would say in so far as the creative side of art is concerned—the quality of what artists in America have actually produced—the Endowment has had absolutely no discernible effect on that whatever.

“It is the institutions that have benefited from the Endowment. The greatest benefit has been enjoyed by their administrative officers. The arts bureaucracy has proliferated to an unprecedented degree.”[1]

It is not surprising that most of the resources for the arts should be consumed by the managing bureaucracy instead of persons designated as recipients. This inefficiency has always been the curse of Federal programs, and newspaper writers seem to delight in pointing it out. Exposing such inefficiencies never cures the problem, though, because it always turns out that the administrative operations are necessary under the circumstances.

The Problem of Defining Art

4) Government programs must define who is an artist.

Who is really an artist? It’s possible that this has been debated ever since artistic expressions began to emerge. In the modern world, this has led to much controversy about abstract art and the value of writing and poetry which nobody seems to understand. But under government systems, judgments have to be made.

In making these judgments, we quickly discover that it is no easy task to define who is an artist, and whose talents or potential merit aid. It often seems brutal when the market for art services rewards one person and seems to neglect another who appears to be more talented. But this brutal verdict of the market seems gentle compared with the arbitrariness public officials have to exercise in selecting those to be helped.

Who should receive help? The truth is, we have people in every society who are capable of artistic expressions. The present author knows a postman who is a gifted actor, an auto body repairman who is a free sculptor, a salesman who possesses an outstanding baritone, and an engineer who is a painter. They found employment outside the art fields, apparently without feeling ignored or put down by society. Though gifted, they are not unusual and any community will have people with similar talents and interests.

Many Forms of Expression Available

How do these talented people express themselves? Most of them have found outlets in amateur or semi- professional activities. They are also capable people who earn a good living in other fields. Far from crippling their artistic expression, their additional work experience augments it. The sculptor, for example, acquired welding skills as an auto body repairman that gave him an advantage in creating metal forms. A number of amateur artists also sell their paintings at art exhibits or through special arrangements with clients. Singers, dancers, and actors find expression through performing groups that seem to be available in most corn-munities. Now and then, an amateur performer moves into professional work as a result of experience gained.

We should not deplore or belittle the modest efforts of local arts programs. Gifted individuals have to start somewhere—perhaps in a community theater or a local writing club. This is the proper place to discover and develop talent. It’s no different from the experience of a major league baseball player who plays his early games on sandlots, or a future National Open golf champion who learns to play on a local course. Talent will usually open its own channels of expression when people are free to choose and free to take actions in their own behalf.

Avoid the Guilt Trap

We can also be made to feel guilty about the seeming selflessness of the gifted artist—a person who places beauty and self-expression above the vulgar interests of the commercial marketplace. It artists are willing to sacrifice everything for their art, shouldn’t ordinary people at least be willing to support them?

This is exactly what fine artists and their advocates want the rest of us to believe. In promoting their arguments about the special nature of the fine arts, they are all too human. It bears repeating that every group of producers and consumers seeks its own benefit. Fine artists want to benefit by creating more demand for their services, while the consumers of fine arts want to shift some of their costs to others. Public aid to the arts meets the objectives of each group and also carries the added advantage of appearing to be in the best interests of society.

Does the market ignore fine mists? The fact is, there are always markets for many talented people at various pay levels. A more serious problem is that fine artists and their supporters ignore the market, or supply their services with such cost inefficiencies that it becomes impossible to attract the right amount of voluntary support.

It has long been known, for example, that militant pressure by musicians’ unions has driven up costs for symphony orchestras in the United States. The result is that admission prices no longer cover costs for most symphony productions and private patrons are balking at further increases in support. Far from taking responsibility for this “market failure,” musicians and their advocates demand increased public support to cover the cost gap! In the fall of 1987, for instance, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra became locked in a bitter labor dispute which resulted in cancelled performances. Musicians had sought a pay increase, but management insisted that orchestra survival required an 11 per cent cut in musicians’ salaries which, for 91 of the 101 musicians, were higher than the minimum $47,320.[2]

Though some scorned this level as too low for highly talented musicians, their situation is not really different from other workers, both blue-collar and professional. Highly trained and talented though we may be, the value of our services is finally decided by what people will pay for them. We become unemployed if we insist on holding our wages above what the market will bring to us. And we are on very shaky ground, indeed, when much of our “market” depends on patrons and grants in addition to ticket purchasers.

Featherbedding on Broadway

Union cost pressures have also been a major problem for many theatrical productions. A typical example of this, reported by Carol Lawson in The New York Times (February 19, 1982), was a requirement that 25 musicians be employed for the Broadway production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” though only nine were needed for the performance! This meant that 16 musicians were called “walkers”—people who were paid but did not perform.

Musicians are only part of the problem with soaring costs for productions. Writing in The Wall Street Journal (August 18, 1987), critic Manuela Hoelterhoff reviewed the expense items that raised the New York City Opera’s costs to $112,452 a day. This compared with a box office gross of $63,503, even at 93.6 per cent of capacity, The cost for a stagehand’s services at the opera are $80,000 a year for a regular employee and up to $150,000 for a department head. Expenses for other items including costumes and props seemed similarly out of control—but were probably justified in the thinking that has come to characterize artistic productions in New York. With revenues covering little more than half the operating costs, it’s small wonder that subsidies are demanded for operatic groups.

