Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Arts Subsidies

So, arts subsidies. Always a contentious issue between Rightists and Lefties, on which my opinion has recently been challenged by a few of my friends. I, of course, welcome the scrutiny - I like my ideas and opinions to be challenged. It is the basis of intelligent, rigorous debate.

I do not support public subsidy of the arts. I find it morally wrong that people being paid minimum wage should have their wages forcibly reduced by taxation in order to fund opera tickets for the middle classes. In response to this, my friends have put several arguments to me. I shall list them below, with my responses.

1. If you subsidise tickets, you'll get more people getting the benefit and therefore not restrict the arts to the privileged.
Maybe, but it doesn't stop the fact that you are taking money off un-privileged people in order to fund the subsidy. Wouldn't it just be better to not take money off those people, and let them spend their money on what they want?

It's the old Leftist argument that energy bills were much lower when the power companies were nationalised. Well, of course they were - they were constantly being bailed out by the taxpayer. We still paid the same price for the energy, we just paid for it in tax rates rather than in energy prices. They're already paying higher prices, it's just that the fact is masked by the opacity of the State.

If people genuinely want to go to the opera, or to art galleries, or to theatre shows or whatever, a few quid on the price of a ticket isn't going to put them off, especially if their taxes have been cut to an extent where they feel they can afford it.

2. There are jobs in the arts and revenue from tourism by the UK maintaining a reputation for the arts.
And the vast majority of those jobs and that revenue would continue, regardless of public subsidy. Everybody in the country would not stop rehearsing plays, or painting pictures, or sculpting, or performing music, just because the Government decided to stop spending everybody's money on pastimes which are enjoyed by the few.

Throughout history, the greatest painters, musicians, composers and sculptors haven't required subsidy from the State. They were commissioned on a private basis to produce their greatest works. Of course, there are a few exceptions - Michaelangelo's work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is probably a good example of a 'publicly funded' work. But for every example of a publicly funded work of art, there are dozens of privately funded ones, ranging from the poorest pianist grubbing out a living in a cafe in Montmatre (Erik Satie) to one of the world's foremost painters taking commissions from some of the wealthiest nobles in Italy (Leonardo da Vinci).

Whichever way you look at it, art has (and, realistically, continues to be) primarily dominated by the private sector. It is an expression of human will and emotion. It doesn't need funding by the Government, and it will continue to thrive without such funding.

3. If there is a good cultural offer, more people come & spend money, keeping shelf stackers employed.
Yes, a small amount of movement of money can cause a snowball effect, and considerably increase the economic activity in the area. This is the rationale behind virtually every State subsidy.

I'm not questioning that this happens. I'm questioning whether it is moral to take money off the poorest in society to fund activities enjoyed mainly by those who are considerably better off, or if that money would be better spent elsewhere. Especially in light of the fact that the arts would most likely continue to happily survive without such subsidy.

4. Public funding supports all types of art forms, not just those enjoyed by the landed gentry.
It is true that a wide variety of arts organisations enjoy public funding. However, that isn't really my argument - in fact, it is part of the problem. Does the Government fund every arts organisation? No. Does the Government fund every type of art? No. It targets its funding to what it considers is best suited to the money.

Which brings us to one of the fantastic things about the arts - they are subjective. Highly subjective. Some people find work by Tracy Emin astounding - I, personally, find it mundane. Some people can't stand Shakespeare - I think some of his works are amongst the finest things ever written. Any kind of art is subject to people's opinion and taste - as to whether it's any good, even as to whether it constitutes art or not.

So, given that art is not so much a question of appetite, but of taste, who the hell are the Government to decide what is art? Who the hell are they to play supreme arbiters of taste, to decide which activities are more worthy than others? Why is opera more deserving of funding than street dance? Why is cubic art more deserving of funding than brass bands? Some people will agree, some people will not. What I disagree with is a small group of people deciding, on behalf of us poor ignorant commoners, what art is. It's patronising, condescending, and smacks of the worst form of hubristic cultural supremacy.

Does this mean I am a philistine? Far from it. I love the arts - anything that takes an inherent ability to produce, or to re-produce, is art. I am a lover of literature, music, drama and art. I just don't necessarily see why the Government should patronisingly deprive people of their own money in order to fund activities that it thinks constitute art. Why not just let them keep it, and spend it on the art that they like?