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That's The Point

Lots of negative response to the culture vouchers concept, but the most common criticism -- people will spend theirs on bad art! -- illustrates precisely what's wrong with NEA-type schemes. People (obviously) disagree about aesthetic standards in ways what are impossible to resolve. Thus, it would be nice to have a mechanism of culture-subsidization that didn't create a need to resolve these issues. Hence vouchers. A better objection is that once you parse out the NEA's budget voucherwise it turns out that everyone gets less than $1, which would be pretty pointless. Of course I proposed getting additional funds by changing the tax status of certain charitable contribution, but I have no idea how you would even begin to estimate how much money you could bring in that way.

November 20, 2004 | Permalink


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» Constitutional Amendment from FUGOP
Yglesias' "culture vouchers" idea is a non-starter - the vast majority of the vouchers would go unspent, and those that were would be too diffuse to actually encourage artistic innovation. There are clear organizational problems that require some cen... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 20, 2004 7:04:49 PM

» The NEA and The Big Tally Book of Cultural DNA from Crooked Timber
Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias (and again) are happy to take Chait's hint: abolish the NEA.  Well, the NEA did two nice things for me this week, so let me tell you what they were. First, as mentioned, I'm studying... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 21, 2004 12:20:38 PM

» A storm in a teacup from battlepanda
Apparently it all got started with this commentary column by Jonathon Chait, arguing for the demolishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. Kevin Drum basically agreed with Chait's reasoning that the NEA should not exist, but disagrees that getting [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 22, 2004 5:04:21 PM


Another cause for concern is that some highly hierarchical organizations could bully their members into giving them their culture vouchers, or perhaps a tenth of them, if you get my drift. Then again, there's a significant portion of the population who would give parts of their culture vouchers to art museums showing Mapplethorpe. So I really can't complain, except to say that I'd like to think that part of the NEA's mission is to expand the types of culture the average American can see, not just expand the net amount of culture. The two above subcultures usually don't live in close proximity.

Posted by: Maureen | Nov 20, 2004 6:52:23 PM

I think the whole point of the NEA is that its review and grants committees form a coherent system of approval -- a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval, which allows a lot of other arts money to flow to and thru the same set of grantees and granting organization.

Take away the NEA's identify, nurture, approve functions, and it really has no function. Vouchers are really silly. Really silly.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Nov 20, 2004 7:24:44 PM

I take it the voucher idea is to make sure the money is actually spent on art, otherwise, what's the point?
With the vouchers, look forward to "art afternoon" at McD, where some employee does something remotely artsy and people can cash in their vouchers while eating. For the more scrupulous, there's the half-hour play with subsequent buffet at your local impromptu-theatre.
If you want to safeguard against such abuse, you will end up with a more expensive bureocracy than whatever went to NEA. If you don't want to safeguard against it, what's the point, knowing it will be abused? You might just as well get the government out of the arts completely. Whether you'd want to do that is another matter.

Posted by: markus | Nov 20, 2004 8:18:38 PM

Yes! This is a GREAT idea! In fact, we could out-voucher the entire work of everything that is dependent upon intelligence of any kind!

Let's voucherize the FDA! I'm dying for that pill that I see in the back of tabloids that'd make me 3 inches taller in a week . . . they're gonna figure that out if they'd just get some more funding, no?

Let's voucherize NASA! I hate thinking that I'm currently supporting any sort of research of Venus; I had a childhood neighbor named Venus, and she had a creepy missing toe that made us gag everytime she showed up at the swimming pool. I'd much rather throw a voucher toward Star Trek teleporting anyway . . . wouldn't that be cool?

Let's voucherize the Interior Department! I've never understood why I ought to be supporting any national parks in Alaska or Hawaii since I hate air travel and won't ever get there. Like a lot of people. In fact, why do we have to travel AT ALL to get to these places? I'm giving my voucher to my hometown to see if we can't get one of those big-ass national park campgrounds south of the bypass.

Voucherization! Because if "one person, one vote" is good enough for politics, it ought to be good enough for science, art, religion, philosophy, and every other successful human endeavor dependent upon intelligence and creativity!

Voucherization! It's Human Progress for Dummies!!

Thanks Matt!

Posted by: hoofnmouth | Nov 20, 2004 9:08:41 PM

People (obviously) disagree about aesthetic standards in ways what are impossible to resolve.

