He also asserts that government participation in the arts beyond its role as a consumer can pose significant hindrances to the artistic processes. He claims that politics tends to "seek stability, compromise, and consensus," and as a result avoids supporting art that may "offend majority opinion or go over its head" (38). The market, on the other hand, has "liberated artists…from the potential tyranny of mainstream market taste" (23).
Is Government Funding Necessary or Appropriate?
There are many who disagree with Cowen, claiming that public funding for the arts is crucial to maintaining a vibrant, diverse, and forward-thinking creative community. These arguments are generally characterized by the theory that, while art as a market commodity is a healthy and valuable part of the artistic culture, there must also be a forum for art as a public good. This forum cannot be trusted to the market, which may or may not value public art according to mainstream taste. Instead, the government must ensure that this art is available to all and that artists have an incentive to create art as a public good.
This is the line of thinking that prevailed at a recent gathering in support of Americans for the Arts, a non-profit group dedicated to securing federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Several film personalities appeared at the event to argue for the importance of government-funded art. Kevin Spacey spoke to the communal nature of art, claiming that "it's what we all share every day," and warning of the dangers of "dismissing [the arts] as luxury items" (Storey 2011).
The true danger of leaving the arts to the forces of the market may not be that art becomes a luxury item, as Spacey suggests, but that the market itself does not function in the ideal way that Cowen suggests, offering opportunity for diversity and innovation. This is the argument posed by Robert McChesney in his book, the Problem of the Media. In his analysis of current consumer culture, McChesney contends that "free market" may no longer be a term that applies to the media business, and as a consequence the art community. The trend towards conglomeration and consolidation within the media has led to an alarming degree of media concentration, where the majority of media outlets are owned by a handful of sources. This results in an oligopoly, where a small number of firms control the entirety of a particular market. This is a far cry from the populist "invisible hand" that is generally thought to govern a capitalist marketplace, and it severely endangers the ability of the avant-garde to produce and market innovative work.
The dangers posed by the oligopoly of a consolidated media market can be assuaged by the proper application of government subsidies for the arts. One example of this is public museums, which are largely funded by federal and state governments. As Stephen Weil points out in Making Museums Matter (2002), museums historically have served to propagate the agenda of the elite leadership; they were originally founded to "raise' the level of public understanding.. And 'uplift' the common taste" in accordance with the taste of the elite (196). Fortunately, as the ideologies of the elite changed and died out in the 20th century, the museum increasingly became morally neutral, and was used more as a safe harbor for all types of arts and audiences. Weil foresees the museum of the future as an "ideologically neutral" institution designed solely to provide the community with access to the unfettered and diverse artistic experience (200).
By providing funding for museums, public radio, and other public outlets, the government can play an instrumental role in ensuring artistic diversity. In order for the widest range of artistic ideas, styles, and technologies to thrive, artistic diversity cannot simply mirror mainstream cultural diversity. In order to combat media concentration and the resulting constriction of diversity in the commercial media, there must be another outlet committed solely to the preservation and encouragement of diversity within the arts.
Recommendations and Additional Considerations
In examining the many arguments concerning the relationships between the arts, the market, social needs, and the government, several things have become clear. The market has the potential to provide enormous avenues of success, inspiration, and creativity in the arts. However, the unregulated media market has shown a tendency towards oligopoly, which negates many of the advantages of a free market. Oligopolies endanger the livelihood of the avant-garde and stifle artistic diversity, two elements crucial to the idea of art as a social expression. Government funding of the arts has the ability to protect the arts from the constricting tendencies of a consolidated market by providing public spaces and neutral support for a variety of artistic productions.
It is my recommendation that government funding for the arts be continued, but consistently monitored and reviewed. Funding for the arts, as with any government spending, is subject to the political agendas of those in power, and may as a result be subject to the same faults as the market. The American government is designed to limit the ability of political parties to exert undue influence, but only when it is appropriately called to task by the public. Federal funding for the arts not only promotes the diversity and vibrancy of the American arts community, but also provides its own self-regulation by creating a public that is artistically educated enough to demand diversity and innovation.
Becker, Howard. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Cowen, Tyler. 1998. In Praise of Commercial Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.
McChesney, Robert. 2004. The Problem of the Media. New York" Monthly Review Press.
Storey, Will. "Kevin Spacey, in his role as Lobbyist for the Arts." The New York Times, April 6, 2011, in the Caucus: The Politics and…