The Next City
September 21, 1996
Cultural subsidies don’t produce art. They just produce more
“WE WORK IN THE DARK,” HENRY JAMES WROTE IN The Middle Years, “we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
We make art because we can, or rather because we are. Granted creation, we cannot but create; forbidden to know the meaning of our existence, we seek it or scorn it in art. “All art is a revolt against man’s fate,” wrote André Malraux. “Each of the masterpieces is a purification of the world, but their common message is that of their existence and the victory of each individual artist over his servitude. . . .” Art is the revelation of truth in man’s surroundings. It is the discovery of God.
Madness, passion, doubt, task, give, do, work. You may search in vain to hear art spoken of in such terms in Canada. In fact, it is hard to find much discussion about the arts, per se, at all. Read the arts section of any metropolitan newspaper on any given day. Mostly, it is about politics: whose grants were cut, which arts-lobbying group wants what and what the minister of culture says about it all. It is about gender representation, voice appropriation and cultural sovereignty. Or else it is about economics: tax writeoffs and union rules, ownership controls and content regulations or, the rationale du jour, culture’s contribution to employment. The one thing it is almost never about is art.
All of this transpires in the usual deathwatch tones that accompany all discussions of Canadian culture. The slightest setback for any section of what have come to be called “the cultural industries” sets off a great collective keening in the nation’s press, a kind of ritual theatre in which the same lament is endlessly repeated: Canadian culture is dying, defeated, doomed, and all for the want of a few government dollars. “For the last two decades, Canadian culture has been obsessed with its own death,” Robert Fulford has written. “This melodramatic approach keeps cultural bureaucrats and politicians alert, and, for journalists, has the further advantage of being easy to report. Editors (perhaps readers, too) may respond with more interest to a piece about the Canada Council’s dwindling budget than to an essay explaining the power of Mavis Gallant’s new book.”
It is especially easy when the reportage amounts to writing exactly the same thing every day. Most arts reporters consider it the whole of their duty to instil in the anxious reader the proper attitude to state support of the arts. They set themselves to this task with devotion, if not enthusiasm. The formula never varies. Nor is it necessary to give space to the other side, or even to acknowledge that one might exist. One might as well suggest presenting the other side of an airline safety demonstration. And yet, it must exist, somewhere, for why else this edgy insistence?
Throughout this perpetual dirge, governments pour more than $3 billion every year into the arts’ upkeep ($6 billion, counting, as Statistics Canada does, libraries, galleries and national parks). The money funds more than expensive or high arts like opera, the traditional recipients of subsidy abroad. In Canada, we subsidize everything. Movies, theatre, television; painting, sculpture; music, dance; books, magazines, even the odd newspaper — all of it. We subsidize rock groups.
Consider the publishing industry. An author might receive a subsidy to write a book; the publisher a subsidy to put it out. The book will pass through subsidized distributors to subsidized bookstores (until lately, by subsidized mail), whereupon it will be reviewed in subsidized magazines, perhaps eventually to be the subject of subsidized academic research. And many more people will receive subsidies to write feelingly of why this circle must continue.
THE NEW, “ECONOMIC” ARGUMENTS TO SUBSIDIZE THE ARTS, cranked out semi-weekly in reports from various sections of the arts bureaucracy and faithfully relayed to us through the press, are not that new. Though franker than usual in arguing for subsidy on the same terms as every other industry — for the jobs created and the income generated, always ignoring the jobs destroyed and income lost in the process — they nevertheless insist that culture not be soiled by exposure to mere commerce. For as much as those in the arts proclaim culture to be above economics invariably rely on economics.
In mocking their attempts, the economist and art-lover William Grampp, in his wonderful 1989 critique, Pricing the Priceless: Art, Artists and Economics, summarizes their case this way: “Art costs more and is worth more than the public at large is willing to pay for it. Because of its cost, it is unable to support itself, and because of what it is worth, it should not be asked to support itself.” That, stripped of the bad-tempered rhetoric, is more or less the gist of every argument for arts subsidies. It is understandable that their advocates should know nothing about economics; what is more distressing is how little they seem to know, or care about, art.
