Art and money
I can’t help it-public subsidy of the arts in Britain makes my hackles rise. I intensely dislike the sanctimonious way in which the arts “community” demands money for itself in order to improve the rest of us. You only have to recall Peter Hall on his tabletop, sounding off against government stinginess and, more recently, embarrassing Chris Smith at a banquet.
Let me remind you of a few facts. For a start, there is more public money (including lottery money) going to the arts than ever before. This money (at least the tax part of it) is not put voluntarily into the public purse; it is extorted by the Inland Revenue under threat of fine or imprisonment. Natural justice requires that there be some connection between the wishes of those whose hard-earned cash has been forced out of them and the use to which that revenue is put. In the arts, because of the nature of the creative process, such a connection is impossible to establish.
This means that the public pays for art it often does not want. This transforms the arts into a kind of job creation programme which has little to do with creativity or the aesthetic needs of a commu- nity. And the justification of arts spending in terms of moral or aesthetic uplift inevitably turns the arts into a species of coerced self-improvement.
The arts, like any other business in society, are selling products. As with other markets, serious distortions occur when governments become involved, frequently to the detriment of the public. Some artists are superior creatures, no doubt, but the process of public subsidy has no accurate means of selecting those who are. It is crude, bureaucratic, often arbitrary, almost always wasteful, and subject to political corruption. (If you doubt that, try obtaining public money from the Arts Council for a project regarded as politically incorrect.)
There is a common-sense brake on spending when you see that your subsidy derives from an identifiable and finite human source, such as a company or a rich individual. Where the disbursement of government funds in the arts is concerned, that brake vanishes, resulting in grotesque cases like Covent Garden, or less expensive projects which consist of little more than arbitrary “underdoggery.”
It is always tempting to throw arrogant people to the Darwinian wolves of the marketplace, even when they are talented…