What good did funding the arts ever do?


9:59 am - February 18th 2008

by DonaldS    


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So, who wants to hear a joke?

Q: What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?

A: Under anarchism, the poor people get to shoot back.

Boom, boom. I guess that’s more a caricature than a joke, as such. Anyway, I’m not here for the standup. What I want to address is the arts, partly by way of reply to Chris’s post here last week, specifically the estimable libertarian objection to arts funding. In libertopia, arts funding is for private individuals. “There is no such thing as society” (some of them really write stuff like that, non-ironically), so spending on the collective is wasted. Immoral. Theft. In any case, the Dead Hand of the State (10,300 Google hits for a phrase I’ve never heard anyone actually speak) can only have a pernicious impact on private interaction, and what could be more private than art?

Let’s look at some evidence. First stop, Renaissance Florence, for which you’ll need a little background on patronage. You won’t often read that it was the ‘government’ of the city-state that commissioned and paid for such-and-such a painting. If it isn’t a religious order, the name on the contract is usually a Medici. The Medici were the government. They ran the city and taxed as they saw fit; they contracted and extracted, meddled and tinkered, in everything from the design of palazzi to the precise composition of works that appear to us the product of one artist’s genius. It wasn’t unusual for them to insist their kids appeared prominently, or insert their family saints. The grovelling tone of a letter from Fra’ Filippo Lippi to his public–private patron reproduced in this book shows just how much had to be approved, how often the Dead Hand of the client was holding the brush too.

Of course, the great Tuscan artists didn’t work only for the state. Giotto’s triumph was a private job (though he later freeloaded off the people of Naples). Piero Della Francesca did his best work for the Bacci family, but also served as a town councillor; Masaccio for the Carmelites.

Andrea Mantegna, the greatest painter to hail from that flat bit between the Apennines and the Alps, would have found himself even lower down in libertarian esteem. He did more than just cash the odd cheque from Mantua’s ruling Gonzaga dynasty; he worked for them. He was a waged bureaucrat, who according to Evelyn Welch even managed to cadge himself a bit of woodland.

The same pattern is repeated in Northern Europe. From 1512 until his death in 1528, engraver and painter Albrecht Durer made a living scrounging a stipend from the epileptic Emperor Charles V. Instead of going out to find a proper job, he studied Humanism and perspective – as well as Bellini, Leonardo and Mantegna. The waster. Roger Van Der Weyden sponged off the people of Brussels; Burgundian public money supported Van Eyck in Bruges.

But for sheer meddlesome bureaucracy, we need to rewind a couple of centuries and head back to Tuscany. Siena in the 1300s was a civic, republican culture that both nurtured and was nurtured by public art. Almost all funding came from The Nine, elected burghers who ruled the city for one (relatively) enlightened century until the Black Death. Gothic creativity blossomed, in painting and architecture. Forget the Sistine Chapel, Siena’s medieval town hall is the greatest site of public art on the planet – precisely because Simone Martini’s 1315 Maesta and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government was conceived of as public art. Reminders, frescoed on the walls of the council chamber, of the essence of good politics, which for medieval Sienese included justice, trade, concord and cross-dressing dancers in the piazza.

There’s no ducking it: this art wouldn’t exist without state funding. It was paid for by the people of Siena. In any case, at any reasonable estimate of the discount rate, the Sienese have got their money back. Never mind that there’s a world of costs and benefits that we haven’t worked out how to count, yet.

So, where am I going with all this? Here: that there’s a tendency on the ‘free market right’ to think that public choice theory describes the world, rather than just provides a frame in which to sketch bits of it. Say I suggest that the US’s overdependence on private arts funding only produced Regus meeting room pap like abstract expressionism. Or propose the absence of any British art of merit between the Wilton Diptych and JMW Turner for the same reason. Or that it’s the Pre-Raphaelites‘ commitment to art as a public good that makes them the only British movement worth the name. And so on. The world doesn’t work like that. It isn’t that deterministic. Or simplistic: causes and effects, measurable and unmeasurable, public and private, aren’t distinctions that can easily be made when it comes to art. Great art, anyway.

So –

Q1: Is the State’s hand really all that Dead?

Q2: Should we fund the arts?

