The fiscal responsibility of the government

Is prosperous sustenance of contemporary art the fiscal responsibility of the government? Noel Carroll's article "Can government funding of the arts be justified theoretically?" analyzes this question. The justifications as presented by Carroll can be seen as an approach towards appeasing the irate tax payers who are demanding to know the reasons behind the spending of public money on prospective art. In light of recent controversies in North America over the merit of artistic work, it's funding and purchase by government institutions, the public has the right to demand the reasons for such allocations of their hard earned dollars. Carroll presents a wide range of theoretical justifications for such spending of public money. These justifications range from issues concerning public welfare to moralistic role of art in society.

The main focus of the article lies upon direct funding in the form of grants for the creation of contemporary art. Carroll describes the importance of museums which serve the purpose of preserving the culture and therefore, public funding for museums is a legitimate function of the State. This preservation is critical for educating the public about our past and our cultural roots. Sadly, the same argument cannot be applied to contemporary art because it '…is not part of our heritage yet' (22) and does not possess any educational value. Carroll's perspective appears to be fairly elitist in refuting the cultural and learning component of contemporary art. I deem modern art as a much more faithful expression of the personal and societal challenges. It confronts the dogmas of the society and provides an observable window inside the oppressing issues of the world. Therefore, disregarding its educational and cultural value is indeed a preposterous consideration for an artist and future arts managers like me.

However, Carroll does provide pragmatic justifications for public support of contemporary art. One of the first justifications is that the government has a responsibility towards the welfare of its citizens and by funding prospective arts; the welfare of the artists will be sustained. However welfare issues deal with providing basic necessities of life to those living an impecunious life. Do products of contemporary art funding serve similar needs? Funding prospective art cannot be justified in the same realm of welfare, because no matter what, public funding of arts cannot be held equivalent to sleeping in a shelter on a frigidly cold night or lack of hospital beds for emergency patients. The second argument proposes that it is the responsibility of the government to provide aesthetic welfare for its citizens.

An environment rich with aesthetically pleasing paintings and plays will serve the interests of the citizens. Another reason for public funding can be seen as an 'obligation to the beneficence' of the general public. Although, it seems improbable for government to facilitate every aspect of human need. Furthermore prospective art funding can be viewed as a way of satisfying the aesthetic need. Ignoring this particular need can cause psychic tension and depression among the public. Both of these improbable justifications deal with human needs, values and environment which are unique and complex. Also, the criterion for defining 'aesthetic art' is highly subjective. Often contemporary art is anything but anti-aesthetic and therefore artist working with dead animal body parts might not qualify for such funding. Such justifications rekindle issues of censorship and abandon the creation of art as a freedom of expression.

The most implausible justification defined by Carroll is the idea that art will cease to exist in today's modern industrial and technological world without government funding. Artists from Picasso to Warhol have created art in the most impoverished state of lives. The passion for creating art has never halted due to the industrial progression or audience desertion and will seldom ever happen. One of the most viable justifications is funding the arts to promote and stimulate economy and tourism industry. Taking care of economy is one of the most fundamental state functions and if contemporary art significantly contributes to this sector, then public support is valid.

Art funding also generates economic activity by providing employment opportunities to numerous artists. The next argument insinuates the notion of fairness to the funding of 'leisure activities'. If government financially supports hockey rinks then, it should not discriminate against art and cultural institutions. Both activities stimulate the economy and should receive equal funding. Carroll's next justification proposes that art serves a moralizing function in the society. Over the centuries, art has been seen as a way of cultivating the 'masses' and that is why current governments should still support it.

Defining morals is highly subjective and I wonder what sort of standards would be created to define the morals of contemporary society. Will it be based on religion or politics? No matter what criteria is set, many contemporary artists might not receive any funding if justified on moral grounds. The next justification is derived from the work of Ronald Dworkin who rationalizes art as a way of restoring the fragile structure of the culture. However, it is hard to define the sense of fragility associated to the culture which makes this justification a bit ambiguous because culture is an amalgamation of all the aspects of life. In his last justification Carroll delineates art as intrinsically good which is a highly subjective reason for funding contemporary arts.

These theoretical justifications by Noel Carroll might function in a perfect world. But considering realistic circumstances Carroll strongly supports only two justifications which relate to the aesthetic environment and the moralizing effects of the arts. Paradoxically, as an arts management student, I believe that contemporary art serves a pivotal role in driving the economy and is a vital source of employment for artists.

Contemporary art might not serve a utilitarian or aesthetic role in society. Nonetheless, it does play a leading role in invigorating the economy by attracting local people as well as tourists and by employing people from the cultural sector. With the continuous advancement in technology, art has diversified significantly from painting to photography, motion pictures and broadcasting and is employing more people everyday. In Ontario, the cultural industry provides employment to approx. 120,000 people, which represents 2.4% of all the jobs in the province. Across US, the arts generated $134 billion in economic activity in 2001 and produced 4.85 million full-time equivalent jobs.

It is imperative to note that although the common funding element across leading art councils such as the Canada Council, Art Council England and Australian Art council, is fostering and promoting art as a form of expression and recognizing cultural diversity. However, their business plans reveal that significant amount of funding goes to leading institutions that earn revenues from tourists and play a key role in local economy.

For instance, in Ontario, SuperBuild, an initiative of $300 million is in process of fostering and reviving local economy by funding leading cultural institutions which are still suffering the aftermath of 9/11, SARS and mad cow disease. The aim of this project is to solidify Ontario's status as a key international tourist destination. Similarly, art councils around the world have suffered due to financial setbacks led by sluggish world economy. Hence their initiatives to support the arts include funding organizations such as theatres, festivals and galleries that draw the populace as well as the foreigners. At the same time, it is important to explore if 'high art' is extensively receiving public funding and the cultural value of contemporary art remains unrecognized in the eyes of the government.

I conclude that there is no perfect justification that would apply to public funding of contemporary art. Different fiscal realities and circumstances call for different justifications for prospective art. Considering the scarcity of resources in today's world, economic reality will always play a key role in public funding of the arts. Carroll's justifications do make us realize the multifarious levels of issues involved in public funding and why it is so important to justify every penny.