Remember Good & Plenty, the old-fashioned licorice candy that, in the middle decades of the 20th century, lent a certain aura to the whole childhood experience of going to the movies? That venerable name is now the title of a new book on arts funding in the United States, and, interestingly, one of its major contentions is that art is often inseparable from the aura that accompanies it.
The author, economist and libertarian Tyler Cowen, addresses a familiar controversy: Should government help fund the arts, or should the arts, like other non-public enterprises, be privately funded, subject to (and possibly ignored by) market forces? Traditionally, libertarians and conservatives have opposed public funding for the arts, viewing art as an economic product, while liberals and art-lovers have generally supported direct government subsidies, seeing art as an aesthetic good transcending markets and economics.
These days, the libertarian-conservative viewpoint appears to be winning in America; most not-for-profit arts institutions receive ten percent or less of their budgets from government sources, and the much-demonized National Endowment for the Arts is run at a cost of less than fifty cents per American. The western European system, in contrast, is heavily reliant upon direct subsidies (which often account for eighty percent or more of arts budgets), leaving a relatively small role for private donations.
But does this mean the federal government is antagonistic toward the arts, as many liberals argue? Cowen, chair of the economics department at George Mason University, offers a more nuanced interpretation, arguing that the government does in fact support the arts, and robustly so — not primarily through direct subsidies, but through tax policies that encourage charitable giving and copyright laws that reward artists for their labors. As a result, says Cowen, the current system of decentralized funding produces art that is both good and plentiful.
Is there any role for direct subsidies in this system? Cowen concedes that government arts programs have been both necessary and effective in the past, citing the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and Voice of America in the 1950s. However, he argues that in neither case was the motivation for the programs artistic; the WPA was essentially an anti-poverty program, and Voice of America was created as a Cold War propaganda tool. That both programs produced new and exciting art was almost beside the point.
He further argues that those who favor direct government subsidies today are motivated by a non-artistic factor — prestige. "Many citizens take pride in the fact that their country produces art of a certain kind," he writes, "even though they are not willing to pay for that art as customers....A government that supports the arts is seen as more beautiful and more prestigious." In other words, the very aura of art enhances the artistic experience, just as Good & Plenty used to enhance the Saturday matinee.
This is where Cowen takes issue with the National Endowment for the Arts. Through his detailed description of the program's history and structure, Cowen convincingly argues that the NEA, with its increasingly restricted and cautious agenda, has little to offer but aura. Indeed, by trying to accommodate all tastes, eschewing controversy, and overemphasizing accountability, the NEA has effectively eliminated its capacity to discover and encourage new art — ironically, becoming incapable of producing by design what the WPA produced by accident.
Up to this point, Cowen presents a lively, well-documented argument for decentralized arts funding. But when he turns his attention to copyright issues and the Internet, he stumbles.
Cowen characterizes copyright law as central to the arts, calling it "far more important than...funding and subsidy decisions," and wonders to what extent the Internet will undermine copyright and destroy financial incentives for artistic activity. His answer is surprising: "The Internet may make copyright law too hard to enforce, relative to an ideal state of affairs. Nonetheless, the future is likely to be more workable than is commonly believed."
One reason for Cowen's optimism is his belief that downloading copyrighted material is less convenient than acquiring it by legal means — a startling conclusion that may have been true a decade ago but certainly seems doubtful today. He argues, for example, that consumers are less likely to download music than purchase CDs because (1) the process of downloading music is more arduous than going to a store to purchase it; and (2) the quality of mp3 files is poor, "below that of many old 78s." As any user of iTunes can attest, neither assumption is close to the mark today. Similarly, Cowen maintains that downloading feature-length movies is unlikely to catch on "because it is hard to transfer them to one's television." But, of course, the continued penetration of broadband and the availability of ever-cheaper large-screen, flat-panel monitors will soon render this a non-issue.
Cowen further argues that art will remain safe from Internet theft for a much more cynical reason: if people value art for the prestige of owning it or the aura accompanying the artistic experience, they will purchase it; if they value it simply for its content, they will steal it. The trick, therefore, is to find new ways to package prestige.
For example, Cowen contends that books are valued as much for their status as their content, saying that "much of the book trade is about selling image and symbols, rather than words on paper." This is what will save publishers from the business-model-destroying Internet; because consumers buy books to reinforce their self-image, an Internet download will never be a satisfactory substitute for a handsome volume displayed on a coffee table. Therefore, Cowen advises, "Writers must...write books that people will pretend to want to read" — not only an extraordinary position for a writer to take, but one that completely avoids the question of artistic merit.
Likewise, since downloaded songs cannot capture the aura of a live concert and downloaded films cannot equal the "Good & Plenty" experience of going to the movies, artists will learn to survive the Internet by developing and promoting experiences that cannot be reproduced digitally. Content, again, will take a back seat to aura. As Cowen puts it, "Consumers are on the verge of having a universal jukebox of sorts at their disposal, granting access to the world's musical, literary, and cinematic treasures for a mere pittance. Yet most people do not care much about this marvelous opportunity. They use culture for other purposes."
But what is so good and plentiful about that? At best, these are disappointing conclusions, even if they give Cowen optimism for the future of art. After all, why can't the aura-conscious moviegoer buy his Good & Plenty and still download the movie to his home PC or digital entertainment console? And what can be done about true lovers of art who nevertheless have no qualms about stealing?
The weakness of the Internet chapter may be the inevitable product of writing a traditionally published book in a rapidly changing world; most of the author's references predate 2001, a lifetime ago in Internet years. Still, Cowen has presented a compelling argument in favor of decentralized arts funding, and while the role of the Internet may turn out to be more destructive than he hopes, there is still reason to believe that support for the arts in America will continue to be both good and plentiful.