Of course art is not the same as widgets, in the sense that it yields its own particular sort of satisfaction. Art making still involves costs to be incurred, prices to be paid and competing wants to be resolved. I’ll believe that art is not like widgets in this sense, the day artists refuse payment for their work, together with the gaggle of hucksters, middlemen and bureaucrats who dwell in the ever widening gulf between artist and audience. It is one thing to say every civilized person should support art. It is quite another to say that such support must be expressed through the state.
Sometimes state subsidies are justified. But this has to be demonstrated, not asserted by reciting endless variations on the theme that Art Is Good. Lots of things are good, but not all of them are publicly funded. Spiritual salvation is surely at least as good as art. Yet there is no public support for state funding of religion; its mere suggestion would draw loud protests. The church endures all the same.
With no single, universally agreed path to salvation, the church was disestablished. There is also no single, universally agreed standard of esthetic value. That does not mean there is no such thing as artistic merit, any more than there is no such thing as religious truth, only that no one view can claim unchallenged possession of it. If a man does not care for art, we are entitled to despise him as a boor. We are not entitled to take his money. And if we do take his money, we might at least give him a good reason.
Public spending is sensible for “public goods” (or services): goods we all enjoy, but for which individual consumers cannot be charged. Where pricing is possible and the good is in sufficient demand, private providers will supply it. But where enough people can enjoy a good or service without paying for it, too little of the good will be provided, since some will choose not to pay in the belief that others will. Whenever those who do not pay for a public good benefit from it, collecting payment by taxation is justifiable.
In the arts, these conditions rarely apply. Consumers can almost always be charged, whether for a painting or a book, a live performance or a recording. If subsidy proponents think in these terms at all, they have a hard time explaining why those who do not care for the arts should pay for the enjoyment of those who do.
Even if a benefit to the uncultured might be conjectured — if they do not appreciate the arts now, perhaps they will in time — it encounters the uncomfortable fact that the uncultured do not share in the conjecture. At which point the case for subsidy looks alarmingly like a case for theft. Sometimes this case for subsidies is bravely defended as paternalism toward the artist. Bravely, and wrongly. If a group of high-minded citizens sponsors artistic works with its own money for the benefit of the unenlightened, that is paternalism. Art subsidies, rather, tend to take money from the unenlightened for the benefit of the high minded.
Artists for PropagandaThere is another, entirely separable argument for state support of the arts, especially in the mass media. Here, the fear is not so much that the public, left to itself, would fail to support the arts, but that it might fail to support Canadian art. The wrong kind of art is in this case not necessarily inferior — indeed it is frequently acknowledged to be superior — but foreign.
For the cultural nationalist, a nation’s culture is not an organic necessity, the product of its citizens’ natural human urge to create: It is a thing forever threatened with extinction, imperilled less by the ignorance or indifference of the art-going public than by its cosmopolitanism. The task of government becomes to ensure, by a range of protectionist measures, that arts supporters direct their patronage to Canadian artists and their works.
For the most part, the desirability of such protection is considered self-evident, at least to those in the mass media. But what do we hope to achieve by it? In particular, is its purpose artistic or political? As a matter of art: Whether Canadian artists make Canadian art for Canadian audiences, or whether Canadians choose to view foreign art, while their own artists venture abroad, is a point of supreme esthetic indifference. Esthetics is concerned with quality, not nationality.
No, the purpose is entirely, often avowedly, political. Cultural nationalism is not about culture; it is about nationalism. If Canadian artists produce works of Canadian art, and if Canadians see their works — if we “tell ourselves our own stories” — we will create a shared national consciousness. In particular, this will emphasize how different we are from other peoples, and (by inference, or at any rate by default) how much we have in common. Art will define the nation as a distinct cultural entity, and so will justify the existence of the state: the same state, as it happens, that sponsored the art.
