On Government Sponsorship of the Arts

It was totally inaccessible from the street, which made it all the more ominous. Wish I had a better camera. All week long my regular readers (both of them) have been clamoring for another hilarious, witty, insightful blog post. Unfortunately, I’m the only writer for this blog so they’ll have to make do with this half-assed essay I penned while practicing for the GRE test. Tune in tomorrow, though. I have something special planned.

(The task was to take a position on the subject of state sponsorship of the arts.)

The state is a crucial component in any free market. Without government intervention, monopolies could acquire great swaths of capital and the careful balance of supply-and-demand, represented by price, would be lost. Since Art is not a traditional commodity, it makes sense for the government to provide certain barriers or supports for the marketplace, just as it does for essential services like energy and roads. Furthermore, if Art were left unprotected by government subsidies we would quickly devalue it to the lowest common denominator. Because Art has no “use” value which can be accurately measured, it would exist only to serve other purposes: namely, propaganda and commercialism.

Indeed, throughout history, Art has been supported or repressed by systems of power. The Renaissance could not have existed but for the support of the Catholic Church in Rome, for instance. Likewise, Hitler’s rise to power saw the Nazi destruction of Jewish art and the creation of propaganda such as Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” In the twenty-first century, Art is under attack not just from political ideologies seeking to employ it as a weapon in the battle for hearts and minds, but also from the capitalist forces of commoditization which seek to turn Art into a salable, reproducible good.

What puts Art and capital at odds is that we can’t say for sure what value Art has. Many philosophers have tried; so far none have succeeded. However, we know for certain that humans have always created Art – from simple scratchings on a cave wall to ritualistic dances performed around a fire; from the plaintive beat of a single drum to the complex presentation of Greek dramas. Therefore Art must be intrinsically valuable, even if we can’t currently say why.

And it is this basic argument which justifies the government sponsorship of the Arts that currently exists in nearly all developed, capitalist countries today. To cut off that sponsorship would be a grave mistake, because Art left to the devaluing maw of the free market is like a steak tossed into a den of wild dogs.

It will be too-quickly consumed, until there is nothing left at all.

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