Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding
by Tyler Cowen
Princeton University Press, 2006
196 pp., $27.95
The United States has no arts policy, so the conventional wisdom holds, and the American government is miserly in its support of culture and the humanities. Wrong on both counts, argues Tyler Cowen in his brief but well-reasoned monograph, Good & Plenty.
“American governments, at varying levels, have done much to support creative enterprise,” Cowen asserts. “The American model arguably mobilizes government more effectively than do many of the European models for arts support.”
Cowen, who holds the Holbert C. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University, enjoys playing the contrarian, but he is more conciliatory than controversial. Mixing libertarian economics with classical liberal ideals, he seeks to reconcile the polarized debate about arts funding in America.
The issue, as he sees it, isn’t the amount of money museums and grant organizations and individual artists receive from a beneficent government, but rather the kind of climate government creates in the wider society to promote the support of the arts. Viewed in this context, the United States advances the arts through its tax code and public policies that promote philanthropic giving which, in turn, fosters a healthy diversity in the arts.
“On the international scene, the United States is often seen as a military and economic behemoth, but as lacking in concern for cultural values or beauty,” writes Cowen, whose previous books include In Praise of Commercial Culture (Harvard University Press) and Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures (Princeton University Press). “I wish to put this picture to rest, and to reclaim America’s rightful role in offering a liberal vision for beauty and creative human achievement.”
Europeans don’t begrudge their governments spending significant sums on the arts. France allocated nearly $3.6 billion for cultural projects in 2005. Germany lays out $102 per person per year. Italian theatres, museums, and orchestras typically rely on government for 80 percent of their budgets. Americans, however, do not like government doling out grants directly to artists or even to arts organizations. Congress budgets a stingy $125 million a year for the National Endowment for the Arts, less than a dollar per taxpayer. Altogether, federal, state and local governments account for just 10 percent of support for arts in the United States.
By contrast, Americans donate generously to charitable organizations of all sorts. According to Giving USA, Americans gave $13.1 billion to arts, culture and humanities organizations in 2003.
Unsurprisingly, European governments discourage private giving to cultural enterprises. France limits deductions for contributions to the arts (or anything) to 1 percent of taxable income for individuals and 0.1 percent for corporations. British taxpayers must agree to make donations for at least seven years before they earn a deduction, and at a low marginal rate at that.
Both approaches to arts funding have advantages, concedes Cowen, as they attempt to fulfill different aspirations. Europeans cherish a distinguished cultural legacy they wish to protect and promote; they willingly invest in prestige for its own sake and prefer that decisions about the arts be communal. “These individuals want their government to make a statement that the arts are about more than simple money and about more than mere contractual agreements,” writes Cowen. “They want the arts to be viewed as a vital part of a national or regional heritage, and one that receives official recognition from the government as such.”
Americans take the same pride in their national parks, one reason there’s less controversy over government funding for nature conservation than for, say, photographic exhibitions. But our experiences and history have inspired traditions opposite those of Europe. Americans embrace the new over the old, favor the common man over privilege and entitlement, remain wary of central authority and respectful of religion and individual freedom. With the notable exceptions of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression and outreach programs like Voice of America during the Cold War (Cowen discusses both eras at length), the United States has preferred decentralization in arts funding and public policy generally because it suits our national temperament. “The American system helps generate artistic innovations, encourages new ways of marketing and distribution, and supports competing critical visions for artistic contributions,” writes Cowen.
To look at it another way, direct subsidy makes sense if the goal is preserving the best of the past or underwriting massive public monuments that serve as expressions of civic pride. The British can point to BBC and its incomparable masterpiece mini-series, the Russians to the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets, the Germans to Bayreuth and hundreds of other superb festivals. America offers jazz, blues and hip hop, skyscrapers and abstract expressionism, and, of course, Hollywood—all phenomena of the marketplace. In the United States, decentralized subsidy of the arts functions like classic R&D in business, or like venture capital funneled to promising writers, composers, and filmmakers in hope of discovering new talent and new ideas.
