Supporting the arts

Of course government should support the arts.  Unfortunately, as soon as we try to reduce this prescription to specific practices, it gets extremely messy.  What level of government should give what to whom, under what conditions? What government programs, other than writing checks, matter?  The New York Times offers a Room for Debate forum that assembles a bunch of arts advocates, plus a Cato Institute small-government ideologue, for a conversation that consistently, and typically, ignores many of the most important realities and constraints affecting this sector.  Why do smart people leave their brains at the door and get all mooshy and soft-headed talking about art?  Hats off to the Times for running a piece on this important topic, but shame on all the authors for an almost unrelieved collection of fact-free posturing and noodling.  Not that they are unusual in this regard: reading most of what’s written about this issue could make a cynic think none of these people cares enough about art to actually think carefully and do homework.  Sorry; arts policy doesn’t need wooly sentiment, pointing with alarm, doe-eyed begging and whining, or charity-case condescension; it needs the dignity of serious thinking that treats artists and their audience as grownups.

The first thing we don’t hear about is all the art that isn’t what the French call les arts savants: classical music, plastic arts displayed in museums, some borderline forms like jazz and industrial design, and the like.  Implicitly, arts advocates simply put aside all the art created and delivered through the private market, like popular music, movies, and folks getting together to jam and going out in the park with watercolors. This inattention to most art deepens a division between art for the educated and rich and art for everyone, by a nearly congruent division between worthy art and art that doesn’t “count”.  These divisions do not have to coincide: Shakespeare, Verdi, Wagner, and Charlie Chaplin had no trouble connecting with popular and élite audiences with the same works; in fact, Wagner wrote a whole opera to show how cutting-edge artistic innovation and broad appeal are complements.

Identfying “the arts” as what highbrow institutions offer also makes the whole conversation about the supply side, being nice to artists and arts institutions.  Most arts funding gives money to arts presenters and, indirectly, offers art to art consumers. But if you give a concert that a dozen university music professors, a few critics, a charitable funder, and some composers and musicians absolutely kvell over , what have you really done for art, or for that matter for society, if nobody else comes to hear it?  What the arts most need is a demanding, competent, large audience, and supply-side programs aren’t very good for this; in fact, they are quite liable to capture by élites who use the arts to maintain their status. The research on this is long-standing and solid: the most important correlate of consumption of highbrow art is parental introduction to museums, theater, and concerts in childhood.  Not much government can do about that, but the second is introduction to the arts in schools, especially hands-on learning, and the history of the last twenty years has been to trash this entire enterprise as a frill we “can’t afford”, along with physical education and sports for everyone.   Why the things that make life worth living – art and health – are frills or optional in a sane, rich society, and why Venezuela can afford a national network of youth orchestras and we can’t,are mystifying, but here we are.

Desperate for love, arts advocates cleave to the values of the oppressor and try to tell us that art is good for learning math, or for economic growth.  This is a terrible strategy because it devalues art: if going to a concert reduced your math grade on the next quiz, and having a rich artistic life dinged your disposable income by 5%, art would still be a good deal.  It also risks someone noting that actually, good math courses are even better for learning math than Mozart, and a football stadium may be better for local tourism than a museum.

Furthermore, trying to build a local economy on an arts program confronts the all-or-any problem. Any rustbelt factory can convert to making windmills, but most, can’t. Artists flock, for the most part to Richard Florida’s creative-class-friendly places, but almost always in concentrations of which relatively few can supply all of national demand .  Northhampton, Mass, and Beacon, NY, and Marfa, Texas can build an economy or rescue a failing one with art.   But most struggling towns and cities cannot; indeed, only a few can (though that doesn’t mean the others have to go without art). Here I differ with Kelly’s post; encouraging a lively local arts life can’t depend on attracting artists to live and work everywhere; for most places it has to have to do with engagement with art, and encouraging a lot of local amateur participation.

Here we encounter a big difference between plastic and performing arts.  A small city can’t support an opera company or a professional symphony, but it can have a museum, and there is estimable art enough in the storage collections of the big museums in big cities to spread widely across the nation.  If we did that, people would actually look at it, with no perceptible change in the visitor experience of someone going to the Met, as 90% of the works in those collections are never shown.  The entire state of Florida has two (2) Monets for almost twenty million people; Chicago has 33 for eight million, of which six are not on display.

