Why does the federal government appropriate funds for the arts? Last week, a potential answer was given: the arts are public goods. Did it convince anyone? There are many holes in the argument (art is meant to provoke and be innovative, not everyone will get the same value). Today the potential answer is this: the arts give positive externalities that outweigh costs.
Externalities of arts funding
The arts may be worth more than the economic value of paintings, performances, and poetry. The total societal value of art exceeds the private market value. That value is dependent on the consumer’s preferences. Because of this subjectivity in economic worth, the arts must have some other value that requires governmental support. President Nixon argued that the country needs growth in intangibles, like arts, as well as tangibles; the former help the nation achieve the “true meaning of freedom” and know “the full glory of the human spirit” (Nixon, 1971 memo). Kennedy likewise claimed art contribute a deeper understanding of national strength and human spirit (Kennedy 1963). This language continued into the 1990s when President Clinton claimed that federal funding of the arts enriches communities through cultural, educational, and artistic programs (Clinton 1995).
The educational benefits of art instruction could be a reason for funds appropriations to the arts. Research suggests that art instruction increases test scores and educational ability. Karen DeMoss and Terry Morris (2001) conducted a review of the educational benefits of the arts and conclude that art education does add to student learning. Not all research agrees, but there does seem to be some advantage. However, the majority of the funding does not get distributed for educational purposes. Therefore, the education justification is not the sole reason for funding of the National Endowment.
So what, then, are the higher goods that art delivers? Understanding true freedom, human spirit, and general community enrichment? A sculpture might increase everyone’s general happiness, but some in the public simply may not like the approved art. Is this still community enrichment? If the externalities of art are the ultimate goal of arts funding, then the government should quantify the value to decide which artistic projects to fund. President Nixon stated, “In its relation to the arts, the role of government should not be simply that of patron.
Government uses the arts, and I think we can learn to use them more creatively” (Nixon, 1971 memo). However, this statement strongly contradicts the Supreme Court’s decision in NEA v Finley. The Court declared that the government cannot step beyond the role of patron. The bottom line is that externalities create many conflicts in reasoning and do not necessarily explain the reason for arts funding.
In my view, the economic analysis tools of externalities and public goods fail to explain the funding. Instead, supporting the arts encourages two constituencies, artists and – very broadly – national consumers of art. The artists have incentive to be Kennedy’s champion of individuality and enhance the human spirit; the public can – if they desire, the big if – enjoy the federal subsidies of art. The result is a great national purpose of an advanced civilization, encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry (PL 89-209).
Art as national identity
The historical timing of the governments funding of the arts supports my final suggestion. When the arts are part of a grander narrative of civilization – not just a public good or an element of a well-rounded person – then arts policy advocates can pursue federal funding. President Clinton’s public statements about the arts clearly lacked the same drive of the 60s and 70s towards raising national artistic achievement. Without the Soviet menace, where the arts were funded in centralized, the incentive for strengthening national identity as a symbol of US power through arts no longer exists. The statement from the Act stating that “people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants,”(PL 89-209) no longer has the same impetus as it did during the Cold War. The culture wars, focusing on decency and respect, have become more important. Perhaps in a post-September 11 world, the new terrorist enemy may return the concept of arts funding as a historic endeavor committed to freedom and human spirit.
I cannot leave this subject without a quote from John Adams:
In 1780 John Adams wrote his wife Abigail Adams, “I must study politics and war, [so] that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, [and] architecture.”