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Government-funded PublicArt.

Often the government funds some public or semi-private (non-profit) institution like a museum or ThisMagazine? in view of supporting the arts and culture of its society. Some people take offense to this, saying that they shouldn't pay for fluffy art that they don't understand. Instead, they insist on letting the market economy deal with art.

Sometimes (frequently, I hope) people get offended at PublicArt. This is good, as that is usually the point of those artpieces, but sometimes it can lead to a backlash that tries to exert control over the art through the government. After all, the taxpayer pays for the art, so the taxpayer can exert editorial control, right?

I think that even with private funding, the government should continue to maintain an arms-length distance from artists because it's much better for society in the long term. Art provides useful critique of common society that a goverment--as the strong arm of that society--must be responsive to.

That's why democratic societies created press freedoms, but we all know what has happened with the press as its industry has pined in recent decades. The profit motive has consolidated power and reduced competition to who is more efficient at feeding the mainstream. Works of conscience cannot survive.

However, as I said, it's necessary for works of conscience be artificially given prominence in the marketplace or else the society risks breaking the feedback cycle that keeps it on track. Studies (*) have shown the richer a society the more insular it becomes, incestuous and xenophobic. The irony is that the richer societies can better afford to pay for public art.

Many people assume that counterculture ideas that were truly good could survive in a pure market. That is false. First, the TheoryOfSecondBest refutes the pure market in an important and relevant way. Consider the difficulty indie musicians have breaking through the RIAA. Secondly, by definition, counterculture ideas aren't as profitable as mainstream ideas. For a profit motivated promoter, counterculture isn't worth the time.

The reason why the public pays for art and critical organizations is to keep itself from becoming too warm in the fleece that covers its eyes. So, while the ideas of those cultural institutions may be offensive to the Institution, that's the whole point. Even if the ideas in the art are bad, the idea of art is good.

So, it while it would be completely inappropriate for the taxpayer or his government to exert political influence over the PublicArt, it would be wonderful if the taxpayer or his politiction would disagree with the art as citizens. If the community opinion leads to the removal of the art, that would be acceptable.

(*) I don't have the studies handy, but I found a decent op-eds from ClaudeMoisy? [1] [2]. If you plied through JournalismQuarterly? you will probably find the studies that track foreign news content from year to year. There are also [3] and [4].

-- SunirShah

I think there is a considerable difference between offensive art and thought-provoking art. I don't want to pay people for offending me. If artists have something to say, let them say in a way that makes me want to hear it. Maybe they don't care whether I want to hear it or not. If so, why do they say anything in the first place. It is meaningless.

The importance of "meaningless" in itself is of course an interesting question, but I am sure there are more thought-provoking ways of dealing with the question other than produce even more "meaningless" art.

Public funding for anything is a tricky thing. You don't want to just give money to anybody producing anything. Therefore, you sponsor not the art itself but a contest. There must be jury, of course, so knowledgeable people are chosen to make up the jury. This may work or it may not, the jury is often choosen from the community that is producing the art, so direct feedback from the (tax paying) public is still lacking. They are effectively distributing the money among themselves.

Current state of affairs is somewhere in the middle of all of this (Switzerland, April 2001). The government sponsors museums and the opera. The public pays a fee to get in, supporting the institution as well. As there are enough people taking advantage of the institutions, sponsoring is justified. But that effectively prevents new art forms from ever taking off. The established forms remain well entrenched.

In the 1980s, the government spent millions on the Z├╝rich opera house instead of a center for young culture as was demanded. There were riots in the streets, burning cars. The opera house and punk concerts have different customers, and different levels of sponsoring.

In the 1990s, sponsoring of counter culture movements was motivated by social problems. If the young people have places to meet, things to do, then there will be less drug abuse and less left and right wing extremists. These days the young that are looking for some action just join the appropriate hockey or football fanclub.

In the 2000's (sp?), things have changed again. The government wants to save money whenever possible, so counter culture movements are given less money every year. The government feels that alternative hang-outs are not contributing to society, that insiders are distributing the money among themselves. The established institutions are getting less money, too. The government is calling for commercial sponsoring. And it is happening. Tobacco and banks are sponsoring open-air concerts, snowboard competitions, jazz festivals. These days, many people feel that now art is sponsored whenever potential customers enjoy it.

Where then, do you draw the line?

How will we distribute the money?

--AlexSchroeder


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