Budgets and Culture

March 26th, 2012 at 1:22 am

Headed across the pond, this time to talk globalization in Germany.  In that regard, I was struck by this NYT piece about how the budget crunch in Europe is affecting funding for the arts:

Europe’s economic problems, and the austerity programs meant to address them, are forcing arts institutions there to curtail programs, tours and grants. As a result, some ensembles are scaling down their productions and trying to raise money from private donors, some in the United States, potentially putting them in competition with American arts organizations.

Though we too provide public support for the arts here, that support doesn’t run nearly as deep as in the countries of Europe:

In contrast to the United States, Europe has embraced a model that views culture not as a commodity, in which market forces determine which products survive, but as a common legacy to be nurtured and protected, including art forms that may lack mass appeal.

“Culture is a basic need,” said Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York and president of the New York branch of the European Union National Institutes for Culture. “People should have the right to go to the opera.”

Hmmm…I know a lot of people—I’m not one of them—who would consider that right a punishment.  But I’ve always thought it fascinating to consider the different answers to the question “what’s a public good?” as you cross borders.

American economists and policy makers typically draw a narrow boundary around the issue, often inveighing against the French for subsidizing cute little farms (we mainly subsidize the big ones, but that gets lost in this debate), the Dutch for all those orchestras, the German’s for all that weird theater.  You wanna save your tax breaks for hedge funds, dammit!

Another interesting wrinkle in here is the suggestion that given the budget cuts, composers and playwrights may be compelled to scale down their ensembles—e.g., when budgets are tight, you’re more likely to hear a string quartet than a massive Stravinsky orchestral piece.  I hate to be reductionist, but I guess it really does pretty much come down to economics.

Anyway, with apologies to Bertolt Brecht, who viewed government involvement in the arts as a recipe for dull cooptation, I draw a pretty wide corral around the concept of the public good.   Even though times are tough, I’d probably at least be willing to pony up the resources for a quintet over a quartet.


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3 comments in reply to "Budgets and Culture"

  1. Fred Donaldson says:

    The higher the admission price to museums (and operas) the fewer denizens of the lower class will (ugh) attend.

    Welcome to class warfare – American style.

    • Michael says:

      I think a big part of the issue is that conservatives have spent so much time attacking every part of American society and culture that we as a polity have no idea what we would bother to support.

  2. Arline Mathews says:

    Here in California our elementary children are deprived. They are denied the right to exposure to the arts. All day they sit in one classroom with one teacher. We moved around from room to room and up and down stairs to go to teachers whose expertise was classical music, art and sculpting, poetry and literature. They will never learn how rewarding it is to learn, participate, and enjoy the arts. Unbelievably sad!!!

    Then they get a choice in Jr. High. They get either one of the arts, or band or they have to fore-go science. How insane! they need all.

    I grew up in the Great depression and they managed to give kids these essential tools. The Arts and science are both essential to our growth as human beings.