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Posted at 5:34 PM ET, 02/10/2011

Should the government fund the arts?

By Ezra Klein

Jonathan Chait makes the case against public funding of the arts:

The problem is that art is not like most of the public goods that liberals want government to subsidize. Art is not a giant project like a highway or a national park, something so big that individuals have neither the incentive nor the means to build it on their own. Nor is art a good that ought to be universally enjoyed as a matter of entitlement, like education or health care. (Even if your goal is universal access to art, you don't want the NEA, you want art vouchers for the needy. But that would put the government in the cruelly paternalistic position of requiring the poor to spend money on a symphony instead of food.) Rather, art bears a strong resemblance to the sort of goods that liberals are content to leave to the market, like clothing and entertainment. Art can be produced and consumed by small groups or individuals who are willing to pay for it. People are also willing to subsidize it through their own charitable donations.

I'd be interested to hear what Tyler Cowen, author of a book defending the "indirect" system the United States uses to fund the arts, has to say.

By Ezra Klein  | February 10, 2011; 5:34 PM ET
 
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Comments

Art has most always been insufficiently rewarding to the people who produce it, but immensely beneficial to those who consume it.

Which is why governments from Egypt to Rome to Florence to St. Petersburg to London to Paris to Washington have supported it. Taxes make it available to all, not just to those few who can afford to buy it.

The Arts are one of those activities in which the free market does not perform well, kind of like health insurance.

Posted by: tomcammarata | February 10, 2011 6:05 PM | Report abuse

No. Absolutely not.


Posted by: justin84 | February 10, 2011 6:16 PM | Report abuse

--*Should the government fund the arts?*--

Only the propagandic arts of Ezra Klein, and that it already does admirably, through Kaplan U.

Posted by: msoja | February 10, 2011 6:22 PM | Report abuse

http://www.artsusa.org/information_services/research/services/economic_impact/default.asp

This is the Americans for the Arts economic impact study from 2009.

Posted by: stinapag | February 10, 2011 6:32 PM | Report abuse

All great cultures though the ages have been known for two things: their wars and their public art.

Posted by: pmcgann | February 10, 2011 6:32 PM | Report abuse

I would like to hear the arguments from both sides, but I cannot think of a convincing reason the federal government needs to subsidize the arts. We should ensure there are art programs in schools, but beyond that, the government should not have much of a role.

Posted by: DeanofProgress | February 10, 2011 6:44 PM | Report abuse

"The problem is that art is not like most of the public goods that liberals want government to subsidize. ... Rather, art bears a strong resemblance to the sort of goods that liberals are content to leave to the market, like clothing and entertainment."

So if this is all based on a sociological claim about "the sorts of goods liberals are content to leave to the market," is his claim refuted if I and millions of other liberals support public funding of the arts? It may resemble those other goods in the eyes of a non-liberal, but a liberal who supports arts funding obviously doesn't see them as the same sort of thing. Does that refute his argument, or is there something normative being argued here?

I'm sure he doesn't think that we liberals can't think of any distinctive differences between art and ... hold on, is entertainment not art? And if it is, doesn't that mean that liberals in fact aren't content to leave all entertainment to the market? And for that matter, don't we believe in clothing the poor...?

A sociological claim based on what liberals think -- rather than a normative one that simply argues what we all *should* think -- inevitably runs aground on all these simple logical problems.

Posted by: Ulium | February 10, 2011 8:02 PM | Report abuse

There is one crucial difference between the funding of art in the past and that of today. That funding was done to glorify a god, a government, or a ruler.

The type of government funding today, where money is handed out for the artist to indulge their personal artistic whim, is almost unknown before the 20th century.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 10, 2011 9:23 PM | Report abuse

This discussion is a sad reflection of the state of liberalism today. It is more conservative than a moderate Republican of the 70's. It is appalling how we have come to define freedom in strictly economic terms. I think this definition of freedom is quite compatible with the preferences of Egyptian elites. But for Egyptian people, not so much.

Posted by: mminka | February 10, 2011 10:23 PM | Report abuse

Yes, the government should fund the arts, especially arts education, which has incalculable benefits for children and their parents. And it should encourage grass-roots participation in choirs, eisteddfods ballad singing and the like. There should be government funded orchestras, operas, documentary films, public radio and television, Mexican dancing, chamber music, blue grass, cajun, New Orleans jazz, Delta blues, spirituals, appalachian fiddling, summer Shakespeare festivals and outdoor brass bands. There should be cowboy poetry competitions, square and clog dancing, quilting, ethnic folk arts from the many nations that have come to America, and homemade instrument making.

These thing enhance the morale and mental well being of the citizens and are good for tourism and recreation. If there were generous funding of the arts then I think the demoralization and substance abuse that afflicts our rural areas would be much alleviated. Funding the arts is one of the smartest thing we could do.

Posted by: harold3 | February 10, 2011 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Chait is, as always, glib and interesting but ultimately shallow. "Art" might not be a "giant project," but art museums are, and public buildings which contain public art (sculptures in the lobby, murals on the walls) are.

There are arguments to be made, but Chait glosses over them. His commenters over at TNR seem to have picked up the slack, though.

Posted by: tyromania | February 10, 2011 10:33 PM | Report abuse

harold3

what you wrote, was really moving and beautiful.

Posted by: jkaren | February 10, 2011 10:33 PM | Report abuse

True story. Back in the 1990s Congress commissioned us to do a study and plan on an arts preservation issue. We did so. Then 1994 elections hit but we were actually in better shape because one of the most conservative Republican members of Congress LOVED and understood the nuances of this issue.
So even in the new Gingrich Congress we were a few days away from getting $2 million a year (grossly inadequate but much appreciated) when things went South (not Congress' fault here).