Cowen illustrates his point with an amusing anecdote about Trent Lott, U.S. senator from Mississippi, who once badgered the chairman of the NEA to democratize its panels of judges. “I’m a redneck, and I want representation,” he said, evoking the notion that the arts are egalitarian, at least those funded by the state. Cowen, no stranger to irony, finds “profound truth” in the remark. “In the twentieth century, it was ‘rednecks’ who drove the early development of rock and roll,” he writes. “At first rock received few other sources of support, besides a few independent record labels and their redneck customers. In other words, the rednecks of the 1950s outperformed many of the music critics of their time, and outperformed systems of peer review.”
Using similar reasoning, Cowen considers student-run university-affiliated radio stations another source of indirect funding for the music industry, just as professorships, fellowships and other university appointments more obviously aid writers and artists. (American universities themselves benefit from tax subsidies and friendly public policy at least as much as the arts.) For-profit productions of plays and musicals like Driving Miss Daisy and Chicago act like development laboratories for movie studios that remake Broadway hits into Hollywood films. (Hollywood likewise borrows product from its European counterparts, remaking foreign films for the American market, thus indirectly benefiting from European government subsidies.)
The U.S. library system, bountifully endowed by government and private foundations, supports authors and publishers by buying books and building readership, a subsidy to literature more important (but not as apparent) than grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Some of the evidence Cowen presents in Good & Plenty seems frivolous. The contretemps surrounding the partial government funding of artists Andres Serrano, Chris Ofili and Robert Mapplethorpe helped their careers, but it’s too pat to suggest that protesting public officials delivered “precious service” as publicity agents. Nor does it seem appropriate to consider prisons and state-run asylums as sponsors of “outsider” artists like Martin Ramirez, who created his major work while confined in a mental hospital in Alabama. The idea that U.S. Customs indirectly supports or deters the arts in America with strict or lax enforcement of importation laws concerning objets d’arts—that is, black-market antiquities—is precious in more ways than one.
But Cowen’s larger point is taken and his thesis, originally prepared as a paper for the NEA’s Office of Research and Development (available online at http://www.arts.gov), is worthy of a wide audience—although by inclination or association the author lobbies for a more independent and aggressive public arts policy. “We should take more chances with the NEA,” Cowen concludes, by restoring the endowment’s ability to make grants directly to artists (rather than to state or regional arts organizations which in turn make grants to individuals) and by fully funding specific projects (instead of topping off at 10 percent, the current practice).
Cowen would also allow the NEA to relax peer review for direct subsidies and fund for-profit artistic enterprises. “Much of the American cultural dynamism of the last two centuries has come in for-profit forms,” he reasons. “Government funders, by encouraging the nonprofit organization, are making the American art world more bureaucratic.”
Cowen offers numerous other policy suggestions in the book, and muses at length on the interrelated topics of digital technology, the internet and copyright law, for him the key components of future art policy. “The government’s role in defining property rights is far more important than its funding and subsidy decisions,” he writes, noting that copyright is especially relevant in the United States, where popular culture functions as an economic engine as well as an artistic endeavor. Much of this discussion devolves into speculation, however, as Cowen weighs intangible factors like the symbolic values of music. “People buy music to signal their hipness,” he writes, “to participate in current trends, or to distinguish themselves from previous generations.” As the titles of his previous books indicate, he has thought long and hard about the influence of a market economy on culture and creativity, and visa versa, but in Good & Plenty, he is best when he sticks to the tangible aspects of arts funding.
Which is to say, Cowen offers a refreshing and concise response to the conventional wisdom about attitudes toward culture in America. Rather than dismissing its importance in public life, or reducing its support to laissez faire economics, the United States has taken an active and successful approach to arts funding, using government regulation and public policy to encourage ingenuity and invention in all sorts of creative endeavors. “Any arts policy faces the standing danger that governments will try to control, regulate, and politicize art,” cautions Cowen, “but indirect subsidies have sidestepped this problem for the most part.” The American model may be uniquely suited to this country or, at best, difficult to translate to other societies, but the United States deserves wider recognition for developing a system of arts funding that presents a viable alternative to direct, state-sponsored support of artists and cultural projects.