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.
Arts funding policy has dropped off the national public affairs radar in recent years, and much of the remaining debate continues to take the form of knee-jerk pro and con positions. Economist Cowen (In Praise of Commerical Culture) dismisses such debates at the outset, and goes on to make a case for the current American system, which, unlike the European model, emphasizes indirect, rather than direct, subsidies. Cowen finds that indirect funding-funding arts organizations rather than giving stipends to artists or commissioning works directly-is ultimately beneficial to the development of new artistic forms, and to helping arts endeavors flourish. He devotes significant pages to the history of arts funding in the U.S., including the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, and also devotes a chapter to copyright, in which he argues that the Internet won't make traditional media and cultural forms disappear. Cowen references a range of well-known performers and artists, from Marian Anderson to Metallica, but the book is written as an academic treatise, with all the form and content constraints that that implies. For those truly interested in the state of America's financial relationship to the arts scene, though, it's a fresh approach.
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Princeton University Press
April 16, 2006
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Excerpt from Good and Plenty by Tyler Cowen
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 different reality?
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.