Saturday, November 11, 2017

Arguments Pro and Con for Public Funding of the Arts

Mabel Dwight Backyard
Mabel Dwight was one of the artists commissioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal jobs initiative. As presented in the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, The New Deal art programs were a productive solution for supporting creative people during economically troubled times. 


During the depths of the Depression, these programs employed artists, writers, and photographers, while also giving Americans access to art and culture. Traveling puppet shows, dance troupes, and musical performances visited every corner of the country, while muralists decorated libraries and government buildings. Were it not for the New Deal photography, Dorothea Lange's iconic 1936 photograph of the migrant mother never would have existed.

Federal support of the arts in the 1930s was an economic and cultural stimulus, and it was used as a tool for propaganda during the Cold War.

But government support is not the only mechanism for supporting art, even during tough economic times. It's good to remind ourselves that in the 1930s, artist-illustrators like Norman Rockwell were producing some of their best work, supported directly by the people through the mechanism of magazine subscriptions. 

The Case of the Stuttering Pig, 1937 ©Warner Bros Animation 
The 1930s was also the most generative decade in the history of animation, where Fleischer, Disney, Warner Bros. and other studios were perfecting the art form of animation in the economic context—and the selective pressure—of movie ticket sales. 

While many of the WPA artists and muralists are now forgotten, we remember those whose work grew and flourished in a commercial setting.


Norman Rockwell created The Four Freedoms completely on his own initiative, and at first the Office of War Information refused them. It took the response in the Saturday Evening Post to get the government to recognize their value. 

Government agencies, unless they are remarkably enlightened, may lack the discernment to reward the worthy projects and to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

In a commercial marketplace, the public votes for the art it likes with its nickels. In a government subsidy program, appointed officials must decide on what is worthy of support. 

What role should the government play in supporting painters, sculptors and photographers? What goals should drive the process, and how should the funds be administered in a time when there are few shared artistic values? What should be the test of such programs....the quality of the art, or the benefit to society?

I can see both sides to the argument, and I'd love to hear what you think in the comments.
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19 comments:

arturoquimico said...

Con: I think funding of the arts by "Government" should be minimal... not only did Rockwell do well during the Depression, but so did the Pulp Fiction artists. In my opinion, voting with our dollars is superior to what a bureaucrat might think is art. For instance, I personally think very dark subjects, edgy mature artwork is not always healthy for society in general and if I were a bureaucrat, I'd probably not want to support it... however, there is a market for those items, and there may be a dark part of society (as the photo shows) that we need to be aware of... for me it is much better for the people to make a bottom up response (i.e. pay for art they like) than a top down dissemination of what the elites say is good. Sadly, today, as during the late 1700's, the 1860's, etc... we need to ask ourselves, do we want the individual to decide what is truly "art" or what is best for our own needs, or do we need a monarch or an aristocratic oligarchy telling us what is "art" or what is good... I'm still for the little guy...

Jonathan W. said...

Government arts funding is highly important, whether you believe it is or not. If arts funding was entirely grants for specific projects you may have a point but funding for arts programs and projects gets people engaged and interested in art. Also we are on the brink of a time where art is going to be completely overlooked in favor of STEM, and with good reason. But it means that we have to stand up for making art, and the government (as a tool for the people) should be a distinct part of funding the creation of art.

Commercial art gets more highly and highly overrated these days. Yes, sometimes there are gems, but to say that commercial art is more virtuous because it's basically "voted on by the people" is nonsense to me. What you are saying is everything is better if designed by committee, or if the public votes on what they like. This brings us totally forgettable garbage more often than gold.

The distinction of how art gets supported, proposed by this article, is ultimately besides the point and seems more of a by-product of American politics (government vs. free market). The actual answer is both. There are many suspect ways of financing art (govt, hollywood, the global contemporary art market) so why not engage with the ones that you find most palatable? There is no reason it has to be completely one or the other. But also, to set up a weird government straw man because you don't want to pay taxes for art programs (which you would know with research is such a small part of where our countries money goes anyhow, we can afford it) strikes me as mildly selfish.

Support art in all forms, by all people, in all ways. We are going to need to in the coming years to spur innovation in the arts, when AI is doing better watercolors than us.

kat said...