It is easy to see why politicians should find this bit of philistinism so appealing. Less clear is why so many artists are so eager to be co-opted. Two generations of Canadians have been told that the purpose of art is to create national feeling, and two generations of Canadian artists have gladly enlisted in this endeavour. As art, the results have been about as dire as one might predict. (While it has not been unknown for great art to further the agenda of its patrons in the past, the passion of Christ makes a better subject for propaganda than Canada’s Unique Cultural Identity.) Yet, even as a political strategy, it must be pronounced a failure: After 60 years of the CBC, 40 years of the Canada Council, 30 years of Canadian content, we are more divided than ever.
There is something faintly ludicrous in the idea that art is all that stands between us and annexation. Even if nationhood were rooted in difference, if such cultural distinctions are so great as to constitute an argument for nationhood, they are presumably not also so trivial as to fall away in the face of a few imported magazines. But suppose these differences were to disappear. Why precisely would this be objectionable? Foreign culture only represents a threat so far as it prevents Canadians from discovering their real culture. It is only inadequate as an expression of Canadian beliefs and values so long as it remains alien to them. But if these vital differences disappeared, these objections would no longer hold. The very process of assimilation is its own defence.
That is, unless nationhood is an end in itself: Perhaps it is not that we want to be a nation because we’re different, but that we want to be different in order to buttress our claims to nationhood. But if that is the case, if difference is merely a ploy to justify a claim to nationhood that in fact springs from other sources, then defending our cultural sovereignty is less necessary still. Where before it was merely pointless — the claim to nationhood would have disappeared along with our distinctiveness — in this case it is entirely irrelevant: The nation does not depend upon cultural difference for its existence. Either it has some other, more substantial claim — as I believe it does — or it has none.
Or perhaps we merely wish to preserve our differences, just for the sake of being different. I see no virtue in difference as an end in itself, but perhaps others might. Regardless, I fail to see where the argument for cultural protectionism fits in all this. If foreign art, being foreign, cannot speak to us in the same way as domestic art, then Canadians’ cultural choices will presumably reflect these innate differences, without need of government steering. The only kind of art that would need protection — protection, that is, from the choices of Canadians — would be works that were so determinedly irredentist as to articulate a difference that did not exist.
Few cultural nationalists would insist that art should invent cultural differences that aren’t there. Rather, the argument has come to rely, almost exclusively, on an idea borrowed from the dismal science, economies of scale. Canadians are different, the argument runs, and would naturally choose works of art that spoke to those differences, in preference to the alien art that comes to us from south of the border. But they are not presented with such a choice, or not on equal terms, because of the immense scale economies available to producers of American art, who may thus undercut Canadian producers. Students of economics will recognize this as the “infant industry” case for protection.
As a matter of economics, it is shaky enough: Assuming the case for supporting the arts, were accepted, there are better ways than protection, notably direct subsidy. But even in cultural terms, it collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Again: either we are different from the Americans in some fundamental way, or we are not. If we are, price comparisons are irrelevant. Canadian culture and American culture are not, under this assumption, substitutes, interchangeable with each other, but wholly unrelated articles. One might as well complain that pencils were being underpriced by paperclips. If, on the other hand, we are not all that different, if Canadian and American artists are each as likely to have something to say to us as the other — if, in short, artistic truth is universal — then our artists have the same economies of scale as theirs: for just as American producers would find willing buyers among Canadians, so would our cultural output find a ready market in the United States.
The arguments of the cultural nationalists would be hazy enough, even if anyone could define, in any meaningful way, what was Canadian and what was foreign art. Does the producer of a movie have to be Canadian? What about the director? The writer? The stars? The location? What if all of these were Canadian, but the movie was about a bunch of Americans? And what does it mean to say, even, that the director is Canadian? Is that on the basis of birthplace? Citizenship? Residence? There is no way of getting around this conundrum, which is why we have been treated in recent years to the periodic spectacle of various government bodies declaring, after much complex calculation, that Bryan Adams is not Canadian, but that Seagram’s (New York) is.
So we will protect what no one can define, with results no one can discern, for reasons no one can describe. A potted definition of cultural nationalism: the unreadable in pursuit of the ineffable.
