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David Thompson (and me) against government arts subsidies

Incoming from David Thompson:

Wondered whether the discussion linked here – about art and public funding – might be of interest to Samizdata readers.

Here are some of my objections to taxpayer-funded arts subsidies:

– It is immoral to steal money to subsidise other people’s hobbies.

– The greatest art seems to happen when high art and low art combine, in the form of something that is superficially entertaining and stirring and popular, and also as profound as profundity seekers might want it to be. Arts subsidies harm art by dividing it into less good entertainment art, paid for by punters, and less good high art, paid for with subsidies. Arts subsidies in Britain are now being cut somewhat. The result will be somewhat better art.

– Arts subsidies turn art into political agitprop, in favour of subsidies for art and for everything else that the subsidising classes consider to be worthy, and at the expense of everything productive that the subsidising classes consider to be unworthy. This is why abolishing arts subsidies is politically and ideologically so much more important than the relatively small sums of money involved, compared to other subsidies, would suggest.

If you want more from me about this, see also this and this, from way back.

LATER: … and this, here, quite recently.

20 comments to David Thompson (and me) against government arts subsidies

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    And how about when a whole city is an artwork? Canberra is a planned city, and is actually very picturesque, but all that beauty is subsidised by the taxpayer.

  • Excellent article, Brian.

    An ethical argument, a positive alternative, and a warning of unintended consequences, in accessible bullet point form.

  • Jason

    I went to a Spectator debate last year about public subsidies to the arts, where the case was made that £1 invested in the arts yielded £5 growth in the economy (not exactly sure how – it was never spelled out – but the context suggested the lion’s share of this purported growth stemmed from tourism). If this is true – granted, a big ‘if’ – then it shifts the locus of argument from one about taxation to fund someone’s hobby to one of investment in the economic infrastructure.

  • Paul Marks

    In the “evil” days before taxpayer subsidy for the arts at least one Opera company used to go round on a private train – putting on productions all over the country. That soon stopped after the subsidies started (“impossible” to put on different shows within weeks of each other) and soon that Opera company (the Carl Rosen) no longer existed.

    It is the same with all the arts. We are told that they would not exist without the government subsidies – yet even back in the 1930s (a very depressed period economically) the position of the high arts was vastly BETTER in this country (without taxpayer subsidy) than it is now.

    Our foes sometimes accuse of us being obsessed with theory and ignoring practical experience.

    Yet it is they who ignore both “theory” (i.e. moral principle) and history (practical experience).

  • Arguments for the multiplier effect of arts subsidy (and multiplier effects in general) presume the utter non-existence of opportunity costs. An effect of x5 is a wild claim – studies tend to put the effect of arts subsidies at x1.5 or so – but apart from that, such assertions disregard the question of what activities were not funded, with losses duly multiplied, or the multiplied effect of confiscating the money from the private economy in the first place. With those matters added to consideration, it becomes difficult to think of arts subsidy as a component of economic infrastructure.

  • Franklin beat me to it… yes the ‘multiplier’ claim blithely ignores both opportunity cost and makes the assumption that politically directed ‘investment’ is less likely to be be a mal-investment than an investment choice by a private player.

    Hands up who thinks the evidence is that government functionaries are better at picking winners than other investors?

  • jerry

    Flaw ( one of many ) in my character is the ability to remember something but not be able to remember where I saw / read /heard said item !
    That being said, here goes –

    Art subsidies should be totally abolished.
    If you can’t make a living ‘selling’ your art, maybe you should find another ‘profession’.

    If I can reproduce it, then it’s not art.
    I can reproduce pieces of orange fabric hanging from ‘arches’ in central park. I cannot reproduce the statue of David or the Mona Lisa !!

    Some of us really have no use and very little appreciation for ‘art’. Why the **** should we have to pay for it since, from my ( our ) perspective, it accomplishes nothing ????

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Tourism as a ‘universal’ (i.e., the authorities have no other ideas) economic base fails when every potential tourist is sitting at home in his shop waiting for the ‘other’ tourists to show up.

  • Bill Reeves

    I think we’re thinking about this backwards. Arts subsidies are a very cheap way to keep very destructive personalities busily beavering away on something that is relatively benign. Just think how much better off we’d be had we figured out a way to keep Al Gore, Barack Obama, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown happily beavering away in fingerpaints or twelve tone tinkling.

    Perhaps my aesthetic sense is just anesthetized but I can handle bad art a lot easier than bad social or economic policy.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Come to that, Washington is supposed to be a planned city, a group of artists over the centuries being paid to ‘inspire’ the people who live in it. Does anyone live there who can tell us if it is worth it?

  • Laird

    A nice point, Bill Reeves, but the problem is that we always seem to get both.

  • Jason

    Franklin – after that claim of a x5 multiplier effect was made, one of the speakers on the other side of the debate – I think it was Ed Vaizey – pointed out that, at that rate of return, the government should be pouring billions into arts subsidies.

    Perry – There is one art form government functionaries excel at: http://bit.ly/3IIMut

  • It’s Friday – which is as good a day as any for a bit of art-related comic relief:-)

  • Laird

    Alisa, where I live it’s still Thursday (morning).

  • OMG, I was just telling a friend that it feels like Friday…:-O

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Alisa, don’t be dictated to by Western male-dominated time sequences! If it feels like it’s Friday to you, then it IS Friday! As Einstein pointed out, time is a relative!

  • Well, it certainly is Friday now, so I in the end I win:-O

  • Simon Jester

    Inevitable Heinlein quote: “A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore.”