A: It depends.

Also published here.

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About the author
Donald is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a travel journalist, editor, author and copywriter. In the wake of the 2005 General Election, he co-founded and edited The Sharpener for a couple of years. He writes the occasional book or newspaper article for money, as well as sharing his thoughts here for free. Also at: hackneye donaldstrachan.com
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Story Filed Under: Arts ,b) Topics ,Blog ,Libertarians

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Reader comments


* applause *

There is rather a difference between the Medici or Charles V and an Arts Council committee!
(Or a planning committee responsible for a town hall today!!)
The Medici were indulging their private tastes, albeit with “public” money.
I assume you are not arguing that it was the source of funding which somehow informed their tastes so as to be “better” than those of turn of the century American millionaires?

Meanwhile the Tate Gallery Trustees enrich themselves by getting the gallery to acquire each others’ work…

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article3372204.ece

The US is not “overdependent” on private funding simply by your asserting it.
Are the Met, Whitney and MOMA not equal to the National Gallery and Tates Britain and Modern?
Is the Met Opera not equal to Covent Garden – oh, and cheaper.
Is not NYC theatre equal to London?

#2
>There is rather a difference between the Medici or Charles V and an Arts Council committee

I think you’ll find that committees (and the inevitable scandals that accompany them) were very much part of Medici and Imperial art commissioning. Go and read the sources.

>Medici were indulging their private tastes, albeit with “public” money

That’s so simplistic as to be verging on untrue. And anyway, it conveniently ignores that Brussels and Bruges had city painters, trecento Siena’s civic art culture, etc.

>I assume you are not arguing… US is not “overdependent”…

I refer you to the bit where I say “It’s not that deterministic/simplistic”. I’m not arguing anything of the kind.

>Are the Met, Whitney and MOMA… Is not NYC theatre equal to London?

Well, unlike most commenters on t’Internets, I try to stick to stuff I actually *know* about, so I can’t really comment on any of this. But if your point is that these are equal and equivalent methods of funding the arts, that one has to decide on a case by case basis, not just say stuff like “we should leave it to the philanthropists” or “government should be funding this always”, then we are in agreement. Though of course, American galleries are at somewhat of a disadvantage in that the vast majority of their homegrown art is utter shit. Even their best spent most of his productive time in Europe. Ho hum.

““There is no such thing as society” (some of them really write stuff like that, non-ironically),”

As one of those linked to can I point out that I argue (somewhat forcefully in fact) that there damn well is something as society: it’s just not the same thing as The State.

“You won’t often read that it was the ‘government’ of the city-state that commissioned and paid for such-and-such a painting. If it isn’t a religious order, the name on the contract is usually a Medici. The Medici were the government. They ran the city and taxed as they saw fit; they contracted and extracted, meddled and tinkered, in everything from the design of palazzi to the precise composition of works that appear to us the product of one artist’s genius. It wasn’t unusual for them to insist their kids appeared prominently, or insert their family saints. The grovelling tone of a letter from Fra’ Filippo Lippi to his public–private patron reproduced in this book shows just how much had to be approved, how often the Dead Hand of the client was holding the brush too.”

So your argument in favour of the taxation derived funding of art is that the art we get is that desired by those who dole out the funding, not the art desired by either the artists nor those taxed to provide the money being doled out?

I can’t with a straight face find it within me to call that a strong argument in favour of your position.

Oops – yes , you wrote “say I suggest…”

I hadn’t read it properly.

Now, if only we could shrink the state to the size it was 500 years ago!!

If the state is private property, as it was in parts of medieval Tuscany, what reason is there to consult anyone other than the owners?

#4

>I can’t with a straight face find it within me to call that a strong argument in favour of your position.

Really? That the end (inevitably messy) result is *great art*, ought to be reason enough to see that it is. Thing is, Tim, your theory of the world as measurable, quantifiable, rational, reductionist etc. doesn’t really have a space for stuff that is inherently unquantifiable, unobservable. So you assign it no value at all. Erroneously, in my humble opinion.

>there damn well is something as society

I never attributed that quote to you. I’m well aware of your position.

And, out of interest, why are you Tim Newman? Deed poll fetish?