What everyone can engage with now is all art in digital form, which is not just HD opera in movie theaters, but all recorded music, anything in text (poetry, fiction), and video.  No, a recorded opera or symphony concert is not the same thing as a live performance (now that I mention it, why are local musicians bussing tables instead of playing in restaurants?), but it’s a lot closer to that than it is to nothing.  Not a word from our pundits and advocates in the Times about fixing the broken economic model for digital media.  If we figure out how to give non-rival artistic goods away at the correct price, which is free, and pay the creators according to the value they create, a lot of the art crisis would go away.  Not impossible: we do it for parks and sidewalks.

Another problem afflicts performers as a result of our wonderful technology: the positional arms race that allows a few stars to blow everyone else off the ‘stage’.  Our whole art establishment seems dedicated to teaching us that the only art that matters is provided by a few international stars; certainly not anything home-made (have you ever seen a piece of sheet music for sale at the symphony or opera intermission chotchke shop? any art supplies outside the children’s section of the museum store?) nor a live performance by your friends and neighbors.  There is such a thing as artistic excellence, and long may it live, but there’s much more to an artistic life than listening to Placido Domingo sing, and quality of experience is much more dimensional than a linear scale ranking artists or works.

What the Times forum participants either don’t understand or don’t care to recognize is that art is something that happens inside the head of a listener, reader, or viewer. They have not a single word to say about the experience of art consumers, like professors who can have a long conversation about pedagogy without saying a single word about what students do in class or while studying.  If Sonny Rollins plays his sax alone on the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night a solipsistic experience of value to one person has occurred (and nothing wrong with that), but it isn’t art until he shares what he figured out with an audience.  Shared means people not only hear it but engage with it, and engage using not just the notes on offer but all the music its members have already heard. Perception is an active process (like learning) What arts policy needs to address, broadly, is building that personal capital that makes art consumption flower as a collaboration between artist and audience.

This needs to begin with Deming’s rule, “drive out fear.”  The highbrow arts are presented in a way that scares  my students and makes them feel unqualified and unwelcome. My students, Berkeley undergraduates, are headed into our social and economic élite; if they don’t feel entitled to this patrimony, the arts have much bigger problems than cadging grants and subsidies.

A couple of the participants in the panel have nice things to say about the new Brazilian arts subsidy program.  Indeed, the Brazilians understand a lot about the place of art in daily life, and are a lot less uptight about compromising quality for popular appeal, with the result that while a fair amount of schlocky music circulates, they also have national heroes who are world top class artists – and at whose performances people are up on their feet dancing.  If you can get your hands on it, watch Paulinho da Viola circulate effortlessly and comfortably between the concert stage and sitting around a table with his Portela homeboys in Meu tempo é hoje (you can get this delightful movie here).   If you’re in São Paulo, fall down to the Bar do Cidão after ten any evening to hear some fine picking and singing in a set and setting we’ve almost completely lost.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

26 thoughts on “Supporting the arts”

  1. Having watched the ruthless way in which fine arts fascists and their corporate funders destroy other people’s institutions to build their own, I’ve become somewhat jaded about supporting the arts.

    And my wife refused to even talk about moving to Brazil. So I’m stuck.

  2. I once heard public support of the arts described as an essential amenity; that is, in the same way that there are essential services like police and fire, amenities like the arts and parks are also essential.

    I’m not too bothered by the avant garde concert attended by only a handful. In the 1870s, when Monet was starting to do his most important work, the American West was being settled. I picture the people who were there when Colorado became a state, or who fought at Little Big Horn, in front of a Haystack painting and can’t imagine they would understand or appreciate what they were looking at.

    If the job of the artist is to imagine and present to us things that are too terrible or too wonderful for the rest of us to imagine, well, a lot of us are not going to get it right away. Sometimes when I’m helping my kid with his science homework, I marvel at how it took scientists decades, if not longer, to work out something like RNA replication, and here it is, presented in a few paragraphs in a junior high textbook. That’s how it is with the work of experts, in whatever the field, the rest of us lag behind for a while.

    1. Art is more like food than fire services: It’s something so basic that it doesn’t require any government support to exist, it lives and thrives without it. It’s all around us, we’re drowning it.

      What gets the government support is the unpopular art. Each age has it’s art, and if we don’t bang on hollow logs so much anymore, that doesn’t mean we don’t have music. Ditto for symphony orchestras. Wouldn’t be as many of those around if they weren’t government funded, but nobody would lack for opportunities to hear symphony music.

      But the minority who want new symphony music have political clout, so they get to spend other people’s money on it, rather than their own, and salve their consciences by appealing to art, as though what the other people like to listen to isn’t art.

