Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Public Art

The controversy over the Smithsonian's recent censoring of an art exhibit has reopened the old debate over public funding of the arts.  For many, art is simply something the government ought not be in the business of funding at all.

A classic liberal response to this is that, by funding art, government is actually giving artists and the public more freedom. So in a completely private market, you would have a lot of forces in pushing down freedom in many ways through private capture of the process (recording industry, galleries, museums, venues, broadcast, promotion, etc.). Of course, these also create a good deal of freedom, as the market drives a lot of innovation and allocates capital to content creators.

But it can also push out innovation, or limit public access. If art is ultimately a commodity, the content can get pressed into "what sells". And if the means and mode of production is tightly controlled, "what sells" is often going to be dictated, rather than a natural expression of popular demand. (How much are Katy Perry or Nickelback genuine artistic expression, and how much are they contrived and highly-produced pop commodities?)

I'm certainly not arguing that all of this is necessarily bad. But, like most liberal concepts of government, the idea is generally that it can provide something additive. So you can still have the cheesy music and television, but that there is a place for public funding of the arts that provides a small amount of liberation from the shackles of market demands. NPR, public television, art grants are all examples of wonderful content that might not be able to survive - or at least not in as rich a form, were it not for government support.

I've known a number of people who play - I guess you would call it - avant garde music. They sacrificed a great deal for their art, knowing that it would never pay the bills. That's fine. But I'd make a principled argument that they should have been able to find some sort of financial support beyond what they were able to find. I'm not sure what this might have looked like, but in principle I don't think it's a bad idea. Geez, universal health insurance would have been great!

In the end I'd just place art in the same vein as a common good such as libraries or parks, that aren't served well enough by an entirely private marketplace. There ought to be at least some level of assistance. The artists and the public I think deserve it and are better off for it.

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