Turning Back Is Unlikely

It’s doubtful that there’ll be any early retreat from the art subsidy programs now in operation. The National Endowment for the Arts, for example, is well entrenched, with allies who know how to lobby for its continued support. The other groups demanding and receiving various subsidies also know how to justify their programs.

We should keep in mind, however, that conditions of liberty are most likely to bring the greatest advances in art and artistic expressions. Artists also are more likely to thrive and produce in a society where free-market conditions are active. Though some artists resent the demands and requirements of the marketplace, the best opportunities for real improvements in the arts are provided by a wholly free market.

One of the best examples has been the high employment rate for talented people in the United States. The “starving mist” has been pitied, but the truth is that America offers much well-paid employment for people in various artistic professions. Writing in The Wall Street Journal (November 10, 1987), Economist Randall K. Filer noted that people in artistic categories earned only $750 less than the average for all U.S. workers. Beyond that, employment for artists had grown considerably between 1970 and 1980, and most artists have been able to stay in their own professions.

It’s true that much of this employment is in work that is scorned by some who view it as degrading for a writer to produce advertising copy or for an illustrator to apply his talents to catalogs. In fact, however, talented people who can find these profitable outlets for their services are very fortunate—and they should reflect upon the fact that less developed societies usually have nothing to offer the artist. Even the masters of earlier times were really commercial artists—as anybody can tell by noting that the subjects of great paintings were often members of the nobility who gave the artists employment.

Another important point is that the technological advances of a market-driven economy also benefit the artist. Thanks to many developments, artists now have materials and processes that simply did not exist 100 years ago. Photography, for example, became a new art form that branched into motion pictures and now has added expressions in video productions—all giving artists more latitude and opportunities. Technology has also created new materials for painters and sculptors, new instruments such as the Moog Synthesizer for musicians, and better methods of producing and retaining artistic work. Thanks to technology, future generations will be able to listen to our great singers and see our leading actors on the screen.

The free market also gives artists the opportunity to follow their own aspirations in seeking full expression. The diversity that characterizes the art fields is also a strength. The artist, in order to survive and become recognized, usually needs only the opportunity to seek out a small number of allies and supporters. For a painter, this might mean only a group of local admirers who are willing to buy his work. For a writer, it might mean only a few small magazines who will publish his material or perhaps a shoestring publisher who will risk the money it takes to produce and market a book. For a creative professional person like an architect, all that’s required is one client who is looking for an unusual idea. There is no better example of the last than Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the famous house, “Fallingwater,” in the middle of the Great Depression. There’s little doubt that most builders and certainly any government agency would have scorned his concept of a cantilevered house over a waterfall—but Wright needed only the financial support and approval of his client, Edgar J. Kaufmann, to transform the idea into a spectacular artistic success.

Peaceful Means Needed

The quest of the artist always comes down to freedom of choice—and Ludwig von Mises argued that this could not be available in a so-cialist society. But he insisted that artists have many alternatives under capitalism- -they can seek to sell their work, they can look for rich clients and patrons, or they can support themselves in other ways and pursue art avocation-ally. It is also possible that artists may have some difficulty along the way, but this cannot be avoided. For the artist, Mises thought; “it is impossible to smooth the way that he must tread if he is to fulfill his destiny. Society can do nothing to aid progress. If it does not lead the individual with quite unbreakable chains, if it does not surround the prison in which it encloses him with quite insurmountable walls, it has done all that can be expected of it. Genius will soon find a way to win its own freedom.”[3]

There is also no need to fear for the future of art or individual artists. The human impulses to express in various art forms run deep and have a long history. We know that art was already developing thousands of years ago in primitive societies of hunters and gatherers. No matter where we turn, we will find people expressing themselves as writers, as performers, and as painters and sculptors. As we continue to press ahead in technology and general work becomes easier, there will be more time for the serious artist in every field. There will also be more opportunities unfolding, just as the current century has given more artists employment than at ‘any time in history. The more affluent we become, the more we are likely to appreciate all forms of art and to demand greater artistic expression in all things.

Who should support the arts? The arts should be supported by people using voluntary, peaceful means. All of us help support the arts when we’re seeking entertainment, buying well-designed products, attending a performance, or choosing a book. It’s all part of our human existence—and the best expressions of art are yet to come. The highest and finest expressions will be produced by artists who have the freedom to develop their own gifts as they will. []

1.   Quoted in The Washington Times. September 23, 1985, in an article by Jane Addams Allen entitled “The Arts of Government.” (In fairness to both Mr. Kramer and Ms. Allen, neither should be represented as supporting all the points in the present article.)

2.   The Detroit Free Press, October 4, 1987.

3.   Ludwig von Mises, Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), p. 190.

  • Melvin D. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He has been a contributor to The Freeman since 1961.