Term Paper: Funding or Defunding in the Arts

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Funding or Defunding the Arts

Recommendations on a Proposal to Defund the Arts

This report considers the recent proposal in the House of Representatives to eradicate federal funding for the arts. This proposal cannot be taken lightly, considering that such a move would drastically alter the face of art as we know it in America today. With this in mind, I have presented in this report a thorough consideration of all sides of the issue, including academic theory about the nature and consequences of public art, its functions in the capitalist marketplace and its role in the lives of its creators and its consumers. I also examine recent public opinion about the arts, the role of government in national culture, and the value of public art in the current economic climate. I conclude with Recommendations based on these considerations, and possible avenues of compromise or discussion.

Background

Though it may not be at the forefront of most citizens' minds, the arts play a pivotal role in our lives -- individually, as a culture, and as a species. In order to evaluate its place in the human experience and in the current American landscape, we must first consider what is meant by "art." Though there is much debate about what constitutes good art or valuable art, there are certain characteristics that define art in general. Art is at its root a form of entertainment. Art and entertainment, however, are not synonymous. Entertainment is solely dependent on the experience of the audience; it is defined by its ability to capture and hold our attention in a way that we find gratifying on some level. A piece of music can be entertaining. So too can a joke. The music might be considered art, the joke most likely would not. What, then, distinguishes the two?

Art is marked by three unique characteristics. A piece of art not only demands our attention, but also prompts in us a change. This change can be a spiritual experience in which the art accesses an emotional part of our being normally untouched by the everyday experiences of our lives. Or it can be an intellectual change, in which we are prodded by the art to consider ourselves or our world in a different light and are challenged to reconsider our assumptions. The second hallmark of art is the important role that the creator plays. Art is not just created as an entertainment commodity, but also (and sometimes exclusively) as a personal expression of the artist. Thirdly, and more controversially, art is defined by its ability to transcend its own time and place. In the eyes of many theorists and critics, art should have a relevance that is tied to the universal human experience, and should therefore retain its power and allure across cultures and generations.

Because of its power to transform individuals, communicate ideas, and unite the present with the past, art plays a vital social function in human culture. Some art theorists believe that art, though usually created by an individual, is not limited to being merely an expression of that individual, but is instead an expression of the society in which it is produced. Howard Becker, in his book Art Worlds (1982), contends that no piece of art is the creation of an individual person; rather, all art is the result of the coordinated efforts of a number of people. The cooperation of many individuals, from producers of materials to patrons to consumers, creates what Becker calls an "art world." "Art worlds," he claims, "rather than artists, make works of art" (198).

If we consider art as a sociological phenomenon, as Becker suggests, then we must also consider the implications of this viewpoint for the role of art as a commodity within society. While art as an individual product may have value based on its level of entertainment or its correspondence with the tastes and desires of consumers, art as a social product holds a value beyond what the market dictates. Consider the value of the Statue of Liberty. It has a material value, obviously -- the value of its metals, stone, and even the real estate on which it sits. It has an entertainment value as a tourist destination, and an artistic value as a masterfully-produced image of serenity, power, and stability. It has an historical value as a relic of an earlier era and as evidence of a particular moment in international relations. Beyond all of this, however, is its social value as a national emblem, a touchstone of American patriotism, and a symbol to those in other countries of the possibilities that life in the U.S. might offer. The Statue of Liberty is in this sense a continually evolving work of art, with each sightseer and wishful immigrant contributing to its existence and meaning.

The Statue of Liberty is an example of a "public good." A public good something that is available to everyone and that cannot be consumed. The Statue of Liberty is an obvious example, but other art functions as a public good as well. Art in museums, novels in public libraries, even the music playing in the local grocery store could be considered a public good. It is a good bet that nearly every day we benefit from art as a public good -- we find it on the radio, in the fountains at the town square, in the statues at the local park, and in the architecture of our government buildings.

The question that lays at the heart of the decision to provide or withhold federal funding for the arts is essentially a question of whether or not a certain amount of art should be created and maintained as a public good, and if so, whether it is the role of the state to ensure that this art is available. In order to answer these questions, we must examine the function of art in the marketplace, the function of art as a government-subsidized enterprise, and the emerging technologies and venues that are changing these functions daily.

Art in the Marketplace

There is no doubt that the free market that defines American capitalism has contributed to the vibrant and productive art culture that we now have. As Tyler Cowen points out in Praise of Commercial Culture, the market fuels artistic production by providing financial incentive to producers, widens demand by exposing audiences to more choices, and has drastically reduced the cost of materials for artists. This creative economy is far-reaching, encompassing a large body of workers in manufacturing, transportation, food service, advertising, and many other fields, and accounting for a sizable percentage of discretionary spending among consumers. However, it is a subject of debate whether the free market can sustain and promote an artistic culture that is open to diversity and resistant to the tyranny of the majority.

One potential problem that an art culture governed solely by market forces faces is the gradual demise of the avant-garde. The avant-garde is the artistic community that exists on the margins of culture, separated from the mainstream and often marked by a sense of alienation. Because of their separation from mainstream society, the avant-garde is often responsible for introducing innovative thinking and original creative vision into the art world. This makes them a crucial element of an artistic society, despite their small size and relative obscurity. Though art often looks to the past for inspiration and guidance, artistic innovation is largely responsible for maintaining art as an expression of and influence on current society and culture. In that way, it keeps artistic expression moving forward and pushes techniques and technologies to keep pace.

The difficulty that the avant-garde faces in a free market is that there is no preexisting demand for their new ways of thinking or creating. Unless their artistic innovations are sufficiently tied to mainstream values to appear recognizable and desirable to the consumer, the avant-garde have little chance of finding a foothold in the market. Additionally, they often face discrimination as a result of their marginalized status.

Cowen argues that these difficulties do not necessarily work to the avant-garde's disadvantage. Because these individuals have "less to lose," claims Cowen, they tend to be "more inclined to take risks" (1998, 29). While this may not make them more likely to succeed in the marketplace, it does promote a dynamic and productive culture within the avant-garde that might otherwise not exist. Cowen further asserts that capitalism, while not always favoring the avant-garde, does offer them an opportunity for some success despite "systematic discrimination and persecution" (30). He points to the success of black rhythm and blues musicians in the 20th century, claiming that their independently-created music thrived as a result of ground-level support instead of conventional promotion. He does not consider, however, that the success of many black musicians came only after their music had been assimilated into mainstream culture by white artists like Elvis Presley.

Cowen makes a powerful argument for the role of the market in driving technological advances… [END OF PREVIEW]

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