Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The arts of being wrong

It isn't often that I disagree with the venerable Dr Crippen, but I am forced to do so on this occasion.
In Arts Angst [Wat Tyler] presents a characteristically well-researched and witty appraisal of the current state of arts funding. Not a pretty picture. The trough is large, and many are feeding.

For once, though, Wat’s conclusion is wrong. He makes the classic mistake of “the false alternatives”.

Let us imagine that the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a country with no arts funding and no health care is down to his last £1 million and faced with a stark choice. Does he build a hospital or an art gallery? The answer is obvious, but the question is irrelevant in a country like the UK. We are not down to our last £1 million. We can do both.

Yes, we can. But why can we do both?

The simple answer is because we tax people far too highly. In fact, as a proportion of income, we tax the poor—those least likely to participate in said arts—rather more highly than the rich. Thus, we extort money from the poor in order to subsidise those activities enjoyed, to the greater degree, by the richer members of the population. In fact, Timmy sums it up rather well.
Let’s get this straight shall we? There shouldn’t be any taxpayer subsidy for the arts. You like it, you love it, great, get out there and do it. If you’re not good enough to draw a large enough paying crowd to make money out of it then you’re going to have to do it for free. There’s really no reason to tax the dustman and the nurse for this indoor relief for that part of the population that likes to show off.

And nor should nice, high-earning, middle-class GPs demand that the dustman or the nurse fund their opera.
Next, Wat will say, “Ah yes, but there are always better things upon which to spend tax payers’ money than theatre and opera.” More difficult to answer in specifics – how do you argue the relative merits of “The Marriage of Figaro” and a heart transplant? - but still the question is irrelevant in a county like the UK. We can do both. The NHS may be in poor shape, the army may be underfunded, MPs may be underpaid – pick your own cause – but all of these problems can be solved without stopping the funding of the arts. It would not be possible to maintain the cultural heritage of this country without some central funding.

First, since when was opera, or indeed, Mozart, part of "the cultural heritage of this country"? You might make that argument about Shakespeare, my dear Crippen, but not for the Marriage of Figaro; nor, indeed, for your Bauhaus architecture or your Kandinskys.

Second, I seriously doubt that the person who requires the heart transplant will see the question as an irrelevance. Of course, your humble Devil would also argue that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should never have to make the decision because the state should be neither building hospitals nor subsidising theatres.

Because you see, I am also fairly certain that even the most ardent Mozart fan would rather have that heart transplant than fund yet another production of Mozart's opus. How many more lives would the Arts Council's £600 million per annum save? What would these people's priorities be?

Central government cannot know, of course. It may indeed be that Mr Mozart-Fanatic-Heart-Transplant might chose to subsidise a performance of the deeply un-British opera over the saving of his life, but might I venture the opinion that he should choose for himself? Might I suggest that, if he wishes this to go ahead, he donates the money that he would have spent on his heart transplant to the National Opera?

Perhaps the good Doctor might consider this when next he has a patient in such a situation?

"I'm sorry, Mrs Miggins, but I am afraid that you are going to die because a performance of The Marriage of Figaro is far more important than your life."

But he does not have the authority—and nor does the damn state—to decide these priorities for people.

I say that we should substantially reduce taxation: if people wish to fund the arts, then they may freely do so. Indeed, I don't really have a problem with the £200 million that the Arts Council receives from the Lottery: these people know the deal and they are freely choosing to attempt to get rich and to fund "good causes". But it is "choice" that is the crucial and operative concept here.

There is another obvious fallacy in Crippen's argument and that is the idea that art would not exist without central funding; it is something that I addressed with, regard to the cut in the NSDF's funding, a few weeks back.
I am sure that the NSDF is a valuable institution: it has been going for 53 years, after all.

Which rather begs the question: since the Arts Council has only been funding them for the last 14 years, what did they do before that?

Art has been around rather longer than organised governments, and what we call "fine art" (as opposed to the daubs of Neanderthals) has been around considerably longer than governments have been funding it.

Or perhaps I am on the wrong side here? I like to think that some of the stuff that I produce—especially that which I do for my own amusement—is art. Would anyone be happy that their taxes were funding my ever bigger and better Macs, or perhaps the software that I use to create these pieces? After all, what is the difference between the art that I produce and that which Mozart produced?—mine is, at least, British.

No. I am quite sure that those who would be happy to fund my scribblings might choose to click on my Donate button; I am quite sure that I would never demand that those who do not wish to pay me to create fund my activities through that money that is extorted from them with menaces.


Newmania said...

You have also not got onto the deadening effect of public subsidy on artistic output. The theatre above all suffers from this with an inability to aract punters regarded as a positive bonus . The evening s i wasted watching self indulgent doddles recitted by naked people hanging from scaffolding.

The BBC has had a similiar effect on mass drama . Pop music is an endlessly reinvented joy . I can see a place for a small cultural fund as an adornement to the nation .

Anonymous said...

Nobody in politics has the guts to say that arts have no place in a government budget - they should be self-sufficient in their entirety. Imagine the outcry if the Government started handing out money to football clubs!!!

Anonymous said...

Well to be honest I'd be quite happy to sacrifice another flashy building filled with canvases of 2 squares and a circle or any of the shite produced by that troll Tracy Emin in order to keep a few more pounds of my salary. I'd even be happy to keep handing over the same amount of my salary but be assured that instead of being able to see a sculpture of 4 artisticly arranged coloroured bricks I would definately be able to get life prolonging drugs should I ever be unfortunate enough to get cancer.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed. The UK punches far above its weight in pop music and West End musicals, despite neither of these are subsidised. Our visual arts, theatre and film industry pretty useless in international terms.

As Theresa Villiers MP pointed out, the £600m that the government spends on film-making luvvies would be enough to pay for four or five free cinema tickets per household per year. I'd rather have the free cinema tickets, myself, but I guess a lot of people would rather have a £25 tax cut. And so on.

Trooper Thompson said...

As Mr Eugenides points out on the earlier post, we're probably talking small beer in terms of overall funding, but I agree with the general sentiment.

With such issues, it's probably best to follow the advice of Ron Paul (on another matter) and let the matter be settled at the lowest level.

It's another indication of the need to reduce central government to (shall we say) a tenth of what it now is. I'd move about 30pc down to a local level (for the time being) and kill the rest - including the Arts Council and all the other quangos.

Roger Thornhill said...

Shortfalls in Army funding is not a cause, but a bloody disgrace.

"The evening s i wasted watching self indulgent doddles recitted by naked people hanging from scaffolding." - Newmania.

I do not call a pole "scaffolding"...

Anonymous said...

It's deliciously simple, and darn clever. This is ultimately all about creating a UK society which is dependent on Government actions. The more people who therefore "work for the government" (or more accurately "work because of the government") are those who are more likley to vote for the continuation of the system.

A growing NHS staff effectively, with vast numbers employed. makes us into a state-run society. An Arts subsidy programme adds to that. Not quite in the way Russia or Cuba is or was, but more like China. State monopoly, with allowing some free-marketing as it suits to earn money.

The problem for guvmint however is the lurch to the crap-logo Olympics. As the 2012 bash sucks up more money the arts people are beginning to fall out of alignment with the Great Plan.

Squander Two said...

I agree with the fiscal points, but you're wrong about British culture. Composing Mozart's works is obviously not a part of British culture. Performing them is.

Anonymous said...

There's another aspect which no one has mentioned. The subsidised arts, despite claims to the contrary, overwhelmingly attract professional audiences. Taxes apply to all classes. Consequently, arts subsidies are a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

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