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Americans agree about government arts funding in the way the women in the old joke agree about the food at the wedding: it's terrible--and such small portions! Americans typically either want to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, or they believe that public arts funding should be dramatically increased because the arts cannot survive in the free market. It would take a lover of the arts who is also a libertarian economist to bridge such a gap. Enter Tyler Cowen. In this book he argues why the U.S. way ...
Americans agree about government arts funding in the way the women in the old joke agree about the food at the wedding: it's terrible--and such small portions! Americans typically either want to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, or they believe that public arts funding should be dramatically increased because the arts cannot survive in the free market. It would take a lover of the arts who is also a libertarian economist to bridge such a gap. Enter Tyler Cowen. In this book he argues why the U.S. way of funding the arts, while largely indirect, results not in the terrible and the small but in Good and Plenty--and how it could result in even more and better.
Few would deny that America produces and consumes art of a quantity and quality comparable to that of any country. But is this despite or because of America's meager direct funding of the arts relative to European countries? Overturning the conventional wisdom of this question, Cowen argues that American art thrives through an ingenious combination of small direct subsidies and immense indirect subsidies such as copyright law and tax policies that encourage nonprofits and charitable giving. This decentralized and even somewhat accidental--but decidedly not laissez-faire--system results in arts that are arguably more creative, diverse, abundant, and politically unencumbered than that of Europe.
Bringing serious attention to the neglected issue of the American way of funding the arts, Good and Plenty is essential reading for anyone concerned about the arts or their funding.
Many of my conservative and libertarian friends find government funding for the arts unacceptable. They note that after the so-called "Gingrich revolution" of 1994, "we were not even able to get rid of the NEA." They speak of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) as the lowest of lows, the one government program that has no justification whatsoever. If such an obvious basket case could survive a conservative Republican Congress, how we can ever hope to rein in government spending?
Most of my arts friends take the contrary political position. They assume that any art lover will favor higher levels of direct government funding. To oversimplify a bit, their basic attitude is that the arts are good, and therefore government funding for the arts is good. They find it difficult to understand how an individual can appreciate the arts without favoring greater public-sector involvement. They lament how American artists are underfunded and undervalued by the state, relative to their western European counterparts.
Why are the two sides to this debate so far apart? How can two groups of people, each well intentioned, look at the same world and see such a differentreality?
That people so frequently disagree is a quandary for social science. We might expect that when a person encounters a disagreement with someone, he or she recognizes that the other person, if sufficiently intelligent and honest, is as likely to be right. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, we cannot all be in the top half of our peer group with regard to wisdom, and presumably we realize this. Furthermore our disputants often have superior training, experience, or raw intelligence. The reality, however, is that convergence of opinion is rare on most political issues. Policy disagreements usually persist, and often deepen, when the individuals engage in sustained personal dialogue. Furthermore the presentation of evidence and the citation of expert opinion usually fail to resolve the dispute.
I write with one foot in the art-lover camp and with another foot in the libertarian economist camp. I try to make each position intelligible, and perhaps even sympathetic (if not convincing), to the other side. I try to show how the other side might believe what it does, and how close the two views might be brought together. Furthermore, I use the fact of persistent disagreement as a kind of datum, as a clue for discovering what the issues are really about.
Except for the 1990s squabbles over the NEA, serious political dialogue on arts policy has simply not taken place. Presidential and congressional candidates prefer not to devote their attention to the issue, except for previous attempts to attack a few controversial grants.
I try to steer the arts policy debate away from its previous focus on the NEA. More significant questions concern the use of our tax system to support nonprofits, creating a favorable climate for philanthropy, the legal treatment of the arts, the arts in the American university, and the evolution of copyright law. I also seek to recast the debate over direct funding of the arts. The central issue is not, as many people suppose, how much money a given governmental agency should receive. It is hard to generate consensus on a question of this kind. Instead a more fruitful inquiry involves what general steps a government can take to promote a wide variety of healthy and diverse funding sources for the arts. For instance should we look more toward direct subsidies or indirect subsidies?
Most of all, arts policy is a window onto how the United States supports creative endeavors. It is commonly believed that we have no arts policy, and on one obvious level this claim is true. No central cabinet-level ministry plans the development of the American arts. At the same time, American governments, at varying levels, have done much to support creative enterprise. The American model arguably mobilizes government more effectively than do many of the European models for arts support. We are further from artistic laissez-faire than is commonly believed to be the case.
