While the public and personal goods produced by funding the arts can’t be properly measured, there’s a case to be made in its support.
Growing pressures on government budgets will increasingly strain the private sector. It seems likely that in no area will that be felt more acutely than in funding for the arts. The otherwise execrable 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus rightly identified arts education as the first thing sacrificed by budget-cutting technocrats nurtured on cash-value pragmatism. It seems that the arts are a last order priority, a superfluity, a decadent indulgence in times of scarcity, like giving chocolate bars to starving people.
Indeed, social life is built on the rudiments of order. In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams opined:
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences: the art of legislation and administration and negotiation, ought to take place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other arts. I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
Here Adams identifies the vertical structure of society: the building of a foundation of order that will allow the flourishing of the full range of human activity.
There is no evidence that Churchill, when told that wartime necessities required cutting funding for the arts, responded with “Then what are we fighting for?” Still, the sentiment is a noble one and worth pondering.
In his famous 13th chapter of Book I of Leviathan, leading to the phrase for which he is best known, Hobbes writes, in a vein similar to Adams, about the state of nature:
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
It is, of course, a plea for good politics. But it is also a tacit acknowledgment that the arts are essential to communal life (solitary), enrich our lives in profound ways (poor), refine our sensibilities (nasty), ennoble us (brutish), and make a long life something to be treasured (short).
It is our capacity for imaginative creativity that most separates us from the animals and is our most “godlike” attribute. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, humans first know God as creator and to be made in the image of God means to create. While there is creativity in politics and in agriculture and so forth, it is art that most fully reveals our creative natures precisely because it is a superfluity and because it has no extrinsic purpose.
The tendency to make art manifests itself early in life. Children will frequently sing or hum while they play. Art is the obbligato that enriches experience, it’s the natural expression of human pleasure (in the same sense that God was pleased when looking about the days of creation).
The slaves sang in the fields; workers united in song; crowds sing at soccer games; soldiers march to music – all these attest to our tendency in all circumstances to find the fulfillment of our acts in art and to relieve us of the drudgery that might otherwise overwhelm us. Art elevates, purifies, concentrates, celebrates – it is that to which we aim and that which has no aim beyond itself. Art alone is pure act.
But art, in both its production and performance, requires the talents and the support of the public. The artist cannot live in isolation, for the work always seeks to break forth into the world. It’s as true of the plastic arts as it is of the performance arts. Such “breaking forth” must always carry an element of newness and thus surprise. One cannot predict in advance the effect of the work, nor can one count on contemporary public sentiments to carry the load. Brahms’ first piano concerto opened to boos and hisses, and The Rite of Spring caused rioting in its first audience. Yet both are undisputed masterpieces.
Granted, those giving financial support to artists may often be disappointed in the results. Many a patron of the arts may have felt sentiments similar to Emperor Joseph’s unconscionable complaint at the premiere of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro that it contained “too many notes.”
Funders might shudder at a Mapplethorpe exhibit, or cringe at Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” pray for deafness listening to anything written by Philip Glass, or scratch their heads in bewilderment at the wild bunker experiments of a Pierre Boulez. But on the whole, most arts funding - be it public or private - produces more public good than virtually any other enterprise. Would that the Department of Defense enjoy the levels of success of the NEA.
That said, one of the problems with arts funding, grounded in the very nature of art itself, is that the public and personal good it produces can’t be properly measured. How does one quantify the effect of a public performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony? How can you evaluate the impact of Moby Dick? How does looking at Cole’s The Voyage of Life change the public realm? To ask those questions is to distort the meaning of art itself.
Likewise, it distorts the meaning of art to subordinate it to politics.
While I am not one for doctrines of neutrality in general, with regard to the arts there can be no choice. Because there is both good art and bad art, and given our limitations as human beings, it is hard for us to distinguish the two in the immediate moment, so decisions must be made by those who have spent a lifetime cultivating taste, refining their judgments, and immersing themselves in art. Connoisseurs should be distinguished from philistines and dilettantes, just as art (Monet) must be distinguished from kitsch (Thomas Kincaid).
Arts funders should strive to protect art from the twin dangers of propagandism (those who would use art to an external purpose, which can range from justifying war to thinking it should “teach us morals”) and dilettantism (those who believe that artistic appreciation is purely subjective).
Arts funding should be done with an eye toward preserving its unique idioms. VanGogh’s “Shoes” embody peasant life just as a VanRuisdael landscape does Dutch. Bach frequently incorporated local peasant songs into his cantatas. Mahler drew on the tunes played at a nearby military barracks. Local places all produce their unique way of artistically representing the world.
For that reason, arts funding should seek to be as local as possible, drawing upon a cocktail of local patrons and donors, foundations, and governments.