Subsidising Failure

by Ian Hodge

In 1966 or thereabouts, I attended a TV recording of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  In the studio, behind the orchestra, a painter had a huge canvas, and as the music played, he painted.  The painting was abstract — and so was the music.  In fact, the music sounded just like the painting appeared — a childish mess.  A friend in the orchestra confirmed the conductor's instruction: keep playing until the artist finishes painting.  If you get to the end, go back to the beginning.  If you lose you place, start again at the beginning.

Now both the composer/conductor and the artist had received a government grant to allow them time in the Australian bush to get inspiration.  This recording was the outcome — a cacophony of sound, the audible representation of what the eye could see.

Ten years later, the same orchestra had to abandon its series of twilight concerts dedicated to contemporary music.  Why?  Small audience.

More recently, governments big and small around the world have reduced their subsidies to the arts as a means of reducing deficits. Not surprisingly, the beneficiaries of those subsidies are trying hard to retain as much taxpayer money as they can.

The artistic world has become politicized. Artists of various kinds are often at the forefront of social change, such as Wagner was in his attempt to create revolution through music. (See the book, “Dionysus Rising”, by E. Michael Jones for details). Christian moral standards are challenged in the form of shapes, form, sounds and sight. The result is that the arts have contributed to the breakdown and abandonment of Christian culture.

A consequence of the art subsidies has not been better art, if we judge art by its public acceptance. The mere fact that subsidies exist is evidence that some artists cannot operate in a voluntary marketplace. Whereas Abba or the former Beatles made it big without government aid, many other artists would starve or find another profession without subsidies.

Like any other business venture, subsidies are a sign of a marketplace that refuses to buy voluntarily. Artists survive because of the coercive nature of taxation; that is they survive by receiving financial aid that is not voluntarily forthcoming.

With the advance of government subsidies in the twentieth century, we are hard pressed to find any improvement in the standards of Art. Jackson Pollock "coaxed" the Australian government into forking out millions for a painting that made little sense to discerning viewers. Playwrights, composers, painters and musicians have not given us better standards of either composition or performance as a consequence of their subsidies. In fact, since modern art is keen to abolish all the old standards and replace them with . . . well, that's the problem. The only standard that applies today is anything goes (well, almost).

The result? Art that has no standard, no criteria by which to judge. This has not led to an improvement in the arts but a downturn. This is why the subsidies were necessary.

Now that governments are looking down the barrel of financial difficulties, the loss of subsidies might again challenge artists to write, paint or compose in ways that appeal to the ordinary people. J.S. Bach, for example, while not receiving subsidies was paid by the church to write music acceptable to the worshipers in the church. Today, we find the music that was governed by so many seemingly archaic rules retains a freshness and vibrancy that escapes many modern composers.

Rather than mourn the loss of art subsidies, we should see this as a step in the right direction to restore art to its noblest aims, that of enriching mankind with music, paintings, poetry, and song that uplifts and edifies. Such music, like a good film score, will appeal because of what it achieves in the listener or viewer, not because it is financed by involuntary taxation.

There is a parallel in business that is inescapable. Businesses that require subsidies do so because they fail at some point to satisfy enough consumers with their products to remain in business. The subsidies can be in the form of government handouts or loans. In the long run, however, people tire of subsidized business because having their financial needs met by other mechanisms, they no longer need to satisfy the market as the means of remaining financially solvent.  The end user — the consumer — is lost in the world of subsidies.  In fact, he's a menace to it.

The end of subsidies in art or business will give us better art and better goods and services. The sooner they go, the better off we will be.

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