Make the best case you can for public funding of the arts.
There are two main worries about public funding of the arts. One is that there seem nowadays to be so many
more urgent calls on public money. Isn\'t public funding for the arts an unaffordable luxury? The second worry
is that there seem to be so many other things that are similar to the arts, but that do not attract similar public
funding. Are the arts being picked out for special privileges, perhaps thanks to snobbery? I will try to show
why, in spite of these worries, the arts remain a deserving case for some public funding.
Let\'s begin with the claim that the arts are attracting special treatment. A comparison can be made with
sports. Like the arts, sports call for skill and discipline from their participants. Like the arts, sports can be
enjoyed by spectators as well as participants. Like the arts, sports vary a lot among themselves. Like the arts,
sports are publicly funded to some extent. The main difference seems to be, however, that while public
funding of sports is usually restricted to support for participants (e.g training of sportspeople), public funding
of the arts often extends to spectators as well as participants. One can go to an art gallery or museum for free,
but one pays to go to Anfield or Brands Hatch. Is this fair?
The answer is that the contrast is exaggerated. On the one hand, spectatorship of sports is sometimes publicly
funded. One can watch Wimbledon on the BBC for free, just as one can go to an art gallery for free. On the
other hand, not all spectatorship of the arts is publicly funded. It costs money to go to a premier league
football match, but it costs no less to see a stadium rock concert. One must be careful to compare like with
like. One should compare the treatment of niche arts with that of niche sports, arts infrastructure with sports
infrastructure, etc. One should also be careful not to assume a purist\'s definition of the arts, according to
which a stadium rock concert doesn\'t count as an arts event. That would be like claiming that football is not a
sport, but only a game (sports being limited to pursuits that involve horses and hounds!)
In general we should expect public arts and sports funding to go to pursuits that are worth preserving but will
otherwise not be viable, because there are otherwise not enough people who will pay enough money for
them, while keeping them open to others. The government should step in where the market fails. But this
brings us straight to our other worry. Surely, with so many more urgent calls on government expenditure,
support for such things as sports and arts, however admirable, must be a low priority? They may be worth
preserving, but is their preservation more urgent than the preservation of human lives in public hospitals?
The thought here is that priority should reflect urgency. But this seems a bad principle for government. It leads
to the government thinking only about the short-term. Shouldn\'t the government provide for the future, as
well as coping with the present? If so, the arts, like sports, seem suitable for inclusion in the government\'s
longer-term plans. The government needs to ask itself whether great achievements and great excellences can
be allowed to go to waste, bearing in mind that once they have gone to waste it will be much more expensive
to recreate them (or to create replacements for them).
This argument seems to assume that a time will come when we will miss the arts or sports we have lost. That
may not be true. Few people miss Morris dancing (a nearly dead art) or jousting (a nearly dead sport). But
suppose we lost all dance-related arts, or all performance arts? Suppose we lost all combat sports, or all
dangerous sports? Then we will live in a world with fewer choices and fewer opportunities for human beings to
excel and develop their abilities, as well as for other human beings to spectate and admire this development.
One important job for governments, even if it is never