Why not replace the National Institutes of Health with science vouchers as well? The case differs from that of government arts patronage only superficially; the choice of which scientific endeavors to fund for how much is inherently non-scientific and subjective, and intermittently fraught with controversy (eg, stem cells). There's no reason one body of patronage ought to be voucherized, but not the other.

Posted by: son volt | Nov 20, 2004 9:15:29 PM

I'm all for abolishing the NEA(in any sort of national form, at least), but I would rather see it in its current form than morphed into some art popularity contest. Then it would be an overstepping of federal bounds AND not even accomplish its purpose.

Posted by: Glenn Bridgman | Nov 20, 2004 9:34:23 PM

hmmm... government subsidises science - do "consumers" have to agree what "good science" is? in the interest of equal time should we spend the same money analysing the shroud of Turin that we spend on AIDS research? No. scientists, business lobbies, folks get out and politic over how research dollars are spent. Not such a terrible system. Why is tis not an ok model for subsidies for art.

An art museum, a theater company, even a vigorous poetry scene - these things have each some of the character of being a public good regardless of how generally (or not) they are consumed. To look at the converse, is Coca Cola a great public good deserving of subsidy because it is so generally consumed?

Of course Coke probably is subsidised to a greater extent than art....

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 20, 2004 9:36:15 PM

sorry to rant - but of all the things in the federal budget why fuss about this! It just seeems mean.

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 20, 2004 9:38:56 PM

The simpler solution would be to completely abolish NEA funding and reduce taxes proportionately. If taxpayers want to spend their money subsidizing culture, they are free to do so. And taxpayers certainly will spend a lot of that money subsidizing culture. That's what they do every time they go to the cineplex or buy a CD. I see no reason for government to take any position on whether a local Shakespeare production is more worthy of funding than the new SpongeBob movie. Culture is not a public good, and it doesn't need public funding.

BTW, I would also be quite happy to extend that reasoning to NASA, FDA, and the Interior. Hoofnmouth may have intended his post to be sarcastic, but I fully agree with it.

Posted by: Xavier | Nov 20, 2004 9:39:56 PM


Could you give a list of what you would consider public goods? Perhaps even an exhaustive one, since I'm expecting it to be short.

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier, master of the universe +1 | Nov 20, 2004 10:24:28 PM

That's a tough question. National defense and law enforcement are probably the best examples of public goods. Roads may also qualify. They could be provided privately, but the cost of exclusion would be high enough that I'm willing to treat it as a public good.

I think this is a question that most libertarians would be able to answer very easily. They have a vision of what an ideal society would look like and they know what, if any, services should be provided by government. I don't think that way. I look at individual issues to determine whether government should be involved. On just about any issue where there is any serious debate over whether something should be funded by the government I think it shouldn't. Any analysis beyond that is just idle theorizing and libertarians do too much of that for their own good.

Posted by: Xavier | Nov 20, 2004 10:40:00 PM

I think a fair test of any piece of art is whether or not it can attract enough financial support to justify its creation. The products of the movie and music industries manage this routinely. The live performance industry, including orchestras, opera companies, dance companies, stage plays and musicals aren't as reliably profitable, but still mostly manage to get by on a combination of patronage and box office.

The NEA seems to serve mainly as a modest blue state pork barrel. It funds a lot of things no one but the aggressively avant garde would be interested in seeing - like a naked Karen Finley slathered in chocolate pudding. Absent subsidy, we would all be spared the trauma of even hearing about such unfortinate things, never mind seeing them.

Of course, if you could get, say, a naked Jaime Pressly to wear some chocolate pudding you'd have a different thing altogether. You'd also have no need of the NEA.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Nov 20, 2004 11:25:22 PM

My culture voucher is going for booze!

Posted by: Dick Durata | Nov 20, 2004 11:46:01 PM

Pure market positions on this as lots of other things are ahistorical. Sure, the computer, graphical user interfaces (& you thought they were invented entirely at Xerox PARC!), the internet, the web, not to mention nuclear power, rocketry, communications and weather satellites, most of molecular biology, and on and on and on and on and on, might have been invented or discovered through purely private sector initiative... only they weren't...

Historically, lots of serious art, music, theater, etc., has been similarly state-sponsored (although in the past the "state" was typically an individual member of some ruling nobility or of some state-like religious hierarchy). They often (maybe always) served some civic purpose. An organization like the NEA is simply an effort to carry out similar activities in the context of a democratic republic like the US.