  3. This makes me think of a Mencken essay, which I can’t track down, on amateur chamber music groups, and how cheap and easy it should be to put on small concerts of chamber music.

    Sure, it’s not a big-city, professional symphony–but I would guess that most towns of 20,000 have enough and skilled enough instrumentalists to put on almost any piece of chamber or ensemble music.

  4. Going to a concert — or going out to the park to jam with friends — does something even worse than ding your income by 5 percent. It reduces your propensity to consume the latest disposable crap. Enjoyment (I’m not even going to say “consumption”) of arts (either by attendance or production) is pretty much antithetical to a prepackaged consumer society.

    Meanwhile, I’d go even further than just emptying the basements and attics of “important” museums to fill out the hinterlands. Modern 2D and 3D printing technology can put more-than-good-enough copies of masterworks pretty much anywhere. If you’re going to crowd out local production, at least don’t do it with the stuff that wasn’t good enough for the real cognoscenti.

  5. “have you ever seen a piece of sheet music for sale at the symphony or opera intermission chotchke shop? any art supplies outside the children’s section of the museum store?”
    I once saw a terrific exhibition of stained glass (actually stained plastic) by children, created in an outreach programme of the municipal museum in Gu̩ret Рwhich happens to have a world-class collection of early mediaeval enameled reliquaries.
    This is I agree the exception. A sad example from the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid: they exhibit a beautiful joke piece by Carl André, a 40 cm scaled-down resin reproduction of the Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre shop, spray-painted electric blue. Startling, lovely, and thought-provoking. Also an ideal model for kids to explore. What’s art? Is the reproduction art or just a souvenir? Art – it’s still beautiful. Is there anything wrong with painting it blue? No; the original was brightly painted anyway, the Louvre can make more resin copies indefinitely. The museum hadn’t taken up the opportunity; André’s challenge had become another sacred Art Object.

      1. No, it’s both, and they are complements. There are such things as genius and excellence, and talent is not widely distributed. It’s wrong to dismiss masterpieces and engagement with them in the name of a sentimental egalitarianism, and it’s also wrong to disrespect hands-on engagement by comparison with the creations of real masters.

        1. Now you are messing up a perfectly good ‘bon mot’ with logic and reason.

          My exaggeration aside, I suggest doing more art is something that benefits our hearts. Even if it’s mediocre karaoke after a two drink minimum.

          1. I think I agree that these are two different things. I wouldn’t think you could create art and mentally rank it at the same time, and if you could, wouldn’t that be a sorry state? So there’s performance/creation v. appreciation. Then again, you appreciate difficult tasks a lot more if you’ve tried and failed at them, so there’s that.

  6. Very thoughtful and interesting post, Michael.

    I absolutely agree that we should have a lot more art in the schools. Learning to play a musical instrument while young, for example, can provide pleasure, both in playing and listening, for a lifetime. I don’t see why it needs more justification than that.

  7. Upon Learning that Dorthy Parker
    Is Not in the Norton Anthology

    A poem should never smack of fun,
    it should reek of Augean labor.
    It should make the reader feel real dumb
    and that you’ve done him a favor.

    1. I like the poem, but want to point out that it’s “Dorothy” (with an “o”).

  8. “…Implicitly, arts advocates simply put aside all the art created and delivered through the private market, like popular music, movies…”

    Which is too bad, because it’s possible to argue that it is precisely these arts that receive the largest (implicit) public subsidies through the ongoing extension of copyright protection into infinite time.

    1. they would be making out like bandits except that technology has cracked the enforceability of these grants, so the copyright system now deprives us of efficient access to content without really doing the rent-seekers any good. You can only make money from a copyright if someone is actually paying you for the work.

  9. Excellent, and thought-provoking piece.

    This is such an interesting, complicated subject, and I struggle to get my head around it. I’ve never liked the schism between the fine arts and the popular arts. There seem to be two elements in art that are in opposition to one another: at one end you have what one might call the spark of individual brilliance, and at the other the application of expertise.

    You can of course have both, but it isn’t necessary. There are many well-trained, highly skilled artists who produce nothing interesting. Then there are low-skill savants (I use that word in a somewhat vague sense) who produce timeless miracles.

    Nothing seems to illustrate this better than the dominance of popular music of the 20th century. Most of it is derivative slop, for sure, but there is something about musical expression that so viscerally taps into human emotion. There is a good degree of commercialization that has essentially driven popular taste. But at the same time, there exists an incredible amount of organic expression. I wonder to what extent this is simply due to the innate experience of music, and its ability to be felt with immediacy.

