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Subsidizing Failure

The financial status of many states in the U.S.A. is not good. There is never enough money to go around while expenditure exceeds income, which is the problem that many states have.

  • Ian Hodge,
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The financial status of many states in the U.S.A. is not good. There is never enough money to go around while expenditure exceeds income, which is the problem that many states have.

Yet some states have taken a creative approach to reducing deficits. Arizona, New Jersey, and Missouri are all considering eliminating subsidies to the arts as a means of reducing deficits. Not surprisingly, the beneficiaries of those subsidies are trying hard to retain as much taxpayer money as they can.

For some of us, the arts world has become politicized. Artists of various kinds are often at the forefront of social change, such as Wagner was in his attempt to create revolution through music.1 With the movement of the musical arts from the church to the concert hall and opera theater, so too came a movement that despised the idea of a Creator God who demands all people live according to His standards.

Subsidizing the Cultural Breakdown
Christian standards in all areas of life and thought are challenged in a variety of shapes, forms, sounds and sights. The modern day movie with its adult ratings, foul language, and "anything goes" morality, is evidence of the way the arts can be used to destroy the Christian way of life. The result is that the arts have contributed to the breakdown in Christian culture.

A consequence of the government art subsidies has not been better art, if we judge art by its public acceptance. The mere fact that subsidies exist is evidence that some artists cannot operate in a voluntary marketplace. Whereas the bands Abba and the Beatles made it big without government aid, other artists would starve or find another profession without subsidies.

Like any other business, subsidies are a sign of a marketplace that refuses to buy particular goods voluntarily. Artists often survive because of the coercive nature of taxation; that is, they survive by receiving financial aid that is not voluntarily forthcoming.

With the advance of government subsidies in the twentieth century, we are hard pressed to find any improvement in the standards of art. In 1973, the Australian government forked out millions for a painting that made little sense to discerning viewers. The purchase gave notoriety not only to the government, which seemed to have more money than sense, but it also helped the artist, Jackson Pollock, long dead, achieve a higher standard of acceptance.

For many Australians, Pollock's Blue Poles carried little artistic merit. But it has long been the aim of the painting world to achieve what it thought the music world had achieved decades earlier: complete abstractionism. Certainly taxpayers would not have voluntarily handed over the millions of dollars so readily given by the Australian government for an abstraction.

The purchase of art by government is similar in effect to subsidies by government; they reward the artist in some form. But we do need to ask why it is that artists need to be paid by government, which raises its money by involuntary taxation. Why can't artists get paid like everyone else? That is, they create something that someone is willing to pay for — and pay enough to keep the artist alive in luxuries like bread, milk and sugar.

There is little evidence to suggest that playwrights, composers, painters, and musicians have given us better standards of either composition or performance because of these subsidies. In fact, modern art is keen to abolish all the old standards and replace them with . . . well, that's the problem. The only standard that applies today is anything goes (well, almost).

The result? Art that has no standard, no criteria by which to judge itself. This has not led to an improvement in the arts, but a downturn. This is why the subsidies are necessary if such artists are to keep working.

Artists without Taxpayer Money
Now that three states are looking down the barrel of financial difficulties, the loss of subsidies might again challenge artists to write, paint, or compose in ways that appeal to the ordinary people. J.S. Bach, for example, while not receiving subsidies, was paid by the church to write music — music acceptable to the worshippers in the church. Today, we find the music that was governed by so many seemingly archaic rules retains a freshness and vibrancy that escapes many modern artists. In fact, there is little comparison between modern subsidized art and former artists, such as Bach or Michelangelo, employed by the church. The church did not subsidize these people: it employed them to do a job. Presumably the quality of the work delivered is what kept them employed by the church for such a long period.

Rather than mourn the loss of art subsidies, we should see this as a step in the right direction to restore art to its noblest aims, that of enriching mankind with music, paintings, poetry, and song that uplifts and edifies. Such music, like a good film score, will appeal because of what it achieves in the listener or viewer, not because it is financed by involuntary taxation.

There is a parallel in business that is inescapable. Businesses that require subsidies do so because they fail at some point to satisfy enough consumers with their products to remain in business. The subsidies can be in the forms of government handouts or loans, or the government might become a major customer.

The subsidized business, like the subsidized artist, is in danger. When the subsidy plug is pulled, the business fails because it has never learned the secret of success: satisfying consumer demand.

In the long run, however, people tire of subsidized business because having their financial needs met by other mechanisms, the subsidized no longer need to satisfy the market as the means of remaining financially solvent. In short, they drive away customers with inferior products, just as so many artists turn away people from attending exhibitions and concerts with inferior products.

The end of subsidies — in art or business — is thus a welcome sign. We should discourage subsidies in any form, and encourage artists and businesses to live without them unless they are voluntarily given. This idea of voluntariness excludes government money or aid in any form.

The end result should give us better art and better goods and services. The sooner the subsidies go, the sooner we will be better off.


1. See the book Dionysos Rising by E. Michael Jones for details.

  • Ian Hodge

Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.

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