WHEN I SAY THAT NOT ENOUGH OF SOMETHING MIGHT BE PROVIDED, I mean not as much as people would be willing to buy. When people in the cultural industries fret that, in the absence of subsidy, not enough art would be created, they mean any amount less than created now. This is implicit in subsidy arguments celebrating the large subsidy-driven expansion in Canadian artistic activity. That we are invited to bemoan the corollary — less subsidy, less art — reveals the essentially philistine premise that lurks within: More art is better art. Do I exaggerate? Listen to Walter Pitman, former chairman of the Ontario Arts Council: “The more art there is, the better it is.”
The results of this quantitative theory of esthetics are all around us: what Jacques Barzun has decried as the “glut of art.” The author and critic John Metcalf, in his scalding attack on literary subsidies, Freedom from Culture, noted the 4,000 professional writers registered with the Public Lending Right Commission in this country. Four thousand! Balzac lamented the 2,000 painters in 19th-century Paris, but 4,000 Canadian writers. . . .
It gets worse. The 1991 census shows 670,000 Canadians consider themselves employed in the cultural sectors. Of these, 348,160 reported a “cultural occupation” as their primary employment. That’s as of 1991. Since 1981, the cultural labor force has been growing more than twice as fast as the general work force, roughly three per cent per year. The census data included 11,815 architects, 11,450 painters and sculptors, about 30,000 designers, 28,715 illustrators, 12,330 photographers and camera operators, 15,165 producers and directors, 11,650 musicians and singers, 1,635 composers, conductors and arrangers, 1,445 dancers and choreographers, 4,125 actors, 26,670 fine arts teachers and fully 41,550 writers and editors. By any reasonable definition, then, Canada now has close to 200,000 full-time professional artists — 200,000 people trying to make a living, let alone a reputation as artists, and more joining them all the time. (An ominous portent: More than 50,000 Canadians in 1992 reported taking acting lessons in the previous year.)
They can’t, of course. But they are sustained in the illusion by the continual ingestion of grants from up to four different levels of government. Canada’s performing arts organizations, in particular, rely on the state for one-third to one-half of their revenues. Even the theatre, arguably the most commercial of the performing arts, earned little more from ticket sales ($70 million, in 1992-93) than from grants ($62 million). Every year, the state pours roughly $50 million into the production of painting and sculpture, $190 million into literature, $320 million into the performing arts, $330 million into film, video and sound recording, and $1.7 billion into radio and television broadcasting — not counting the millions more extorted from private broadcasters as a condition of licence. The Canada Council, with a budget of around $100 million, had a client list in 1992-93 that included, in addition to 36 orchestras, 160 publishers, 37 dance companies, 65 film and video producers, and some 100 magazines, more than two dozen arts service organizations — the Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, the Association of Canadian Women Composers, and so on — groups that exist mainly to lobby government for more support.
As Barzun notes, “an oversupply of art does not lower prices or cause the artist to ‘give up the business.’ It only augments the need for subsidies. . . . We can pay farmers not to grow crops, but we cannot pay artists to stop making art.” The swollen ranks of the subsidized don’t just deplete the share of public funds available to each: Critical standards are inevitably drawn down to accommodate them all.
It smarts to think that so much effort and resources, so much well-meaning and “creativity” has been wasted. But almost all the art that has ever been created — at a guess, 95 per cent — in all times and all places, is so much surplus tissue: gone, forgotten, and deservedly so. Mediocrity is the great constant of human existence.
That many people would need to abandon their chosen careers without the taxes of others is perhaps unfortunate. It is not in itself an argument for subsidy: Not everyone who wants to be an artist should be. The pitiless truth is that most people aren’t very good at their jobs, including prime ministers, journalists and artists. Whether or not one goes so far as to say, with Metcalf, that less art would be better art — “above all,” said Degas, “we must discourage the arts” — it is certainly not true that more art is better art. More art is more art.