You're born into a poor family, but have a love of art and do it well. No way you can go to art school. The most welcoming free or inexpensive option for getting training or for being able to show your work is the local municipal arts program. Now, your work is hanging in a prestigious Botanic Gardens and you get a grant to pursue further studies. You have a chance to make a career doing what you love and excel at which you otherwise would not have had.

It is all about expanding the opportunities to produce a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy. It is wise to remember that not everyone is born into a situation that facilitates their ability to use their talents to the maximum. Parents die early, you have to work at one or more jobs just to get you and possibly your family by, your ethnic background or gender annoys bigots wielding economic power in your chosen field, you have no "in" to a field you could excel at, your parents think all artists live in the gutter and cut off funding for your education -- the list goes on. Not everyone is brought up in a well-enough-to-do family that has a positive outlook on the arts and encourages their offspring -- in fact, that is the exception.

Government in a democratic society is just what we decide to do together, as a reflection of shared values. Do we value the arts or not? Do we provide people with limited means the opportunity to both enjoy and commit to art, or do we insist on everyone being upper middle class with all doors open to them when the vast majority are not? If a frog had wings, it wouldn't bump its ass when it jumps.

James Gurney said...

All good points, thanks you all.

Arturo, What you say is so true — a lot of the interesting dark and edgy stuff from the 1930s would never have been supported by the government. In fact when the Hays Commission started really enforcing the Code, they put a chill on a lot of the experimental animation and filmmaking, and the same thing happened with the comics code in the 1950s.

Jonathan, no one is suggesting that it be all one thing or another. The reality is inevitably more nuanced. Even with public funding of the arts, there are many ways to set it up, including quasi-governmental forms like the BBC that produce superb content while maintaining enough separateness from the government to escape partisanship. Or the Citizen Stamp Advisory Board of the Postal Service, where commissions are handed out by a group of art directors selected to serve from the professional community.

Most systems of funding the arts, whether private or public, must necessarily involve gatekeepers choosing what gets made, what gets performed, what gets exhibited. That's been true of popular art forms like Hollywood movies and the classic illustrated magazines. At the Post, you had to get the approval of George Lorimer.

I suppose what's really different in today's world is the opportunity that artists and musicians have to nurture their audiences directly and to monetize without the middleman, which has the potential to be the true meritocracy that Kat's talking about.

kat said...

Wish we had a BBC... alas. Even what little we have is always on the chopping block or threatened.

Opera and many symphonies would not survive without corporate or government funding of the performing arts... corporations get to slap their names on it and deduct as advertisement.

I fear the internet has been a double-edged sword to musicians, however, as the number of professional musicians able to make a living from their work has plummeted worldwide. Theft is too easy, and artists have no powerful lobby to compete with Google, et al, whose agenda is to make all content free for the taking (they earn their billions in ads on the back end) rendering the arts into a culture of amateurs. If artists cannot survive, culture dies.

One of the bright spots for musicians has been government requiring royalty payments from digital radio and setting up a process whereby payments must be made (SoundExchange). Perhaps such a thing could be done for graphic arts (and writers, photographers, etc) as well. Google has the technology -- just not the will -- to implement a payment system whereby artists are paid for their work.

Barbara said...

I think the government should fund art museums so that admission is free or affordable, and everybody has the opportunity to look at great art. I also think the government should purchase visual art and fund murals to adorn public spaces, because art makes places better. There should be some government subsidies for performance art, because live theater and music enrich public life, and often are only accessible to the wealthy. None of this stands in the way of the ability of commercial art to thrive simultaneously. I consider government funding of art to be less of a subsidy to artists and more of a way to enrich the lives of residents and visitors.

kat said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Barbara as well. Government should play a big role in sustaining the arts.

Pete Hamann said...

Just keep in mind that the government that "supports" is the government that controls. I am hesitant to take money from people in the form of taxes, then hand control over what art is funded to politicians and appointees associates. I prefer to fund art directly by buying what I like, when I can, from artists I like and know. I also suscribe to a few artists Patreon accounts.

Luca said...

