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Chapter 33 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

SUBSIDIES TO "THE ARTS"



John Ray

THERE ARE TWO basic propositions to this chapter: (1). That any creative artist in the twentieth century who needs a subsidy is not worth his salt; (2). That if any recreational activity is to be subsidised by the government, it should be sport -- not 'The Arts'.

Defence of subsidies too often relies on tales of great artists from the past starving in garrets. What is overlooked is that the society we live in today is vastly different from that. In Australia today no-one (artists or not), has to starve in a garret. Of greater importance, however, is the emergence of a mass market for art this century. Where once only princes (sacred or secular) could afford to patronise the arts, now we have an entire middle class eagerly seeking originals. Even people with the merest glimmerings of talent can make a fortune, and, one suspects, even talent is not always necessary.

While what was said above was written with the visual arts particularly in mind, it is also largely true of music. Even Stravinsky, whose music only the tiniest minority of people can enjoy, when he died in 1971 left an estate of three million dollars. If it is good, even art that enjoys only minority interest is worth a fortune. The difference is that Stravinsky was a genius, whereas many of our avant garde composers clamouring for government handouts are little more than frauds and quacks. If their music was of any quality or appeal it would attract enough private support to make government handouts superfluous.

'But creative work is a risky and insecure business that may not be recognised for many years. What is the artist supposed to do in the meanwhile, starve?

The answer is that creative artists are not the only people who take risks or who take some time to build up a business -- and there is really no reason why the entertainment industry (of which creative artists are a part) should be favoured above others. Everybody has setting-up costs.

'But to regard the arts as merely part of the entertainment industry is monstrous and unreal. How can anyone in his right mind say such a thing?', is the cry of outrage I hear at this point. Before we go any further, therefore, we must move on to a consideration of what it is that 'The Arts' do which makes them deserving of our spending any money on them at all, be it privately spent or taxes spent on our behalf by the government.

The key to the reverent and deferential attitude which some people adopt towards the arts seems to lie in an assumption that the artist is in some sense a better person than us ordinary mortals and that art has an uplifting effect on those exposed to it, which makes them in turn also better persons. Nothing could be more absurd and lacking in proof.

There is absolutely no guarantee that artists or those who patronise them are in fact good or wise persons in any sense. Hitler and the top men in the Nazi hierarchy were great lovers of the arts and Hitler himself was by occupation an artist. If that is what artists and art-lovers are like then I want no part of them. Nor is this the exception that proves the rule. The Medici of Renaissance Florence were perhaps the most famous patrons of the arts of all time and yet it was the name of a policy adviser of theirs from which our word 'machiavellian' comes. They were as ruthless a gang as any princely family Europe ever had. Even England's gross, bloodthirsty, unscrupulous and self-centred Henry VIII was a great patron of the arts -- both in painting and in music. We may have to thank his overwhelming self-love for England's liberation from the papacy, but that is no reason to admire the man who for selfish reasons beheaded the Anne Boleyn whom he had once claimed to love and whose only sin and major mistake was to marry him. No, some of the vilest men in history were great lovers of 'The Arts'. Anybody who claims that the arts are upbuilding has, to say the least, the burden of proof upon him.

The arts cannot, then, be justified on the grounds that they produce desirable changes or improvements in people. They can only be justified by the fact that people enjoy them. They are entertainment or recreation -- not education. They are, however, not just any old form of recreation: they are primarily the recreation of the middle and upper classes. The pictures the working man puts on his wall, the books he reads, or the music he listens to, are highly unlikely to be included under the graceful rubric of 'The Arts' -- and they are even less likely to attract a government subsidy.

But what possible reason could there be for a government to subsidise the recreational activities and preferences of its more affluent citizens? Surely there exist great needs in basic social services-needs involving food, clothing, housing and health-which must take precedence over any recreational needs, let alone the recreational needs of the people who already are best qualified to pay for their own.

This is not to say that recreation is unimportant. It is important; but it is surely the last field into which governments should be intruding. If they absolutely must intrude, then surely it is the recreations of the working man who are most in need of subsidy. Since such recreations are pre-eminently in the field of sport, it is sport that should come first. If we are at all troubled about social justice, it is football and other sporting clubs that should get the subsidies-not art galleries, cacophonous composers, writers of books, whose only purpose is the parading of every conceivable neurosis and psychosis, or "experimental" film-makers whose major achievement is to bore the pants off those who see their productions. This is not to say that I would like to see the arts die out. I am passionately devoted to some of the arts -- music particularly. I have even had a small amount of poetry published. What I do say, however, is that good art is art that pleases people-even if it is only a tiny minority of people. In our society such art will have no need of government subsidies. I love the arts too much to want to see mediocrity even tolerated in them -- let alone have it encouraged by government subsidies.




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