We artists are valuable. All of us.
The current stimulus proposal moving through the Congress contains money for the National Endowment for the Arts. The idea is that this would stimulate the economy by helping keep artists working and hopefully expand existing arts projects. The NEA supports a wide range of arts initiatives like grants and awards to organizations and individuals. They even have a service that helps artists find health insurance. There are many people who find the NEA very controversial, though, and they have reason (Warning: may be offensive to some).
So, there is opposition to this funding from some within our Congress. They and others are arguing that such money would not stimulate the economy at all, and some of this criticism has a particularly dimissive tone to it:
Simply borrowing money out of the economy in order to transfer it to some artists doesn’t increase the economy’s productivity rate.
Brian Riedl, analyst for the Heritage Foundation (quoted from NPR.org’s story on the stimulus and the NEA)
This dismissive tone does not stop with those who are opposed to funding the NEA. Between artists, there can be a sense that their own art is superior or more relevant than other kinds. E.L Doctorow the renowned writer, in the middle of an otherwise elegant appeal for federal support of the arts once said:
I suppose I would have to confess, if asked, that I feel about opera, for instance, that it is not a living art in this country, that we do not naturally write and produce operas from ourselves as a matter of course as, for example, Italy did in the nineteenth century, and that, therefore, as wonderful and exciting as opera production may be, it is essentially the work of conservation of European culture; opera companies are conservators of the past, like museums, and their support by the National Endowment reflects this strong bias or belief in the arts as something from the past rather than the present.-E.L. Doctorow (1981)
(Quoted from Long Pauses)
There are obvious arguments against each of these quotes.
- Artists create and hold real jobs and are thus part of the economy (visual artists, musicians, singers and related workers, dancers and choreographers, actors and directors).
- The NEA is not a special interest group but is a federal agency.
- And new operas are being written, especially in the U.S. (also here and here). And even if they were not, by excluding art from the past you exclude Shakespeare, Milton, Van Gogh and countless others.
But the bigger issue is that…
In their own ways, they have reduced the artist to a one-size-fits-all concept for their own use (not part of the economy, offensive, or subjectively relevant or not), which is easier to dismiss totally or support partially.
We are not a single concept.:
- Some of us design the clothes that you are wearing.
- Some of us design your homes, your furniture, and your computer that you read this on.
- Some of us make puppets to educate and entertain your children.
- Some make puppets out of food to make political points.
- Someone composed that jingle in that commercial you like so much, or the song you sing in the shower or the hymn you sing on Sunday and even the boot up music in Windows.
- Some of us create totally offensive works that tick others off.
- Some make totally offensive works that make you laugh.
- Someone took some wood and turned it into instruments.
- Some play those instruments.
- Some of us try to channel some sort of divine force.
- Some of us sing unamplified over an orchestra in foreign languages.
- Some of us dance ballet, jazz, modern or in Pilobolus.
- and so on.
Art is something we do, and if there is a “should” in art then it is that we should do more of it. The reaction against an offensive work ought not to be campaigning against the arts en masse but creating art that you think is better. The reaction to a stuffy performance should not be to dismiss that art form but to get involved somehow and make it better.
But to dismiss artists and their art is wrong, especially when real people’s lives are affected by it.
I do not intend for this to be a political blog, but it is hard to avoid when politics has such a large impact on our individual lives. Please click on the Times Topics link on the right, and you will see how opera companies are being affected by the recession. Regardless of whether you agree with the stimulus or not, or even the NEA, please understand that artists are not separate entities outside of society but are interconnected within it.
I think money for the NEA is valuable. Let me say that up front.
However, claiming that output will be permanently changed by a one time stimulus, or that money given to the arts community have a long-run positive effect on the macroeconomy is fallacious. Certainly, there are models that predict with an increase in government spending will increase output. However, they also predict that when that government spending goes away, output will decrease. If you think of it that way, we aren’t avoiding recession, but rather re-allocating them across time.
The arts have, almost by definition, an income elasticity of demand which is greater than one. That means, simply, that as aggregate incomes increase, demand for artistic pieces increase. If incomes fall, demand for these goods fall.
as a quick example, the income elasticity of demand for symphony orchestras in the US was found in one study to be 1.26. Therefore, for a one unit increase in incomes, there will be a 1.26 unit increase in the quantity of symphony orchestra performances demanded. But the reverse is also true. A one unit decrease in incomes will lead to a 1.26 unit decrease in the quantity of performances demanded.
The outcome of the stimulus that would have a positive effect for artists would be to increase employment and wages to previous levels. To claim that supporting the arts should be done to boost the economy is misguided. By the logic that artists will spend the money on goods and services, the money could be given to any random person in the state of Ohio and have the same macroeconomic effect.
I feel that the grant should be given to the NEA. However, it should be given outside of the auspices of the stimulus package. Supporting the arts now with the idea of stimulating the economy removes the incentive to support the arts through grants later when the economy is better.