More abstractly, I find it highly unlikely that it would be possible to specify necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the category "public goods," any more than it has proven possible to do so for the category "art." The difference is that efforts to be "minimalist" in the latter case may be amusing or instructive but they don't cause much lasting harm.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Nov 21, 2004 12:12:52 AM

this is a terrible idea. i do not want Thomas Kincade to get government funding.

Posted by: steve | Nov 21, 2004 2:12:40 AM

Lots of negative response to the culture vouchers concept, but the most common criticism -- people will spend theirs on bad art! -- illustrates precisely what's wrong with NEA-type schemes. People (obviously) disagree about aesthetic standards in ways what are impossible to resolve.

Just plain wrong. It's not that people disagree about aesthetic standards in ways that are IMPOSSIBLE to resolve... it's that such resolution is DIFFICULT and is COSTLY (at least in the political sense as to Democrats).

Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that all aesthetic standards are NOT created equally - some REALLY ARE better than others. And being better aesthetically has nothing to do with being popular.

Just because something is difficult and costly doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it. In fact, I think it is important that we do make the attempt to ascertain and fund art at the highest aesthetic level. Because it is not something that is simply consumed today - it is something that can long outlive all of us. It is an effort worth making.

Posted by: Al | Nov 21, 2004 3:18:26 AM

The comparisons with subsidized science are interesting, but limited. Of course art is not like science as far as providing expert solutions and knowledge. Art is about providing new human experiences and perspectives. But can there be a positive role for government?

I think so. The problem with the arts in America is that they are underappreciated because they are misunderstood. It's hard to locate "art" in a culture with so much "near-art": art-like products that convey some novelty but little challenge to existing perspectives. As a result, the public does not appreciate art and its role in renovating human experience. And as we all know, some artists have moved further away from wide public appreciation in order to maintain their avant-garde stance. Not helpful, especially when NEA and others are seen as catering to the stance rather than the esthetic needs of the public. (Note I said "needs", not "prejudices". No $$ for Kincaid!)

But a real program to increase art appreciation would cost billions! I don't know about you all, but my school district keeps reducing its art and music programs. Same with most state and municipal programs. A real program would start where people are, such as promoting local artists of note.

More than this, it would reach out to people through other channels. Why not have small travelling shows of real merit at malls? Why not use consumer electronics stores to showcase breakthrough video artists? Why not loan valuable works to schools? Why not reward outstanding employees with art instead of engraved lucite bricks?

Posted by: miriamsong | Nov 21, 2004 8:48:41 AM

"WHEN the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

*sigh* I've gotten into some rather strained debates about this with my mom, the symphonic harpist.

I think that public goods aren't as mysterious as Xavier makes them out to be: he could have used the classical definition that marginal costs (dc/dy) = 0, fixed costs exist, and it's impossible to prevent access to the good. I think Xavier knows a lot more economics than I do, though, so perhaps there's a reason he didn't mention this perhaps too-simplistic definition. Anyway, by my criterion, some art (public broadcasts, art in public parks or on public buildings, etc) are public goods, some aren't.

Ultimately, though, this isn't about economics, so talkin' economics isn't going to get us anywhere. It's about culture. Should the government make an effort to steer our culture?

Perhaps in the case of the NEA, you think so, but always ask the question: "would I want this in the hands of my enemies?" Imagine Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell as NEA Chair. Imagine a "purge" of them, like the CIA. Perhaps you like all that funding for the Philidelphia Philharmonic, but what about if the NEA funds are going to evangelically-oriented cultural projects?

Perhaps you say that you don't just want to create art that will be appreciated as is, but our current culture, but you want to change our culture. Very good. I think I'd like to change our culture a bit too. Do you really want to concede that the state is an appropriate instrument for cultural change, though? If you allow that the state can try to change culture, then you don't just allow that they can try to change it how you want it to change, but that whoever holds political power can try to change not just the politics, but the whole culture, how they want to.

Larry Birnbaum mentions that states have always sponsored art. To what end, though? Well, look throughout history, and it's mostly glorification of the emperor and state and glorification of the state religion. This is not to say that merely because J. S. Bach was working for the church, what he produced was of less value, but if we allow that cultural stewardship is a legitimate role of the state, we risk going back to the historical role of art in the state.