I will argue a case for the American system, at least once it is properly understood. The American model encourages artistic creativity, keeps the politicization of art to a minimum, and brings economics and aesthetics into a symbiotic relationship. That being said, the model is not necessarily preferable for all other countries, especially those that trade with the United States and already reap benefits from the American system. Furthermore I do not think it possible to defend each and every aspect of American arts policy. My defense of the American system focuses on the most general features of that regime-capitalist wealth, competitive markets, decentralized and diverse sources of financial support, and indirect subsidies. In the final chapter I also will suggest some means for improving the American system. Insofar as we wish to use direct subsidies, we should restructure them to encourage greater innovation and a greater degree of decentralized support for the arts.
Finally, arts policy brings into relief critical questions in both policy evaluation and political philosophy. Man is not just a thinking being; he is also an imagining being and a creating being. Cultural policy focuses our attention on how we resolve potential clashes between economic and aesthetic values. Here more than just the arts is on the table. Our ability to reconcile economic and aesthetic values is a general prerequisite of rational policy evaluation.
Moving to yet larger questions, we cannot have a coherent political philosophy without bridging the gap between economic and aesthetic perspectives. For instance critics charge that liberalism cannot satisfy the higher aspirations of the human race. They compare liberal government to an innkeeper who looks after his guests but otherwise has little to offer in the way of vision or a common loyalty. On the international scene, the United States is often seen as a military and economic behemoth, but as lacking in concern for cultural values or beauty. I wish to put this picture to rest, and to reclaim America's rightful role in offering a liberal vision for beauty and creative human achievement.
I will use arts policy to begin a new sketch of a liberal state. The public sector can encourage a proliferation of diverse cultural outputs and in that regard offer a rich menu of life-enhancing options. At the same time, we do not have to abandon the values of free speech and neutrality across (noncoercive) competing lifestyles. All this can be done in a manner consistent with prosperity and other economic objectives. A state-in particular the American state-can be involved with matters aesthetic without losing its liberal character. We also will see that, counterintuitively, a rich diversity of artistic achievement is compatible with the ideas of cultural centrality and the use of culture to bind a polity together.
Since the potential clash between economic and aesthetic perspectives is our central motivating concern, let us now turn to it more directly. We will look at policy evaluation at the microlevel, and then throughout the course of the book build back toward larger visions.
Aesthetics and Economics
Neither the aesthetic approach nor the economic approach can stand alone as a tool for evaluating policy. Rather than try to elevate one approach at the expense of the other, I will look for policy recommendations that might reasonably persuade a person who assigned some validity to each perspective-economist and aesthete-at the same time.
The economic approach seeks to give consumers what they want. Many people watch The Sopranos, but few come home and pick up James Joyce's Ulysses after a day of hard work or even after a day of easy work. A book does not have to improve on successive rereadings if it will be read only once. Consumers care mostly about fun and convenience. A survey indicated that 46 percent of Americans would be unwilling to give up television for the rest of their lives in return for a million dollars.
More technically, I define the economic approach in terms of standard microeconomics and Paretian welfare economics. Economists measure value in terms of willingness to pay or willingness to be paid. The aesthetic approach favors products that will "last the ages." It points our attention to study-intensive classics and canonical works. It is harder to point to a single canonical presentation of the aesthetic approach, but I define the aesthetic view as suggesting that quality culture has intrinsic value. Matthew Arnold wrote that "culture is, or ought to be, the study and pursuit of perfection; and that of perfection as pursued by culture, beauty and intelligence, or in other words, sweetness and light."
Under the aesthetic approach the notion of a just and beautiful society is prior to the value of satisfying individual preferences. Often a vision of "cultural democracy" is paramount. Art has elevating and developmental powers, and in this view all democratic citizens have a right to such experiences. Government is seen as capable of carving out a realm for human education and freedom, removed from negative commercial pressures. Without irony Hans Haacke wrote: "If culture is to remain free, we taxpayers must be ready to finance it!"
Under the economic approach, high art is simply another minority taste and holds no special normative status. The economic approach treats the critic as simply another consumer, albeit with different intellectual and material endowments. A particular critic may be a consumer with time on his hands, an academic job, and special training in the classical piano repertoire. For the economist, this point of view is no more privileged than that of the consumer who works two jobs, has three small children, and never finished high school. Willingness to pay, rather than social standing, education, or any other variable, determines how much a person's preference is to be weighted. Along these lines, one study found that the American public had more respect for bus drivers and baseball players than for art critics (or poets, ballet dancers, or professional actors, for that matter).
Often critics include popular culture in their canons. But they still judge popular culture from the perspective of a critic, rather than from the perspective of a consumer. These critics are trying to invest popular culture with the same qualities they have found in high culture. The critical commentary on Seinfeld, for instance, does not pursue the form that fan discussions of the show would take, such as who is the funniest character, whether Jerry and Elaine should reestablish a romantic relationship, or whether Kramer will get a job. It is possible to publish an academic article on "the postmodern in Seinfeld," but not on whether Elaine should have split up with her last boyfriend, although the latter is of greater concern to most of the show's viewers.
