Who Should Pay for the Arts in America? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Andy Horwitz addressed that question for us recently, and I thought of his piece today when posting the note on Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch. A reader’s take:

Everyone in America has access to “the arts.” America is awash in art. You can turn on a radio and hear it for free. You can download Spotify for free and get the most noted recordings of the most noted music for free. Every great painting is yours to view for free right now on the Internet. Wanna watch a production of Hamlet? Google it. I imagine there are full productions there for the taking. You can probably even watch the noted BBC version with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart.

You can actually—here on YouTube. There’s also a Patrick Stewart version from 1969, seen above. Back to our reader:

There are free plays in the park and performance artists on campus and graffiti artists in the rail yards and a jazz band at your high school and on and on, and that doesn’t even speak to the extraordinary amount of commercial art that’s a part of our lives. Taylor Swift and The Walking Dead and Star Wars and graphic novels and more!

Who should pay for art, The Atlantic asks? Anyone who is willing. Beyond that, no one. Because, while it’s true that some things in America are quite scarce relative to their demand (health care being a good example), the arts? No. There’s lots of art to go around, and it is the job of artists to make their own art so damned compelling amidst the extraordinary glut that people are eager to open up their wallets and pay for it.

This reader is more blunt:

Good art, literature, film or music will always find its way to an audience, even if it is contrary to current popular conventions and is provocative. There are also more avenues to put artists and others in touch with potential fans than ever before, especially to those willing to pay. See Kickstarter or Go Fund Me. They are the perfect venues for getting funding for your pet projects. And if nobody wants to pay for your “art”? Get a job to pay for it yourself.

Your thoughts? Another reader quotes Horwitz:

“It should come as no surprise that people in minority, disenfranchised, and rural communities don’t usually have access to millionaires and billionaires who they can cultivate as donors.” Even if they did, the art produced would reflect the tastes and agendas of those donors. More dots were connected in this 2012 Huffington Post piece (some figures have since shifted but the arguments stand):

A dysfunctional Congress has been busy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, chipping away at the NEA budget from a high of $176 million in 1992 to a pitiful $146 million today, less than 50¢ per person. Meanwhile Europe averages $8-$9 per person, even after deep arts budget cuts in countries like the U.K. and Spain. The astute German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, calls his country’s 5.1% increase in its arts funding commitment “a significant investment in the future of our country,” not a “subsidy.”

Detractors may argue that the private sector does a more effective job of funding the arts than the federal government. However, as we have seen many times over, private patronage is often little more than self-gratification; art that is paid for by billionaires and private corporations usually -- and not unreasonably -- reflects their narrow priorities and aspirations, not the larger community’s.