There is, of course, a way out of this. That is to lay down objective aesthetic standards, like AI refers to. In that case, you can have state art without that art being subject to the whims of whoever holds power. My mother takes the view that "her" art has intrinsic moral value, and is objectively better than, say, Britney Spears. However, she never laid down a clear standard for evaluating artistic quality, so "my art is objectively superior to her art" is indistinguishable from "I prefer my art to her art." Now, it doesn't have to be that way. There could be objective standards that would allow someone to say which type or piece of art is superior without using his personal judgment. I've heard of such standards, but not mentioned on this thread. Unless that's what you want, you're just saying "whoever wants to and holds political power can use that power to take culture wherever she wants," which I find frightening given whom we're ruled by.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 21, 2004 9:34:13 AM

Dick Eagleton -

here you are just wrong. Most of the NEA money goes to orchestras, art museums, community art centers, and suchlike institutions.

Here in California the California Arts Council was just cut to the bone. A program in my neighborhood (City of Angels Ballet) which provided free classical ballet instruction to gifted yougsters has had to suspend its scholarships. Great - let the little ballerinas, some of whose mothers clean houses for a living, "attract sufficient money"

and btw Karen Finly has never had trouble selling tickets - your argument is a total red herring. The government pays more for for military bands than for the NEA - should they pass the hat after taps? Is there something special about art that makes it ineligible for subsidy - not everyone likes oil exploration for gods sake!

A lively art-world with a big non-commercial component is one of the things that makes life bearable - a few dollars a head won't kill anyone.

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 21, 2004 9:56:34 AM

We've got culture coming out of our ears, we don't need to subsidize it, unless you're trying to subsidize unpopular culture. In which case the purpose of the NEA is specifically to spend people's money on what they DON'T want it spent on, in which case the NEA shouldn't just be abolished, salt should be sown on the land where it stood.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 21, 2004 10:08:37 AM

Brett - what do you say to my example of the ballet school? Unpopular? The government supports science education why not art?

Did you know that classical music cannot be support by ticket sales and never has throughout history! That Beethoven was subsidised by the Viennese!

And I would say many valuable things are NOT popular but still valuable. The government intervenes to encourage fuel efficiency and abstinance - popular?

Look at the grants that the NEA gives and see what you think before you mouth off.

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 21, 2004 10:18:15 AM

Some Unpopular Art Sponsored by the NEA:

Shakespeare for students:

The National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia announced today to the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America a new component to the Arts Endowment's successful national initiative, Shakespeare in American Communities. This second phase, Shakespeare for a New Generation, will provide middle and high school students in underserved communities across the United States the opportunity to see professional productions of Shakespeare plays. Shakespeare in American Communities Phase II: Shakespeare for a New Generation is an initiative of the Arts Endowment administered by Arts Midwest, a regional arts organization based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 21, 2004 10:26:12 AM

More Unpopular Culture:

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) jointly announced the awarding of $14,500,000 in federal Save America's Treasures (SAT) grants. With these funds 60 organizations and agencies will act to conserve some of America's most significant cultural treasures, which illustrate, interpret, and embody the great events, ideas, and individuals that contribute to our nation's history and culture.  Through the Congressionally-appropriated SAT program, awards were made to 35 historic properties and sites and 25 nationally significant collections of artifacts, documents and artistic works.

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 21, 2004 10:27:35 AM

How about Art Museums Brett ?

The National Endowment for the Arts recently announced the first recipients of its 2004 grants, representing $25.3 million out of an overall NEA budget of $122.5 million. Some 915 grants were awarded in the categories of Creativity, Services to Arts Organizations and Artists, Literature Fellowships and
Leadership Initiatives. The Creativity grants--788 totaling $19.9 million--are used for such projects as commissions, residencies, exhibitions and publications. Among the winners are: the Metropolitan Museum ($100,000) for "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)"; the Los Angeles County Museum ($100,000) for "The Course of Invention: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America, 1880-1920"; New York's Asia Society ($100,000) for "Asian Games: The Art of Contest"; the St. Louis Art Museum ($100,000) for "Art from New Ireland"; Washington, D.C.'s Phillips Collection

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 21, 2004 10:28:51 AM

"The Nutcracker" -

San Antonio Symphony
San Antonio TX
To support a collaborative presentation of The Nutcracker ballet. This high visibility, annual event will showcase the orchestra and a Russian dance company, and will feature the talents of local children.

Posted by: webfoot | Nov 21, 2004 10:32:52 AM

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