Without subsidy, says a more sophisticated variant of the case, the art created would be of the wrong kind — mass market, lowest common denominator, McCulture, name your cliche: all Phantom, all the time. Of course, if popularity defines the wrong kind, this is self-evidently true. The assumption — unstated, unexamined, often unconscious — is that popular taste must inevitably fail to appreciate the highest artistic achievements, a sometimes self-serving position firmly rooted in the romantic fallacy: Some great artists died penniless, therefore all penniless artists are great.
Rather than too quickly frame the debate simply as a battle of elite versus popular taste, however, we might first ask why, even if members of the public are such boobs, we should so completely ignore the role of the private patron: one who supports an artist or his work out of a philanthropic concern for artistic excellence or, on the theory that popular taste is not so much low as slow, with a more entrepreneurial eye for art that may, in time, find its audience. The case for the government as patron amounts to saying that state hirelings, spending other people’s money, will do a better job of picking art than private patrons, spending their own. “They tell me we have no literature now in France,” said Louis Napoléon. “I will speak to the Minister of the Interior about it.”
But surely the presumption, if any, should be the reverse: “If I am thinking of buying a painting,” writes Metcalf, “I will look at it with all the intensity, experience and knowledge that I can bring to bear. All my faculties will be sharpened by the prospect of imminently parting with a goodly sum of my own money. If I am buying a painting for you, a friend, on your behalf, it is almost inevitable that I will be slightly less rigorous and less demanding. . . . Consider now what happens when I am buying not one but several paintings. And I am buying them not with my money and not with your money but with that abstraction called ‘public’ money. And I know that all that money must be spent.” Paintings or plays or songs or books: The argument applies with equal force.
What is the evidence for the contrary proposition that left to private choices, art would wither? Subsidy advocates like to reel off the names of artistic greats who were beneficiaries of the state, as if that settled the matter: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo; Haydn, Mozart and Wagner; Shakespeare and Molière. This does not get us far: Whoever said they weren’t? Yet proponents of subsidy seem often to imply, if they do not believe it themselves, that no art worth the name could possibly be produced without subsidy. Do I exaggerate again? Critic Paul Goldberger, in the New York Times, summarizes the common view in suitably sweeping tones: “Culture has never been able to support itself,” he writes. “The marketplace has never been a testing ground for artistic validity; history shows few correlations between what is popular enough to pay for itself and what is good enough to last.” Or listen to Ray Conlogue of the Globe and Mail: “Since the Renaissance, memorable art has been subsidized one way or the other.” Similar examples could be culled from the arts section of any major newspaper on any given day.
Very well: Two can play that game. What do Beethoven’s symphonies, Picasso’s paintings and Joyce’s novels have in common? All are recognized masterworks, and all were created without a shilling, or a sou, of state support. (All right: Joyce once received a grant of £75 from the Royal Literary Fund.) The idea that state subsidy was the norm of artistic creation so contradicts historical fact it is difficult to know where to start. Shall we take, I don’t know, the Ds? Dante, Delacroix, Dostoevsky, Dvorák. Or should we play categories — say, French writers of the 19th century? Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo. Not a subsidy in the lot. The state was nowhere part of the rise of the novel, or photography, or film, it had no hand in jazz, blues, folk or country music, or indeed in most of the painting, sculpture, music or poetry that has ever been created: For beyond those produced for sale stretches that immense body of art that belongs to the private or household realm, made neither for the state nor for the market, but solely for the enjoyment of the artist and his immediate circle.
Any honest survey of the past will in fact find every combination, in every field: great artists who were supported by the state, great artists who weren’t; bad artists who were popular favorites, and some just as wretched who were favored by the court; great artists who were shunned and went hungry, great artists who were honored and rich; and of course the numberless mediocrities who lived, worked, died and were instantly forgotten.
Certainly no evidence supports the myth that art, if worthwhile, must inevitably elude an audience: that obscurity is depth, that odium is merit. “The great artist neglected in his own time is largely an unhappy fiction,” writes Michael Lewis in the New Republic. “Most artists smiled upon by history received their due in their day.” Take literature, for starters. The writers of the past we most admire today, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Balzac, Dickens and Goethe, were not typically the preserve of the select: They were popular favorites in their own time.
