Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Legal Duty to Fund the Arts?

A report published by the National Assembly of Wales asserts that all local governments should have a legal duty to support art and culture. No clear reason why is given. According to The Stage, the report claims:
“[We] consider that a duty on local authorities to support arts and cultural experiences would entail a requirement for all local authorities to provide a clear account of their existing expenditure on arts and cultural experiences, and the intended outcomes of such expenditure.

“We also anticipate that this would entail minimum standards for the accessibility of arts and cultural activities for people with disabilities.”
Dai Lloyd, a member of the committee that crafted the report, said that "general qualifying criteria" would be established requiring certain subsidy recipients "rise to a certain level of agreed performance, excellence and quality."

A fundamental question that needs to be dealt with is whether such a policy would accomplish its goals. Assuming that the goal of such a policy is to support art and culture, that leaves the targets of the mandate a tremendous problem. It turns out that their is now such thing as "the Arts" with a capital A. Every artistic work is different in some way. Each contributes differently to culture. There are those critics who defended not just the rights but the quality of work by Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Finley. At the same time, there were those who understandably thought that they contributed to further cultural corruption.

It is not at all easy for bureaucrats to establish what constitutes artistic excellence and quality.  A major problem they face is that when a mandate is handed to local governments in a democracy, democratic aesthetic values are expected. As Paul Cantor has explained in a lecture on "The Economic Basis of Culture,"our current system of government arts subsidization in the U.S. requires a rejection of taste. Grant criteria is officially separated from the personal tastes of the grants makers. The illusion is that government bureaucrats can arrive at objective rules about which art that is worth supporting without some aesthetic criteria. If local governments have a duty to support culture, which culture is it called to support?

The above does not even take into account, of course, the moral problem with such a policy. The only way for a government to fund such subsidies is by forcibly taking money from other people. Unless we can identify a Divine right to arts consumption, I fail to see how such subsidies can be justified ethically.

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