By Isaac Butler
So, in Part I I mentioned that for my next post I'd try to unpack some of Drum's assumptions about direct funding for the arts. I know this is a bit slow and a bt thoroughgoing, but I think in these types of conversations, we tend to talk past each other, so I want to better understand someone's POV before responding to it. Alright, here goes.
As for direct federal subsidies to the arts, I agree with Jon Chait that there really isn't much of a market breakdown here: the current market for art, broadcasting, and entertainment seems pretty robust to me without government help. The United States isn't the Florence of the Medicis, after all.
So what's going on here? What does Drum mean when he says "market breakdown"?
This gets back to what I was saying yesterday. There are certain things that we believe are a public good that the market does not do a very good job of supporting effectively. When that happens, we use the levers of government to subsidize them. So Drum's not saying that art isn't important which is the common argument that we end up arguing against. What he's saying is that the market is doing a good enough job of supporting the arts and therefore, government intervention is not needed. And furthermore, arts patronage is a distortion of what the government should do (hence the Medicis crack.)
I think it is within these arguments that the clearest counter-arguments are available. First off, Drum is simply wrong about the historical background of government arts support, which goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, who subsidized ticket prices for poor attendees of the City Dionysia. Our own public support for the arts goes back to the WPA not the NEA, and several other nations' arts patronage goes back further than that.
Now, there's a counter to the historical argument, which goes along with the Rocco kerfuffle of a few weeks ago, namely that the WPA and then the NEA (with some help from some private foundations like the folks at Ford) did a really good job of creating a burgeoning arts scene, massively increasing both supply and quality of the American arts all over the country and now that that mission is accomplished... maybe we don't need them anymore.
This leads us to Drum's point about a market breakdown. In order to support his point about a market breadown, he lumps together broadcasting, "art" (by which I believe he means studio/visual arts) and entertainment. These, he believes, are doing okay, and therefore don't need government support.
What he leaves out are things like Jazz, "Classical" Music, Theatre, Dance etc. In other words, it may in fact be true that some art forms are supported well by the market. But others are not theatre, the one I happen to know the best, is suffering an insane level of market breakdown. It is simply too expensive to make (most) theater to be able to price it accurately. Even now, thanks to lack of support, it is still overpriced in most major markets.
Furthermore, it's worth saying that (at least in theatre) we are still suffering the aftershocks of the government not making good on its promises in the 1960s. The regional theater system was seeded by the Ford foundation on the promise that it would be watered by aggressive NEA funding. The NEA was supposed to sustain it. It never did. We've been spinning plates ever since. There's a reason why theatre always seems to be in crisis. It was built and designed on certain assumptions that turned out not to be true.
Drum does not appear to be saying that he thinks the arts are only worthwhile if the market will support them. he's saying he thinks that market does support them. If we believe that art is important to society and meaningful and valuable regardless of its capacity to make money or work within a market framework, than at least those art forms that are not well supported by the market are deserving of government support. Furthermore--in terms of artistic quality-- it's important to have a counterweight to the market because it is not necessarily true that what people want to buy is the same as what is artistically valuable.
Also, it's harder to separate out these threads than one would like. The robust film and tv markets, for example, are partially buttressed by having playwrights work on writing staffs, many of whom came up through NEA supported theaters. And film and television work is highly subsidized on the local level through all kinds of tax breaks and incentives used by cities and states used to lure shoots to their areas. Just because you can't see the government support, doesn't mean it isn't there.
Up Next: A Final Post Suggesting What a Response To Drum Might Look Like