Or music. Haydn left the suffocating security of his continental patron for England and the risks of the open market: He was a huge hit. Mozart, too, prospered by his pen between patrons. Forced to retire from a lucrative performing career by the onset of his deafness, Beethoven groused, “I am obliged to live entirely on the profits from my compositions.” But that is exactly what he did. Even opera, the ne plus ultra of art-that-must-be-subsidized, was once a thriving industry: As early as the 17th century, Venice alone had 10 opera houses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, opera occupied the affections of the Italian public as only sports can match today, with rival entrepreneurs competing ferociously for audiences and performers. To be sure, they produced a lot of dreck. They also produced Verdi.
Commercial acumen has been a feature of some of the greatest artists in the Western canon. The summer best-seller in 1532 involved a family of giants in Arthurian times. Impressed by its sales, the then unknown Rabelais stole its cast of characters and ground out a sequel — Pantagruel — to even greater success. Shakespeare not only acted in the plays he wrote, but was an investor in the company, entitled to as much as 14 per cent of the gate. He died a wealthy man, owner of the fanciest house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Reynolds got his first work as a portraitist by cunningly pricing his paintings just below those of his teacher. Wordsworth, author of the chart-topping Lyrical Ballads, served tea to admirers in his home — and charged for it. Rubens was known to add or subtract scenes from his work as his customers preferred. After audiences hissed at the heroine’s plain dress in the first staging of La Traviata, Verdi dressed the cast in the style of the court of Louis XIII, and turned a flop into a hit. Beethoven often sold the same pieces to several publishers. Stravinsky insisted on conducting his own works, so as to avoid splitting the fee. “Get this into your head,” said Renoir. “There’s only one indicator for telling the value of paintings, and that is the sale room.”
The same holds true today. The German art writer Willi Bongard in the 1970s collected and quantified data reflecting expert opinion on contemporary artists — 300 points for each work shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 200 points for a lesser museum like the Stedelijk in Amsterdam; 50 points for a mention in art aktuell, 10 points for Connaissance des Arts, and so on. (Sure, it’s a bit arbitrary, but it’s as good a system as any.) Correlating Bongard’s rankings with the price of a representative piece by each of the artists, Grampp showed “that the price of the work of the principal living artists of the world is consistent with the critical judgment that has been made of them.”
Popular taste as often leads elite taste as follows. The most famous story of a group of artists who were supposedly ahead of their time, the impressionists and post-impressionists, in fact confirms the opposite. While they were indeed spurned by the academy, and though they were at first sustained by a few sympathetic dealers and friends, it was the public that came to their rescue. Indeed, the modern art market coincided with the arrival of the impressionists, or rather with the American collectors, flush with cash and hungry for European art, who devoured them — their prices being cheaper for having been excluded from the salon.
Or look at it another way. It is true that Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime (Cézanne and Renoir were among those who hated his work). It did not seem to prevent him from painting.
STATE PATRONAGE OF THE PAST IN NO WAY COMPARES TO TODAY’S ARTS funding, in its methods, objectives or beneficiaries. It was generally exchanged for a service, whether in the religious or political message the artist’s work propounded or in the pleasure it afforded the patron. It resembled more a commission than a grant: its purpose rooted in the work itself, not in the promotion of the arts in general or the artist’s self-actualization. A dissatisfied patron always had the option of takin his business elsewhere, and often did. The charismatic ideal of the artist, alone with his genius, is a new invention as is the very concept of the arts as distinct from the everyday arts of life. Until the 19th century, arts referred to those things which provided pleasure, whether performed by professionals or amateurs. The ability to join in the conversation in the local tavern was an art, as was building a pleasant and functional cottage.