By siding with the consumer point of view, economics serves as a radical attempt to demystify the perspective of the critic. That is one reason why critics do not like the economic approach.
The Problem of Commensurability
The aesthetic approach has a hard time making aesthetic values easily commensurable. It is difficult to decide whether Shakespeare's Hamlet is better than his King Lear, and even harder to persuade others of our decision or define what such a ranking would mean. How many Gershwin songs sum up to a Shostakovich symphony? Is a Haydn string quartet better than a Hemingway short story? How does a Blake poem compare to a modern ballet performance? When evaluating a government policy or a cultural era, do we look at the peaks that result, the total amount of art, or some weighted average of the two?
The average quality of output provides an inadequate standard of evaluation. The majority of artistic projects are commercial and aesthetic failures, regardless of the source of funds, the political system, or the time period. We care more about the successes than about the fate of every cultural undertaking. Similarly, we cannot judge government funding, or laissez-faire for that matter, by looking at the median or typical project. Anecdotes of failure can easily mislead. We should not be surprised if a particular system produces much junk and offensive material.
The most common benchmark uses "peaks" to compare one culture to another. Government funding is praised, for instance, for having supported Bach, Velázquez, and Edmund Spenser. The same invocation of peaks has been used to compare "the moderns" to "the ancients." We might ask what modern composer compares to Beethoven or what modern poem measures up to Homer's Odyssey. Or we might ask, "Which age has produced the best symphony?"
Yet the peaks standard demonstrates a potential bias against the market and prejudges significant, and open, aesthetic questions. Why should the greatness of the best composer, or the best poet, be the relevant unit for judging a culture? What if one culture (modernity?) produces lesser creative titans but produces many more of them? How are we to weigh the quality of the peak versus quantity of the total?
It is also an open question what is the right unit for judging a peak. Instead of looking at the highest peaks, we could judge an era by how good its "one hundred best composers" are, or by the aesthetic worth of its "best five thousand hours of music." Or consider a peak of a different kind: "How many excellent musical genres does an age have?" By these standards, contemporary times fare better, vis-à-vis the era of Beethoven, than if we just compare the best composer from each period. We have many talented composers today, in many different musical fields, even though today's best composer is not the equal of Beethoven.
Why the focus on a single artistic work and its greatness? Mozart's Don Giovanni has musical beauty, terror, comedy, and a sense of the sublime, making it a favorite of opera connoisseurs. But what if consumers draw their comedy from one work, their terror from another, their beautiful music from yet another, and so on? Artistic peaks typically bundle qualities together. Yet arguably a world with unbundled qualities is superior, since it allows consumers to pick and choose how much of each quality they want, and from which source.
We cite "peaks" when making an aesthetic assessment because they are relatively easy to observe and talk about. Few individuals know much about eighteenth-century culture except for its peaks. But the peaks standard remains incomplete. The notion of a peak does not correspond to how much aesthetic value is produced in an era or to how much that value is enjoyed.
The economic approach, whatever its weaknesses, has one major virtue. It makes aesthetic values commensurable, at least in principle. Individuals' willingness to pay gives us a standard, however crude, for how many Gershwin songs are worth a Haydn string quartet. So if individuals, taken collectively, are willing to pay $100,000 for a new Haydn recording, and $200,000 for a new Gershwin recording, the economic standard judges the Gershwin disc to be worth more. The economic approach rejects the dominance of aesthetic peaks per se. It looks instead at how much total value is produced, again as measured in monetary terms. Money is not all that counts, but all things that count are measured in terms of money.
The economic method therefore offers a practicable response to the awkward questions of how to define peaks, or how to weight quality versus quantity. This relatively straightforward approach to commensurability, no matter how much it horrifies the art purist, means the economic approach will be invoked repeatedly to adjudicate disputes. Analogously, philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick argued that utilitarianism, whatever its apparent failings, was the only philosophy that could sensibly weigh competing values at the margin. Economics, a modern form of utilitarianism, offers a similar property. Perhaps the economic approach will be battered with telling and persuasive critiques. Yet it will reemerge in some form to address commensurability, even if it does not reign as the sole standard for judging policy.
The economic approach also holds a core of common sense at its center. Art lovers sometimes write or talk as if economic costs do not matter. They tend to evaluate regimes in terms of the quality of the art that is produced, without considering the opportunity costs of that art. More and better art is equated with a better society. We are never told how many bags of potato chips, or how many antipoverty programs, we should sacrifice to receive another great artistic performance, or how we might hope to find out such an answer. The economic approach reflects the view of the common man that art is not everything, or even the most important thing.
Excerpted from Good and Plenty by Tyler Cowen Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 13, 2010
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