The staff for a VERY effective Repub Member of Congress ( a true legend and one of the best of all time) calls me and say we can't give $2 million a year, don;t want to create a permanent govet program but if you will tell us how much it will take to solve the problem for all time, we will commit to that. So I sent a rather conservative estimate and they blanched at that. And I am not criticizing them (even tho I am a moderate Dem)--this ain't cheap.

Just difficult stuff....

Posted by: sleg | February 10, 2011 11:04 PM | Report abuse

HIstorical and art museums and parks also should be funded.

Posted by: harold3 | February 10, 2011 11:10 PM | Report abuse

As someone who works in professional theatre, I can actually see arguments both ways.

In principle, I say yes. Any government should promote the artistic and cultural well-being of its people. Most industrialized countries DO support the arts....and, in my view, SHOULD. It's another way to promote free speech and a vibrant civil society.

On the other hand, the far-right has so succeeded in neutering the NEA from funding anything remotely interesting or adventurous that the best, most cutting edge art being made in this country these days isn't (and can't be) associated with the NEA.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 10, 2011 11:34 PM | Report abuse

As someone who works in professional theatre, I can actually see arguments both ways.

In principle, I say yes. Any government should promote the artistic and cultural well-being of its people. Most industrialized countries DO support the arts....and, in my view, SHOULD. It's another way to promote free speech and a vibrant civil society.

On the other hand, the far-right has so succeeded in neutering the NEA from funding anything remotely interesting or adventurous that the best, most cutting edge art being made in this country these days isn't (and can't be) associated with the NEA.

The NEA has been reduced to funding Shakespeare productions...and other types of art that have existed for years. So they're not really funding the kinds of things that will advance the arts for the future.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 10, 2011 11:35 PM | Report abuse

As someone who works in professional theatre, I can actually see arguments both ways.

In principle, I say yes. Any government should promote the artistic and cultural well-being of its people. Most industrialized countries DO support the arts....and, in my view, SHOULD. It's another way to promote free speech and a vibrant civil society.

On the other hand, the far-right has so succeeded in neutering the NEA from funding anything remotely interesting or adventurous that the best, most cutting edge art being made in this country these days isn't (and can't be) associated with the NEA.

The NEA has been reduced to funding Shakespeare productions...and other types of art that have existed for years. So they're not really funding the kinds of things that represent our contemporary culture and the future.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 10, 2011 11:36 PM | Report abuse

sorry for the repeat postings folks...accident.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 10, 2011 11:38 PM | Report abuse

Nonprofit arts organizations are a huge economic driver, though they cannot exist by themselves in the marketplace. To quote the arts advocacy group ArtUSA: "The nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year—$63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences." New York, L.A., and all the cities in between would be in bad shape if they did not sustain vibrant arts communities. Local governments do this in many ways, from direct grants to subsidies for artists' housing. Cities and states understand the value of funding arts (though none do so as they once did, given the political climate and dwindling resources).

The arts are also an effective diplomatic tool: the export of our cultural products can have a tremendous impact, as the government-backed selling of American Abstract Expressionism back in the 1950s was certain proof.

The arts are furthermore the soul of a nation. Whoever fails to support their soul ends up ... soulless. So Jonathan Chait is wrong, on three counts.

That said, I agree with holzhaacker. The NEA has been reduced to such a gutless, middlebrow, useless institution, it might as well not exist. It no longer has any role in sustaining the economic potential of the arts, their use in wielding cultural influence in the world, or the maintenance of the nation's soul. Nancy Hanks is probably turning over in her grave and wondering how a glass of urine got us to this point.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | February 11, 2011 12:14 AM | Report abuse

These idiots who want to defund the arts want to get rid of naughty performances and lurid visual art that get their panties in a wad. But you can't just axe that. If you get rid of arts funding, then opera, symphonies, arts education, lit mags, local theatre, art museums and on and on would be decimated or destroyed. You want a culture made of video games and Hollywood and reality teevee, and nothing else? What a stupid country.

Posted by: mminka | February 11, 2011 12:48 AM | Report abuse

Looks as if arts is just another group looking for the redistribution of taxpayers money.

Posted by: gfafblifr | February 11, 2011 7:52 AM | Report abuse

So, certainly there's a role for government in arts education. I guess the question is, does the government want to support support artists as a way to encourage others?

Posted by: ideallydc | February 11, 2011 10:31 AM | Report abuse

"A Defence of Poetry" by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a standard and excellent essay defending not only poetry but all the arts. Look up the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting on the cause.

I never liked Shelley's own poetry, but found this essay resonated even with Texas college sophomores!

Posted by: ecbogle | February 11, 2011 1:02 PM | Report abuse

"If you get rid of arts funding, then opera, symphonies, arts education, lit mags, local theatre, art museums and on and on would be decimated or destroyed."

Really? No one likes these things enough to pay for them? I find that hard to believe. If true, though, that means no one really values these things in the first place.

" You want a culture made of video games and Hollywood and reality teevee, and nothing else?"

My desire for a particular culture doesn't justify my theft from reality TV watchers in order to give to museums the reality TV watchers would rather not attend.

Posted by: justin84 | February 11, 2011 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Though Shelley liked to call himself an atheist, what he is saying here is the standard Christian humanist position as articulated by Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus (but really much older and going back to Plato and Saint Augustine and even Dante). They argued calling themselves (paradoxically) "Epicureans" (really mostly for ironic shock value) that to align oneself with the beautiful and good was the truest source of pleasure.

Posted by: harold3 | February 11, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

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