Sunday, February 9, 2014

Patronage Versus Choice

NOTE: These posts have been reproduced from my old blog, "Random Notes", because I plan to cite their contents in an upcoming essay. I have finished the essay, but, unfortunately, it cites a lot of essays I have not yet reproduced. So it may take time to find and post all of them. Until then, you will like see a handful of these essays popping up on my blog amid a few new essays.

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the entire concept of government sponsored film boards, government arts councils and so on*. I wrote about it a bit already ("Subsidies and Censorship"), but it still keeps coming back to my thoughts. The first thought is always how absurd it is for aspiring artists to buy into these plans, but they always do. Artists always imagine they will be just the sort to be sponsored, when in reality they likely are not. Second, they imagine they won't have to "compromise their art" to get government grants, as opposed to private money, but government grants have one source, and one possible perspective, while private money has countless, meaning government grants allow less artistic freedom than private funding. And finally, there is the quote I saw several times when reading reviews of BBC shows. "Apparently to get a show on the BBC, all you have to do is belong to Footlights [a dramatic/comedic group at Cambridge]." And that is, indirectly, the subject of my post.

You see, an argument I often advance when discussing this topic is that the government, when it becomes the source of all funding, becomes a might patronage engine. And in that case, it is no longer a question of real talent, of either artistic merit or the ability to please the public, but a question of political connections. As the quote about Footlights shows, connection takes the place of all other criteria.

But when I have brought up this point in the past, critics have made the counter argument that it is always patronage. Artists in government funded systems must have connections, or friends in the government, but in the private market, the rich patrons decide who they will fund, so it is still a matter of connections. And thus they think they demolish my argument.

But this overlooks three important differences.

First, and most importantly, the patrons in private systems are spending their own money while government systems spend money taken from everyone. A man spending his own money has every right to express his own wishes, as it is his money. Government agents should be impartial. But, of course, as art is so subjective, there is no way to make objective judgments. In deciding to sponsor art, we create a situation where nothing but personal preference can be a guide. In other words, we create a system with only subjective guidelines, in which money is taken from everyone to be spent according to the whims of administrators.

Second, many patrons sponsor based on the hope of finding a successful artist, and so, unlike bureaucrats, seek an artist likely to succeed. Thus they do not engage in the blind favoritism of government,  which is possible as profit is no concern, but instead involve themselves in the usual speculative action of the market.

Which brings me to my third point. Though artists tend to denigrate "pandering to the masses", there is an alternative to private patrons, that is appealing to many smaller spending individuals, getting public support. Unlike the government, which spends money without thought of returns, this solution is doubly beneficial, as it allows an artist unable to find a single sponsor to still chase his dream, but it also guarantees the money spent will produce some satisfaction. In the government solution, money is spent without thought of public happiness, but when the public spends its own money, then it knows it gets something in return.

And that is why I refuse to believe there is no difference between government patronage and private funding of art. Private funding is always superior, for the same reasons private funding is preferable for most government activities. Government does not care about returns, individuals spending their own funds always do. And, in the end, what can we use to judge the value of money spent other than the satisfaction others received from it?


* Note that there are a range of institutions that can be described by these terms. Some completely control their field, producing all output, like the film boards in some nations. Some provide only part of the funding, like the NEA and NEH. Some simply approve or disapprove of private productions, like the British Board of Film Classifications, but that is a type we won't consider here. And others fall in between, funding their own productions, but also providing a yes or no decision to the acceptability of private productions, and maybe even providing funding to private productions they approve. However, excepting censorship panels, any which provide funding come to effectively control the area, at least eventually, as taxation to fund them leaves less for private sponsorship (and makes private sponsors feel the need to sponsor less as the government is doing it already), and so over time the government becomes the de facto sole source of financing, even if they do not assume explicit control.



Some relevant topics can be found in  "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Right Way", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucracy Revisited", "Government Intervention and the Purpose of Government", "Subsidies and Censorship" and "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface" and the subsequent installments, though it is not yet complete.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/05/11.

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