Ian Sidden says
Thank you for reading, Gregory, and thanks for the comment.
I suppose I only have myself to blame. The post is not meant as being for or against the NEA funding via the stimulus package. However, it can come across as such.
My larger point is that there is a categorization of artists both inside and outside of the artistic community as if it were a monolithic group. Perhaps the NEA itself does this. One person says certainly that giving money to artists would not stimulate the economy. What is his definition of an artist? Another says that giving money to the NEA is like supporting “Dancing with the sluts”. What is HIS definition of artists? And lastly, a writer, argues, essentially, that some artists are relevant and others are not.
I don’t think that these categorizations are correct. Perhaps, I needed to explain myself better in the original post.
However, I do have questions, and I mean these mostly in earnest and only a little bit rhetorically:
1. Are there economic models that gauge what effects the arts have on the economy beyond their immediate economic ones? For example, the arts have a certain educational aspect to them. Does this influence society as a whole in some macroeconomic way? Is there a way to find out? Also, what is the benefit to working with our own creativity more as a society? Does this help bring creativity and innovation to other areas of the economy? What is the effect on consumer confidence of seeing well produced works of art?
2. The stimulus, as I understand it, has provisions for food stamps and unemployment benefits. How do you feel about those? Do they help encourage a more productive economy?
3. Should the “stimulus” package even be called a stimulus anymore? It seems that it is partially a “sustaining” package so that we do not fall deeper into economic woes. Is there value to this?
4. Why do you say this, “Supporting the arts now with the idea of stimulating the economy removes the incentive to support the arts through grants later when the economy is better” ?
I have more, but this comment is going on too long.
I hope you didn’t take my comments as an attack on your larger point. I didn’t mean to do that at all.
Let me answer your questions:
1. In terms of non-monetary gain from the arts, yes, there are fields of economics that try to put a ‘value’ on the arts. The thing that is confusing to non-economists is that economists have a different view of the word value than accountants. Accountants and macroeconomists, the macroeconomists that blather on about fed fund rates and all that (the only economists you are likely to ever hear on the news) view value in terms of what something costs, which is the normal use of the word. A field called welfare economics tries to quantify the value that you place on the arts (and a whole lot of other stuff like getting rid of pollution for example) by estimating what value there is to the arts. This is done by placing a dollar value on the arts, but an important point here is that it’s not an actual dollar value, but rather dollars here are a proxy value for the true value, which you and I value in an imaginary unit called ‘Utils’, because it is impossible for you to tell me how many utils you gain by listening to Brahms.
Consumer confidence actually is absolutely critical. I do not say that in the post-9/11-bush way, “go buy a refrigerator”, but rather, when everyone feels calm about the future, things will actually be more calm. I feel that seeing artists at work could be a great way to (even if people don’t think much about it as they pass by) make people feel better about things. That was an important part of the public works efforts of the 30s, large murals and the likes.
2. I think food stamps and unemployment benefits are critical. We would have never had as severe a depression in the 30s with provisions as strong as we have now. Even if there were no such idea as a stimulus package, we would need to do what we are doing there.
3. The big fear about $1 trillion dollars dumped on the economy at once is massive inflation. We have to be very careful when looking the monster of inflation in the eyes. Normally the federal reserve moves to both grow the economy and keep inflation in check. Right now, it’s pretty obvious that the fed isn’t able to entice any one to do anything with its normal policy, so something is needed. Now, if we gain massive growth after this recession period, growth and inflation simultaneously,not so bad. Contraction and inflation, very bad.
Essentially all we are doing with this stimulus package is moving debts around. For a basic example, imagine that you have 3 credit cards. You have debt, but you would like to buy some things now, so you buy them with card 1. When it comes time to pay card 1, you just pay with card 2. And so on. Government has the ability to do that, but not forever.
4. Well, this is probably my cynicism in terms of government. There are many who (look for R after the name), if the NEA gets money in the stimulus package, will say when the economy is doing well, “What do you think you need more money for? things are going well, you already got your piece.” So, yes, I don’t think this is a bad time for the arts to get some money, but, I think it should be brought up outside of the stimulus if at all possible.
Ian Sidden says
Great! Thanks, Gregory. That is very informative.
Your quote from Doctorow came from 1981, before you were born! I wonder how many new operas were being developed at that point and if he would revise his thinking now.
And, have you read the information about Rocco Landesman who is the new head of the NEA and is saying nobody gets nothing from them unless they can prove quality? It’s caused a bit of a stir in the provinces.
Ian Sidden says
Yes, it’s an old quote, but, yes, new operas were being written then by American composers. Perhaps he might have a different opinion now, but I just haven’t found that. If I do, then I will change to post to reflect it.
But the broader point is that we are all artists, and to sell one group out for another is damaging to all of us. Though he theoretically may have changed his mind, the phenomenon still exists.
I don’t know about that story you mentioned, but I’ll look it up.
Thanks for reading. I haven’t had any feedback for this post in awhile even though it is one of the most read.