#1

>* applause *

Thanks, I’m glad you agree/liked it/appreciated something to fill your tea break/none or all of the above.

Yes, me, showing my techno backwardness again.

“Really? That the end (inevitably messy) result is *great art*, ought to be reason enough to see that it is. Thing is, Tim, your theory of the world as measurable, quantifiable, rational, reductionist etc. doesn’t really have a space for stuff that is inherently unquantifiable, unobservable. So you assign it no value at all. Erroneously, in my humble opinion.”

To the first part: yes, some of it is great art. As is what is and has been produced without State funding.

Far from my worldview not having space for what is unquantifiable, unobservable, the existence of those things is exactly what drives my worldview. As Bastiat pointed out, you need to keep a look out for what is invisible. As here.

State funding for art has indeed produced some masterpieces. But we don’t know, and cannot know, what would have been created if that tax money had not been untimely ripped from the pockets of its owners, what it might have fructified into if left with the populace.
All of those things that we have lost are costs to be set aside the admitted benefits of those pieces of art.

You’re pointing to what is extant, gloriously so. I would point to what hasn’t happened to make that possible.

“Thing is, Tim, your theory of the world as measurable, quantifiable, rational, reductionist etc. doesn’t really have a space for stuff that is inherently unquantifiable, unobservable. ”

You are thus making the argument you accuse me of.

State funding for art has indeed produced some masterpieces. But we don’t know, and cannot know, what would have been created if that tax money had not been untimely ripped from the pockets of its owners, what it might have fructified into if left with the populace.

Well, one could look at consumption and make a guess on what the money would be spent on. It would be unlikely it would be spent on public goods.

Isn’t Art a public good?

“Isn’t Art a public good?”

No – good art captures and captivates a public, bad art gets destroyed. What is considered good and bad is just a reflection of the audience’s prejudices and a premonition for the course of their political future.

#8

Yes, Tim, you can go for the classic crowding out argument. And, yep, I dare say in some cases state funding did crowd out private funding. And, as I pointed out, Renaissance artists rarely worked entirely for the state. And I’ll even admit that my very 2 favourite Tuscan pieces outside Siena were private jobs. Though it’s more likely that in a parallel libertopia, all these artists starved to death or died of plague or spent their days churning out Madonnas for syphilitic Dukes.

And I’ll counter with these 2:

1. Almost by definition the civic art of 1300s Siena wouldn’t have happened. Without its civic purpose (and funding) there would have been no ‘civic’ to do art about. Its uniqueness, it’s ‘city-statism’ if you like, as well as the skill of the artists, is what makes it great.

2. We could do an imperfect comparison with what other countries that didn’t expropriate taxes from their citizens to piss away on freeloading painters left by way of an artistic legacy to Europe… How about you go first on that one?

Except don’t… because we’re not going to agree. It’s not that I don’t see the noble logic of your argument. It’s just that I don’t buy the premises of your model.

Forget the Sistine Chapel, Siena’s medieval town hall is the greatest site of public art on the planet

Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. Sitting in Il Campo remains one of my favourite all time holiday experiences, just on my owm with coffee, ice cream and prints of the frescoes bought from the gift shop on the way out, I spent about an hour just looking at Lorenzeti’s work.

But overall, yes, I concur, the answer is,and always should be, it depends, sometimes it’s great, othertimes those with public funds go over the top.

The real answer of course is to make sure such spending decisions are made as close as possible to the location and commissioned with locally raised money. Victorian towns invested a lot of money into decent statuary paid for by public subscription or out of council funds, civic pride can be a good thing.

With everything, including the Arts Council run from the centre, you get unnacountable and unpopular decisions and that can always be a problem.

something to fill your tea break

Tea break? Lazy arse was in bed. OK, she was wating for me to wake up, but still…

Is music subsidized by the taxpayer? Were the Beatles, Elvis, etc taxpayer funded? Is their work art? How about the top ten films of all time, based on whatever list you care to look at. How many of them were funded out of the public purse? How about novels? Poems? HBO TV shows?

There is so much really great art out there right now that is not funded by the taxpayer that I think it’s pretty obvious that taxpayer funding is not a prerequisite for great art.

There is so much really great art out there right now that is not funded by the taxpayer that I think it’s pretty obvious that taxpayer funding is not a prerequisite for great art.