I agree with Barbara: i think governments' role should be to fund museums, theatres, concert halls and public teaching of art in schools, at any level. Let's say, funding the knowledge of art, more than artist. Art should be as democratic and widespread as possible and everybody should be put in the condition of expresss himself or herself in an artistic way. But since it would be absurd to think that everybody could be funded without bankrupt the state, the only way to achieve this goal is to make knowledge accessible for everybody and let people find a way to express their artistic side.
To fund this or that artist would require first to define "what is art" and which artists are meritorious of funding. And that would be a nightmare, in an era in which everything is considered art as long as "the artist" says it is: a plastic rabbit, sitting on a chair, making kitch skulls, etc etc. Ok, so, now i'm standing here and writing on a blog. But if i'd invite people to watch me while i read the blog and i'd say that this express the loneliness of modern humanity, connected but alone, the presence of an audience and a meaning would turn my reading of the blog in performance art. Government, please fund me.

Absurd, isn't it?

Thanks God i do commercial illustrations and not "fine art". Commercial illustration is for people and you can't cheat people.

Unknown said...

Instead of centralized Federal funding maybe local or regional funding would better serve the citizens art tastes instead of one size fits all approach. 50 states, 50 different approaches.

Sesco said...

If we give the government our permission to fund the arts, then we are tacitly ignoring the needs of our poorest citizens (those who are not artists), including those citizens who cannot work, who have psychological, genetic, or physical conditions that require funding, etc. We would also be ignoring the basic maintenance of our country, including the infrastructure of such things as our interstate road system, our public bridges, and our public spaces and buildings. There is no question in my mind of the benefits to humankind of the products of our creativity, in peacetime. Art is nothing more, and nothing less, than the flowering of our purpose for being here, in my opinion. But to fund the promotion of art with taxpayer dollars that could perhaps also be funded privately by corporate, co-op, foundation, or private dollars, and have the government focus our wealth on the welfare of our citizens seems quite obvious to me. Once our citizens have been properly cared for, once the basic needs of those who cannot support themselves have been addressed, then I believe the funding of art could begin and our consciences as artists could be clear. To try to do both simultaneously is, in my opinion, self-serving and premature.

scottT said...

I always thought government funding of the arts during the Depression was a noble thing to do considering the "practical" needs the country had at that time. Putting people back to work on roads, buildings, and infrastructure projects is a given, but sponsoring (in the visual arts) murals, prints, and paintings proved that the government recognized the fact that some work with a brush and palette instead of a shovel and pick, and that even in a time of great need the arts had an important role to play in elevating the soul. This was an enlightened view.

Today however when there are budget cuts to schools, art and music departments are often the first thing to go. When most people think of the NEA, it is probably because of some sensational story connected with it. As fine arts increasingly become unintelligible to the general public and disconnected from the reality of our daily lives, the taxpayer may wonder why it is subsidizing the esoteric interests of a relatively small group of connoisseurs.

Mac Gregor said...


There are pros and cons to public funding of the arts. On balance I think it is generally beneficial for society for all the arts to be funded at some level. Unfortunately,governments are likely to find themselves increasingly strapped paying for survival needs so the issue may be moot. I paint murals for churches. This form of group funding has long been the major patron of the arts. The price tag for the artist is a limitation on the subject matter. As regards your comments about the obscurity of the WPA muralists I think this has more to do with levels of exposure than merit. On the GJ blog you have mentioned almost every student of the Pyle School except Allen Tupper True. He was a class mate of Wyeth and Dunn. He was Brangwyn's apprentice. BUT, he chose to work as a muralist instead of an illustrator and remains obscure.

Bug said...

If there is a contractual arrangement in an item's being given to a museum, and the museum takes the piece, then the contract should be honored. If there is no legal contractual stipulation that a piece be held, or if it was not agreed to by the acquiring institution at the time, then the institution can do what it feels it needs to. If enough supporters at an institution can change it's collective mind, then fine. The real issue is ownership and contractual stipulation. Everything else is just druthers and taste.

Kit Miracle said...

I was director of a publicly funded multi-discipline arts center for many years. We received about 50% of our funding from local government and hustled up the remaining. What we didn't use or earned above our budget went back to the public coffers. Public funding allowed us to keep our performing and class fees low and affordable for all. In a remote rural area, this is important. We brought in artists who might otherwise not be available to our residents. Most of the school children who attended our performances would never have been able to see quality art.