This humble idea, of art as craft, produced some of the most cherished works of the human hand and mind. Because most citizens participated in the arts, they were qualified to evaluate their worth. Then in the 19th century, writes John Pick, the art historian, “that common sense flew apart. Art separated itself off from crafts, from design, from sport, from pastimes and from entertainment.” It became something professionals did, which only an educated minority could comprehend. Yet the participation of the vulgar public was an element in some of the world’s greatest ages of art. “Renaissance Florence,” New Republic‘s Lewis writes, “was a city financially obsessed. The distinct impression left by the thousands of personal account books is of an entire city perpetually toting up its net worth.” It was also the soil for one of the greatest flowerings of artistic expression. The art historian Richard Goldthwaite credits the Renaissance with the discovery of “things,” along with antiquity, nature, man and the individual. “The venture of Italians into the world of goods . . . marked the first stirring of what today is called consumerism. . . .”
Spurred by a booming mercantile economy, the art market developed at much the same time and in much the same way as the market for other goods, and with the same impulse to conspicuous consumption. Italian businessmen made materialism their religion; the pieces they commissioned for their own aggrandizement were the secular equivalent of the devotional works that graced the local duomo. Sometimes the two worlds overlapped: Florence in the quattrocento boasted more than 600 private chapels, each decorated to taste. Eventually, the first private art collections were formed. “By enshrining these objects in museums,” Goldthwaite argues, “we pay homage to the luxury consumption of the past and thereby reverently celebrate the passion for spending for things that keeps the capitalist system of the West going.”
The same twined flourishing of culture and commerce occurred in 17th-century northern Europe, the extraordinary golden age that gave us Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and de Hooch, all painting for private customers. And again, the next century in Britain, where state patronage was all but unknown, yet the market for good writing, good music and good art, coupled with exuberant participation in music, dancing, painting and literature exceeded anything seen before or since.
The arts were vital, the debates fierce, the coffee houses filled. Art was not provided to meet needs perceived by bureaucrats. It was a part of ordinary living, nurtured by the straightforward wants of people. The robust world of commercial art did not debase standards to meet some supposed low level of popular taste. Artist and audience each raised the other to a higher level.
At one time, even in Canada, in Orwell’s phrase, the arts had not yet been captured by the bureaucrats. It is simply untrue that Canadian culture began with the Canada Council or the Massey Commission. As noted by the late George Woodcock, who was no foe of either, “the myth that the Canada Council in itself inspired the artistic flowering of the past quarter of a century or so is untenable.” Callaghan and MacLennan, the Group of Seven and Painters Eleven, all predate the Canada Council; the Stratford Festival, the regional theatres, the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company, the municipal orchestras were already up and running on private money and volunteer enthusiasm without the help of the Canada Council. “It is obvious that a great movement in the arts was gathering impetus before the council appeared, and would have continued with or without patronage, generating its own flow of interest and — though doubtless on a less lavish scale — created its own economic base.”
If in the postwar era we were now evincing more interest in the arts, the intrusion of the state was less a cause than a result. Margaret Atwood, contrary to popular myth, was not first published with the help of subsidy: Her first book of poems was privately published by a friend, her second by the unsubsidized Contact Press, her third by the Oxford University Press. The most revered figures in Canadian popular music, from Joni Mitchell to Neil Young, hit the charts long before Canadian content laws. “When one remembers how similar was the development of an independent tradition a couple of generations earlier in the United States,” Woodcock wrote, “it is hard to believe that in its broad outline the situation would have been greatly different in Canada today if the Canada Council . . . had not come into being.”
IF HISTORY DOES NOT POINT TO THE NECESSITY OF SUBSIDY, the present does not offer much evidence of its success — in terms of quality, that is, not of quantity.
The practical effects of Canada’s extensive system of subsidies and other protective devices have been attacked by a growing band of critics. They point out that much of what nestles under the wing of the state in the name of the starving artist is profitable enterprise undertaken by multibillion dollar corporations; that much of what is legislated in the name of Canadian culture is ineffective or counterproductive; that it has created a closed, clubby, self-indulgent community of backscratchers, logrollers and hangers-on, a hothouse culture requiring cadres of bureaucrats to administer, in the name of accountability, ethnic representation and other good things. Of these even subsidy proponents are edgily aware; yet the system might still be defended as beneficial on balance, its faults amenable to correction, so long as its basic premises were sound.