Yes, but I don’t think that Donald is arguing that point. He is arguing against the point that art should never be subsidised by the state.

It is an argument that I have expressed my problems with on a number of occasions. From a purely personal view — as someone who has worked in (amateur) theatre and who considers himself to be an artist (of sorts) — I do enjoy “art”, however you might define it.

However, the argument is that the state should not use the money of others to fund art that they might consider valid. For instance, I actually view Renaissance art as rather boring; yes, technically it’s well-painted but give me the sculptures of David Smith or Brancusi any day.

Art is such a subjective thing that it is difficult to justify taxing all for the tastes of a few.

DK

P.S. I should point out that the theatre that I worked in received no public funding whatsoever although I admit that, owing to the fact that it was an amateur theatre, costs were considerably lower than a professional one. Having said that, we did churn out about forty productions a year.

And (sadly!) I have never been publically funded — beyond, of course, doing design work (and design is not the same as art) for local councils.

DK

#13

What DK said by way of reply; you’re arguing with shadows on that one.

And:

>Is music subsidized by the taxpayer?

Well, in fact, it is. Every time copyright or intellectual property rights law is enforced to ensure whoever writes the shit for Westlife gets his dollar, something inside me dies. And I have to pay, as do you.

(I’m not arguing either way on the merits of intellectual property, btw, merely pointing out what’s hidden, as seems to be the developing theme of this thread.)

Chris #14

>Art is such a subjective thing that it is difficult to justify taxing all for the tastes of a few.

True, but it’s also such an unmeasurable thing, that to subject it to the kind of cost-benefit analysis that by definition only measures what can be measured, isn’t appropriate either. While we don’t agree on much else, I think we’d both concur that there’s plenty more we could chuck in the bin before we get started on (some) arts funding. Or at least,*reject in principle* the state’s role in funding public art.

And, indeed, what Mat #12 said:

“With everything, including the Arts Council run from the centre, you get unaccountable … decisions”

Meanwhile, in medieval Siena, Duccio’s Maesta was carried through the streets from the artist’s studio to the cathedral accompanied by most of the city-state’s population. More of that, please.

On the basis that taxation provides the mechanism to rebalance invisible costs in order to promote general economy and well-being, opposition to the issue of arts subsidies relies upon the specific blindness to invisible investment costs.

Artists experiment with both form and format, stretching techniques to the limits of imagination, and are vital basic precursor components to any modern industrial sector: –
painters such as Leonardo developed the chiaroscuro technique and materials science (the fame of Mona Lisa’s smile resides in an effect of this), without which there would be no ICI;
Sculpture is the antecedent to architecture, and the best modern buildings are sculptures (many pre-modern buildings are adorned by sculpture) – scaled modelling, by any other name – the two go hand in hand;
Theatre is study and experimentation in behaviour, which laid the roots for much modern social science (the classical links between theatre, politics and philosophy are well established), especially psychology which has lead on to advances in social care and counselling, among other things.

Every area of art leads into the avenues of modern advancement, so it is essential that pioneers are not left to pick over crumbs.

The argument about the commercialism of popular art does not dispute the need to support the experimentalism of an avant garde high art, simply because by the virtue of the method of material consumption (cinema tickets, record sales etc) a pricing mechanism automatically feeds back taxation into the public purse, which a free public museum, library or gallery never will (not even taking into consideration the benefit provided by a public space where interaction is made possible between people and ideas in a structured arena).
As access to the market for newer and less mature artists widens, so too does their ability to survive and develop without subsidy from eg music labels A&R departments or Arts Council grants, but this all depends on their own ability to reach out to and market themselves to an audience.

Of course there is always the problem of accountability, but corruption and fallibility are human traits, so whatever the truth of allegations of illegality over eg Tate trustees willing compliance in manipulating market forces by over-inflating prices of a favoured coterie for personal gain at public expense (re: Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room) the principle of learning through art remains undiminished, just as Tate remains an institution to uphold and fight for.

Art adds the zest to life – just where would we be without it? I mean, I love all art, but that doesn’t mean I like all art, nor should anyone else ever expect to.

This is right here, in the present, not the future.


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