Public funding of the arts is on par with funding libraries, parks, swimming pools and golf courses. Not necessarily essential but certainly impacts quality of life and viability of place, large cities or small town.

Greg Preslicka said...

I have been a commercial artist for 20 plus years, designing and illustrating. Recently I have entered the world of public art painting murals in schools and libraries. I have over the years questioned how governments spend money on art. It sometime seems that money is given for projects that are mostly self serving for the artists and have little value for the general public. Many of the mural projects I work on are government funded either through schools or local governments and also include local funds from community members. This gives people a stake in the project. For me I approach each project as I did my commercial work creating art for a purpose rather than just for art's sake.

Bill Wilson said...

We need to keep in mind the Obama administration tried to use art (a movie) as an excuse for at least one Islamic attack that left many people dead. Some called for the movie makers criminal prosecution. They also used it to deflect and distract attention from their own Benghazi debacle with Hilary Clinton. The Obama administration also tried to stop the release of another movie, "The Interview", claiming it could offend the North Korean dictator and start a nuclear war. Now let's put the shoe on the other foot. Do those supporting government funding for the arts support President Trump and his administration? Do they want him and his appointees to be deciding what's art and worthy to be funded? I guess that's where I get squeamish about government involvement; do I trust Obama or Trump? Both men and both worldviews are diametrically opposed to one another. Those who supported the massive increase in Obama's power and government overreach greatly regret that now that Donald Trump wields the exact same power. Perhaps some government involvement is a good thing, but ultimately, it's good to keep in mind, whatever power and influence we give our best friends in government will ultimately be used by your worst enemies.

kev ferrara said...

During the great depression a great many unprofessional artists, as well as people who weren't artists at all, got WPA money to create art. Not surprisingly, much of it was poor, or never even completed. People rarely see that stuff because most of it was not preserved except for historical purposes.

Dean Cornwell was a vocal opponent of arts funding at the time, saying that (paraphrasing here) "people should not be given art jobs simply for the asking, just because they find it more enjoyable than pants pressing." Not coincidentally, The Nation magazine came out against Dean Cornwell and his murals from that point forward. They were downright nasty toward him.

The purchasing power of the government, and its power in general, makes it a neverending target for people who want power and control of other people's money and other people's actions and influence over the culture at large. The problems of power are well understood. The problem of most cultural activists having no sensible standards for what constitutes good or bad art makes the prospect of handing them too much cultural power quite worrisome. The last time I checked in on the kinds of art projects funded by such people - and this was quite a long time ago already - the piece that most stuck with me was a bunch of toy balls rolled down a hall and left there.





JR said...

My first reaction is the feeling of being overhwelmed by the complexity of the question. Situations differ from place to place, and they change from generation to generation. So I'm welcoming to the idea of decentralising funding decisions, and placing time limits on enforcement of any legislative acts about art funding.

Another observation I have is that the question what the state should do about arts is something that even many heads of state seem powerless about. Perhaps, instead of tackling the question of 'should', it's best to treat the social issues as we treat vast and slow-moving geological processes and climate change: things which we can mainly adapt to & reflect upon, rather than modify, much less determine.

Today we have a situation of increasing centralisation of most kinds of social power, and a fusion of the state with special private interests. If we were gods, and would have decided the government to have NO say in art, we would see that it's largely irrelevant, we would find ourselves subverted.

So, let me look at what any large social entities do. According to textbooks, their function number one is defense. The defense system, whether based on conscripts or professionals, would always need to motivate human beings in particular ways. It means the government would tend to see the arts as instrumental for that purpose.
The defense's technological side depends on STEM. I will here suggest that there is a fairly close and natural kinship between arts and engineering. In contrast with the sciences, arts and engineering are both intuitive and are based on delivery of very exact physical results. As such, they tend to re-enforce each other. If that is more-or-less right rather than my false impression, enlightened / renaissance-minded power elites would support arts for reasons of gaining a technological edge over their competitors. Also, they would really have better chances of surviving in the long run ... than the more prosaically minded power elites.
The outlooks typified by Maslow's hierarchy would tend to be losers.
But later today I might take an opposite view. :)