In the end, rather, we return to the relationship between the artist and the audience, and what each owes to the other and to art. If what is popular is not always good, neither can good art never be popular. A work of art may have merit even if it fails to find an audience, but art defeats its purpose without at least seeking one. The artist, wrote Conrad, appeals “to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation . . . to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity . . . which binds together all humanity, the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.” Books are written to be read, pictures are painted to be seen, now and for all time: They are the manifests of that solidarity.
If that is so, does the relationship between artist and audience begin with the completed work, or at the moment of its conception — with the choice of which work of art to create? If the latter, then art is inextricably bound up with its financing, for that will determine which artists are at work, and which works they create. As much as the artist, the paying audience is present at the creation where, in a sense, each chooses the other as collaborator in the esthetic experience.
A work of art is a conversation. Here, look at this, the artist says: I think it’s beautiful, or true, or at any rate interesting. What do you think? Perhaps a work has value even if nobody values it. But how would we know? It is not enough for the artist simply to declare its worth. He must at least open it to public debate. He must expose himself to the choices of his audience, and hope to persuade them of its merits. So far as subsidy insulates him from this requirement, it lessens the obligation to speak directly to his audience, in favor of a committee of his peers. One-half of the collaboration is lost.
But if the consumer is to do his part, he must make an “investment in taste,” in Grampp’s phrase, with which to winnow the false from the true, the shallow from the profound, the shoddy from the well-made. He will not make that investment until he makes his own choices with his own money. Only when he consciously participates in the sacrifice will it be worth his while to devote the time and study needed to get the most out of the experience: Price not only rations consumption, it intensifies it. That can not happen when the state chooses for him.
Perhaps this mutual obligation makes art different from other goods. Or perhaps not. The purchase of a chair, for instance, depends on more than strict functionality. That part of its value we ascribe to the esthetic pleasure it yields represents a transaction in art. No subsidy is needed to encourage the production of beautiful chairs, only demanding and knowledgeable clients. The chair that glittered in the light of momentary fashion becomes in time an expensive reminder of past folly. If nothing cost anything, we would have no need to be choosy.
If we did not like something at any given moment, we could simply throw it out and buy another. Consciousness of cost instils a respect for things that last and values that transcend. It increases the returns to an investment in taste.
There is no inherent tendency to vulgarity in the market: Indeed, there is not one market, but several. It may be that most people are vulgar, but most people need not buy a good for it to be produced. It only takes one, provided he will pay the price. Or if a buyer cannot be found, it depends solely on the creator’s desire.
If the market is a democracy, it is not one where the majority rules: Every taste may be represented, no matter how few its enthusiasts. Would there be fewer symphonies, fewer operas, fewer plays without subsidy? Or would they just carry a stiffer ticket price? The answer depends strictly on whether their supporters are willing to put their money where their mouths are. Suppose an unsubsidized opera ticket cost $150. Would the average opera-goer blanch at this? The same person will pay $150 to a scalper for hockey tickets, or for a silk shirt, or for Nintendo, things he would profess to care little about. Why not pay as much for things he does care about?
Subsidizing the creation of art, then, dulls both parties’ awareness of the other, discouraging an esthetic bond between them. To make art a thing of exchange, on the other hand, is not to “commodify” it: quite the opposite. In paying for a work of art, we are explicitly choosing to forgo the worldly goods the same money would have purchased. Artist and audience freely pledge the fruits of their labor to each other. It is a kind of communion, the transubstantiation of commonplace wants into art.
This is plainly not to say that all art produced with subsidy yields no claim to merit. I am only talking of tendencies, of probabilities, of the likely consequence of funding art divorced from the choices and experiences of its audience. To oppose state subsidy is not to worship at the shrine of the market, or to put efficiency and profit in place of truth and beauty. It is only a plea for voluntarism, impelled by the belief that art, of all things, cannot be the fruit of coercion.
We would not, after all, conscript artists to create art. Why then should we conscript the public to support it?