Funding the Arts

In Time, Don Morrison reports on the declining world influence of France’s culture industry:

[France] is a country where promoting cultural influence has been national policy for centuries, where controversial philosophers and showy new museums are symbols of pride and patriotism. Moreover, France has led the charge for a “cultural exception” that would allow governments to keep out foreign entertainment products while subsidizing their own. French officials, who believe such protectionism is essential for saving cultural diversity from the Hollywood juggernaut, once condemned Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park as a “threat to French identity.” They succeeded in enshrining the “cultural exception” concept in a 2005 UNESCO agreement, and regularly fight for it in international trade negotiations.

Why? These seem to be the key explanatory grafs:

Another problem may be the subsidies, which critics say ensure mediocrity. In his widely discussed 2006 book On Culture in America, former French cultural attaché Frédéric Martel marvels at how the U.S. can produce so much “high” culture of lofty quality with hardly any government support. He concludes that subsidy policies like France’s discourage private participants — and money — from entering the cultural space. Martel observes: “If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found, cultural life is everywhere.”

Other critics warn that protecting cultural industries narrows their appeal. With a domestic market sheltered by quotas and a language barrier, French producers can thrive without selling overseas. Only about 1 in 5 French films gets exported to the U.S., 1 in 3 to Germany. “If France were the only nation that could decide what is art and what is not, then French artists would do very well,” says Quemin. “But we’re not the only player, so our artists have to learn to look outside.”

There’s a tendency for many people—artists, I think, especially—to forget that competition also works in the cultural realm. It’s true, of course, that it tends to promote large amounts of middle and low culture, violent video games, P. Diddy records, and movies starring former sitcom cast members. But competition also promotes cultural innovation amongst high culture as well, and, in combination with wealth, generates funding even for artists whose work is largely inaccessible and uninteresting to the general public.

In a way, it works, or at least should work, a lot like the world of non-profit think tanks and magazines.* There, you have numerous bright, capable, interesting people doing work that is often obscure, or at least of minimal interest to most people, and that directly influences only a small subset of the population (though much of it has a far wider indirect reach). But the work is funded, to varying degrees, primarily through patronage: a combination of wealthy individuals, interested institutions, and small individual donors. Many artists tend to resist private funding models because they think it gives them less freedom. That’s obviously true in some circumstances; work that is willfully difficult and obscurantist or so personal as to have little bearing on the world at large will have a harder time getting funding.

But with comparatively little public funding, America still manages to produce David Lynch movies and find distributors for Matthew Barney films, still manages to buy enough Joan of Arc records that Tim Kinsella hasn’t starved and has even gone on numerous tours (although he’s got a day job when he’s at home). The tastes of the public, and even more so of wealthy individuals, are varied and strange. For all the complaints one hears about stifling conformity and big corporations, offbeat projects still find their way through the system on a surprisingly regular basis. And these days, the internet makes distribution even easier than ever.

That’s not to say that creative people won’t ever be frustrated under an unsubsidized system. No doubt, many will fail to find patrons, and I’m confident in saying that some of those who fail to do so would likely have produced some interesting, possibly even great work. But competitive urges and market pressures can push far more of the good stuff to the fore and, in the end, create larger overall funding pools that allow successively smaller artistic niches to be filled, creating more artists, more patrons, and more art. Which, I think (I hope), is what everyone wants.

*It’s also worth noting that many of the positions at privately funded non-profits are far more insulated from market pressures than a many creative types would suggest. They tend to be far more relaxed work environments than you find in much of the corporate world.