    1. One of my favorite Noël Coward lines, IIRC in Private Lives:
      Two of the principals have just had a very moving scene on a balcony, playing the audience’s heartstrings like a fiddle. At that point an offstage orchestra starts playing Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You”, which has been established as a sentimental trigger earlier. At exactly the right moment, she says “It’s amazing how potent cheap music is!”

    2. Well, as any opera enthusiast will be able to tell you, opera was the popular music of past centuries and was not really different in that regard; the highly perfected performances that we see today do not quite reflect historical reality. For example, “Non più andrai” was played in taverns all around Prague after the Figaro became popular there, and rarely by skilled performers. Mozart famously also completed the overture for Don Giovanni the day before the premiere, so that the orchestra all but had to play directly off the sheets (which didn’t stop the work from becoming a huge, popular success in Prague, too). And if one wants to be honest, pieces such as “Di quella pira” and “Mes amis écoutez l’histoire” were just pure ear candy and crowd pleasers.

      Most operas have been forgotten for good reasons; they were little more than hastily composed light entertainment and didn’t stand the test of time. For example, other then “Mes amis”, the rest of the Postilion of Lonjumeau, while entertaining enough, is not really memorable and there are good reasons why only that one aria is performed somewhat regularly.

      A good example of opera as raw entertainment rather than high art is this performance (including, horror of horrors, a laugh track) of “Largo al factotum” by Hermann Prey (the aria starts at the 2:58 mark if you want to skip the introductory silliness).

    3. Interesting post. I feel that music and cooking are the highest arts exactly because they are something you feel physically in addition to all the aesthetic nerves getting tickled. (That’s not a very good explanation I know.) My guess is some people would say they were the lowest arts just for that reason. Visual beauty is wonderful but other than maybe a really great landscape, viewed in person, it never gets to me anywhere near as much.

      Though otoh, from what I read, some people’s brains are wired such that they see numbers as colors, and so forth, so I shouldn’t assume this is true for everyone. Who knows.

  10. Michael’s comment “a fair amount of schlocky music circulates” is dead true, but so what? I’d rather have a world where an amateur clarinetist can *play* a bandshell series consisting of 50% Leroy Anderson, 20% John Sousa, 20% Johan Strauss, and 10% Steve Reich (of which only the latter is highbrow), then a world in which an amateur clarinetist doesn’t play at all, but sits in the audience of the highbrow touring orchestra (paid for by generous corporate sponsorship). Since private, elite support gravitates towards the high end—art I can observe/watch/hear, but not participate in— government support should start at the bottom, with the amateurs and enthusiasts and educators.

    Look at the LA Philharmonic, for example. If they’re able to attract $250,000+ from Andrew Mellon … do they really need $100,000+ from the NEA? Meanwhile, there are 1000+ community bands and orchestras in the US ( and I’d be surprised if they’d been granted $250,000 taxpayer dollars all together.

    1. You might be surprised. FY 2011 NEA grants to partnership organizations were a bit less than $52M. Some of that money went to community music organizations, and I’m pretty sure it was more than 0.5%. However, a substantial chunk of it went to professional and semi-professional organizations that fill the “highbrow” roles locally.

      But really, I’m in agreement. I would much prefer to see NEA monies go to support local artists than provide the pros the funds to come grace the hinterlands with their presence. Community ensembles are capable of producing music at a very high level. We may not be the Los Angeles Phil (an orchestra I know and love), but we are not necessarily the Concord Town Band of Charles Ives’ imagination, either.

  11. Is the decline in arts education connected to the extreme individualism of modern Gradgrinds? Most artistic effort is inherently collective: music, dance, theatre, cinema. Painting, sculpture, pottery and other applied arts depend on materials and equipment in an obvious way. Only literature meets the lone-genius model of creation and the corresponding atomistic competition model of economic relations, so it survives in the curriculum.
    Of course, in the real job market cooperation with others and respect for tools turn out to be essential, and the school play or concert is better preparation for it than checkbox tests of disembodied “competencies”, among which {pet peeve] orthography – competences – is apparently not included [/peeve].

  12. I would suggest you see WaterFire, the installation by Barnaby Evans, ( ) for a counter example to the elitism you decry. Our favorite response by one of the millions of visitors was: “It’s like it’s art, or something.”

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