Douwe Osinga's Blog: Let's stop wasting money on Art

Monday, September 6, 2004

I am blogging this from Google Zurich. Got here on Tuesday with the night train from Amsterdam after a hectic day of packing which would have ended in tears if not for the help of some people, especially my parents and my neighbor from down stairs. Hail, hail.


Quite some people warned me that Switzerland or Zurich would be boring. Three days is of course no time to form an opinion about a city, but they’re probably wrong anyway. Ok, the weather is great, which always helps, but the city is also very nice, with a very beautiful old time straddled over the Limat. And it is full of life. Anyway, I’m looking forward to living here. There are also some great apartments if not exactly cheap.


Anyway, this whole art business got me thinking about art and the weird fact that it is subsidized in almost all countries. The whole Denmark thing was of course subsidized which was great for me because it got me free beer and it wasn’t even from my tax money, but is there a good reason for this? I don't think so.


Sure, your average artist creates in poverty things of beauty the world is not yet ready for, but since the world is not ready for them, it is hard to target them with public money. Moreover, the art industry itself is hardly short on money. Art and investing in art is big business. Giving money to artists is like giving money to the shoe industry because the people in the Third World that work for the shoe industry make so little money (of course the money goes to the artists and not directly to the industry, but subsidizing workers in the shoe industry would mostly mean the industry would pay their workers even less.


And the consumers of Art aren’t usually the poor either. The rich go to museums and opera, while the poor go to soccer matches. Subsidizing Art and not soccer is giving tax money to the rich.


In the end the argument to subsidize art must be that without it, some innovative kinds of arts would not be produced and the mere existence of that type of art is a public good. This, however, assumes that the institution that decides who to give money to has any idea about which art might be innovative. Governments and government institutions don’t have a great track record when it comes to spotting the next big thing of course. Just as generals tend to prepare for the previous war, governments tend to subsidize what used to be hot, not what’s going to be hot.


Given half a chance, artist will make art, innovative or not. But if you could predict what would be innovative, it wouldn’t be innovative since innovation is out of the predictability realm.


So is there nothing we can do to make art blossom more? I don’t think there is apart from creating a society where art can be appreciated and people have time to create and consume. And that in itself is probably a good idea.