Can the government afford to fund the arts?

Munger: No, it cannot. The argument that federal arts funding doesn’t cost much is a foolish one. Most programs don’t cost much on their own. But when we add up all the costs, the budget (and the deficit) is enormous.

The argument is sometimes made that “cultural” funding is good for cities and towns. If so, the cities and towns should decide that they will pay for it. The basic conservative principle is that benefits and funding should be as closely matched as possible, provided that those receiving the benefits have the financial wherewithal to pay. If the benefits are going to the downtown developers and restaurants, then these entities should be willing to pay for the subsidies. If the benefits are for the poor, we are better off giving the money, not the art, to those in poverty.

Hirschfield: The question should almost be, “can the government afford not to fund the arts?” This is a “question of values,” what we as a society value. I believe that the federal and state governments have a stake in funding the arts, just as they have a stake in funding education and exploration, social justice, and protecting citizens.

Art is not a frill. It has always been an important cultural endeavor. We study and admire all cultures through their literature, visual art, and music. Art not only enriches our lives, it’s a record of who we are and what we believe.

Public arts funding is not a waste of tax dollars. It is a relatively small investment with a consistently high return. Money for the arts benefits a variety of businesses. In 1990, for example, I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). I used this money to print an exhibition catalog, and the money reentered the local economy through a North Carolina printer.

Government art budgets are so small that if we did away with them, it wouldn’t make a dent in the federal budget deficit. It’s amazing how much exposure and controversy such a small amount of money creates-it shows how powerful and important art can be.

Does public arts funding make art more accessible?

Munger: The idea that public funding makes art available to everyone is nonsense. Public funding doesn’t reduce ticket prices; it doesn’t affect them at all. Ticket prices are calculated to maximize the revenues of the organization. Lump-sum subsidies don’t change the revenue-maximizing, or profit-maximizing price of tickets.

Public funding does affect the viability of dance, opera, or theater companies and spaces for exhibitions. Suppose that it is true that without public funding many arts organizations might cease to exist. That would surely be sad. But many such “shows” exist just for the wealthy, and exist only because of public subsidy.

The only people who can go to the opera now are the wealthy. Middle-class people don’t value the opera, and cannot attend anyway because the ticket prices are too high. The subsidies offered out of the public purse are classic political transfers from the middle class to the wealthy. The “public access” argument has it exactly backwards.

Hirschfield: The argument that arts funding simply lowers ticket prices so the wealthy can attend performances is troublesome. This is elitist; it suggests that if you’re not wealthy you don’t value the art experience. Before the creation of the NEA, art was extremely elitist. Un-less you lived in a major metropolitan area you had little chance to experience the arts, regardless of your income level. Public funding has placed art in public buildings, parks, and schools so that anyone, at no cost, can experience art.

In 1989, I created a sculptural installation within a 48-foot moving van. I exhibited the work, entitled “Urban Chapel,” in Seattle, Washington. The artwork brought a few moments of quiet contemplation to those who entered the installation. Since the work existed within a tractor trailer, I was able to move the art to other sites in and around Seattle. “Urban Chapel” existed for two months, and more than 5,000 people experienced the piece at no cost to them. A number of public and private agencies funded the project. With a small amount of money, I reached a wide and varied audience. The work wouldn’t have been possible without public art funding.

If public arts funding ceased to exist, would the money come from another source?

Munger: I believe that if public funding were cut off, there would be an outpouring of new contributions and energy from arts supporters. For example, listener donations to WUNC radio increased when its funds were cut. But suppose that public funds would not be replaced by private donations; that means that there are not enough people who care about the arts to want to pay the costs of artistic performances and shows. If this is true, it means that a legitimate threat to the existence of opera, theater, or dance companies, and to the viability of spaces for shows of visual arts, won’t bring new contributions. This has to make you wonder if arts funding is a business that the federal government should be in!

Remember, taxes are funds taken by threat of force from some people, and then translated into a wide variety of services and transfers, many of which go back to the people who paid the taxes. Wealthy people pay a lot of taxes, and they wield a lot of political power. The problem with the arts is that a small group of wealthy, educated people want the rest of the public to pay for their enjoyment. This is an enormous amount of money, per performance, which would be better spent on highways, mass transit, school children, the poor, the sick, or the aged. But none of these other programs are directly enjoyed by the wealthy “patrons” of the arts, so arts funding has a privileged status.

Hirschfield: We’ve already seen the effects of cutbacks in government spending for the arts. Budgets for social programs are also being cut, and corporations are tending to give more to socially geared charitable organizations. Arts organizations are finding that additional funding from corporations does not exist. Furthermore, a company’s decision to fund an arts organization will often hinge on endorsements from regional, state, and federal donors.

Private corporations have specific priorities. Even if we could rely on the corporations, their money has strings attached; it can’t provide artists the freedom that the NEA or state art councils can offer. Corporations have an image to maintain, and they’re going to fund certain types of projects.

If public funding for the arts were cut, would serious art survive in the open market?

Munger: I am always confused by the argument that we need public arts funding to encourage great art. It seems to me there are three kinds of art: Great art (which is great), popular art (some of which is great, and some of which is only good), and politically acceptable art (which is awful).

Now, I don’t know how you create great art. I know that popular art will take care of itself, because that is how you make money. I also know how you create awful, but politically acceptable, art: you have public funding whose allocation is supervised by “judges” or critics. If you want to say critics have more taste about what is “good” art, I may agree with you. But critics are notorious in their inability to recognize “great” art. Juries of critics who enforce standards of taste, fad, or political correctness are actually the bane of great art. Artists who consciously try to win public funding are selling out to the forces of political faddism. Artists should be terrified of enforced “public” taste, whether that taste belongs to the political left, the right, or the dreary center.

Great art of the late 20th century is the art that will make people laugh, cry, or get mad 50 or 100 years from now. I am absolutely confident that I don’t know (and today’s “juries” don’t know) what that great art will be.

Those who favor public funding want to argue that there are great artists whose works are lost, or never attempted, because the market failed them. I want to know how many great works of art have been lost because artists have tried to pursue creatively dead, but politically correct, themes in the pursuit of public funding. Public funding, by its very nature, creates new art that is either inert and lifeless, or shocking, but superficial. Unfortunately, neither the market nor the public can ensure “great” art.

Hirschfield: Public funding gives artists access to the marketplace; it says to them, “it doesn’t matter who you are or whom you know, your product is what’s important.” It gives artists a chance to set aside time to create work and then go to a publisher, museum, or art gallery with an endorsed product. I believe that there’s great art, literature, and poetry out there that is extremely valuable but that won’t ever get a chance in the marketplace. It’s an overly used example, but Van Gogh sold few paintings in his lifetime, and now his paintings are so valuable even museums can’t buy them anymore.

Serious art will survive cuts in public funding. However, opportunities for and access to many programs will decline. All government programs have achievements and failures. The space program, for example, has had its share of successes and tragedies, yet the benefits to our society are innumerable. The same can be said of government funding for the arts. On the whole the NEA and the state arts councils have impeccable track records that few government agencies can equal. It would be a tragedy to lose them.