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Govt support of art: let welfare recipients produce it

The stereotype of an “artist” is somebody who enjoys expressing something about himself in some medium disconnected to some degree from the world. If so, the lack of awareness and logic in comments emanating from the arts community concerning the small in size but proportionately large state budget cuts to artistic endeavor do nothing to dispel that view.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has recommended slashing better than half, about $4 million, of state direct support to artistic funding. On the one hand, it’s incredible that a cut of little more than 0.035 percent of the state’s budget should provoke so much outcry (and get so much media coverage). But on the other hand, it’s no so surprising because a phenomenon long noted in the area of policy studies is that the more intensely involved (including funding) a group is to an area of policy, the more intense is its reaction to even small changes it sees as negative, because it is disproportionately affected.

Let’s face it, the reason why such a notable cry is coming about this is that a number of those in the arts community can do their thing not because there’s any particular demand for it, not because it makes any significant impact on the vast majority of people’s lives, but because they live off these resources of taxpayers. Overwhelmingly, in this area state tax dollars subsidize the activities of a few for a few to consume. And one winces in pain when hearing defenses of this spending because those making them seem not to realize just how weak, if not self-defeating, and out of touch their arguments are.

For instance, take recent remarks uttered by Derek Gordon, chief executive of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, who apparently views the loss of $4 million statewide as an absolute Armageddon. It would “destroy the fabric of our arts community” and “both our economic and cultural identities will be in peril,” asserts someone whose organization, if not his job, largely get funded from taxpayers’ toil.

These statements deserve analysis beyond their sheer, unsupported hyperbole. If the reduction of state subsidies could prove catastrophic, by definition it means the “arts community” and the state’s “economic and cultural identities” are weaklings being propped up artificially. In the case of the latter, such a remark strays way into the territory of irrationality: it is utter nonsense to suggest that removing $4 million from the system will have anything beyond a negligible impact in terms of the kinds of music, which the state probably is best known for, or other artistic creations emanating from Louisiana.

As for the former, the narrowness and bias of it is telling. Interestingly in this debate, no one has mentioned that the state already provides huge subsidies in a couple of areas of artistic endeavor and proposes expanding them in a way that should far surpass a total of $4 million – the motion picture and digital recording industries where huge tax credits are to be had for their production, costing the state in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But I suppose in the eyes of the “arts community,” whatever that is, this isn’t “art” because those involved are actually producing products for which there is public demand and they can live off those proceeds. So let’s be clear about what is “imperiled” by these cuts: a very small segment of the community that vastly and disproportionately gets government assistance for creating products that are little demanded, little noticed, and contribute insignificantly to the life of the community as a whole.

That last point may be challenged by a statistic Gordon parroted about how every buck that goes into the “art” six come back. Fine; just as I did with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on the issue of tourism, I now challenge those who argue this to show me a valid and reliable study that verifies this figure – and then they may wish to engage in a struggle with Landrieu because he claims he gets $17 back on each tourism dollar so it would appear he should have first claim on the $4 million. Regardless, in both cases repeated assertion does not constitute actual proof of the claim.

And to suggest the $4 million is so crucial to the “arts community” also implies that its incredible weakness is not something that can be rectified by cash infusions diverted from taxpayers. Whose fault is it that the “arts,” such as they are, are so dependent upon this largesse? Is it perhaps because they contribute so little meaningfully to the community? Because if their contributions were greater, individuals and entities would donate more of their time and money to these enterprises, instead of small numbers of individuals relying on the power of the state to siphon money from the people to support the lifestyles they choose to lead. Few people are so spoiled to be in a position to have the public forced into subsidizing vocational whims that make little if any impact on the community as a whole, and the lack of self-awareness on this issue is telling.

However, we might get another argument from the likes of Gordon on the actual impact, who testifies there are tangible benefits to the wider community such as students who participate in arts programs score higher on standardized tests and are less likely to drop out of school. Putting aside again the apples v. oranges nature of this comparison – almost all students in this situation have access to the arts through state-paid educational initiatives in elementary, secondary, and tertiary education which far exceed the few millions doled out in direct grants by the state – thinking this also exposes a fundamental flaw in the logic behind cause and effect. It’s not that the “arts” cause students to do better and stay in school, it’s that the attitudes of students that compel them to stay in school and achieve also make them more likely to participate in the arts. It’s the difference between a casual and an associated relationship (or, to use an example I present in teaching research methods, Gordon’s argument here is like that of saying if we know that the bigger a fire is the more firemen show up to it, then does that necessarily mean that firemen, a la Fahrenheit 451, start and build these fires?)

Nor does a patronizing comparison of the state subsidizing chicken plucking to arts funding strengthen the case for the latter; if anything, it becomes weaker as a result. Regardless of the fact that the state ought not be supporting a money-losing purpose that has nothing to do with the true functions of government, it remains that the benefit to society of providing more jobs and food to people far outweighs the contribution made by a few more cases of indulging presumed artistic endeavors.

“I don’t think that careful consideration was given to the impact of these cuts,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t make sense.” To the contrary, they make perfect sense because the job of government is to do necessary things that otherwise lack incentives for voluntary organization to achieve. I don’t see how taking money from people of whom few will encounter publicly-subsidized public art and of whom fewer still would voluntarily tender those resources just to permit more opportunities for a select few to express themselves thereby meets this definition in any way – especially given the support from outside government the arts typically inspire. This non-public generosity, of course, is never enough for those who have their hands out for this money.

If those complaining about reduced government subsidies for art were serious about how they value the arts, they would petition government to create programs to involve those idle receiving other forms of public assistance to engage in artistic endeavors. Why not organize those on unemployment to perform plays, create pottery, produce sculpture and other visual representations? Is this not all art to satisfy the presumed need for it? Does it not enhance these individuals’ lives and community? Or is “art” according to these folks that should be funded out of taxpayers’ hard-earned resources and the presumed benefits it brings only the province of a self-designated elite who want others to pay them for the privilege of expressing themselves?


James S said...

Well said! The arts (as defined by this bunch of snobs)have historically been supported by patrons willing to subsidize their passion. I have my doubts about the long-term success of buying the Pilgrim operation but I am offended by this snotty reference to it by the mincing "Executive Director" of whatever arts council is whining the loudest. If it's that important to you, support it with YOUR OWN money!

Anonymous said...

Aren't you living off taxpayer dollars in your position at LSU-Shreveport, Professor Sadow?

Perhaps we ought to make sure those educational cuts affect you ... and close LSU Shreveport's political science department. Then let's see what your reaction is.

Anonymous said...

I can understand why you feel as you do because you live in Shreveport where the arts does not EMPLOY A LARGE NUMBER OF LOUISIANIANS. Here is the southern part of the state there are many non snobs who want to keep the arts alive and work hard to accomplish that. We do not have money just handed to us. The organization that I am involved with does much for the education of students. As a professor, I would think you would appreciate groups like mine.