Detroit Symphony Orchestra
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, pictured here, received nearly $13 million in 1998 state subsidies. This "high-brow pork barrel" shifts money away from lower-income people and toward higher-income patrons.

Since ancient times, the world's great aesthetes and philosophers have debated the seemingly simple question, "What is art?" To some, it is a Mozart symphony or a painting by the French Impressionists. To others, it may be Motor City Madman Ted Nugent singing "Cat Scratch Fever." Agreement over a definition of art can be surprisingly difficult to achieve.

People have widely divergent tastes and ideas about art that make Michigan's government subsidies for "art" problematic at best and grossly unfair at worst. That is why the Governor should keep a 1991 pledge to end state funding for the arts.

Art subsidies are often sold to the public with the argument that providing government-approved artists with tax dollars will allow them to give their communities art and culture that would not exist without government support. But this argument relies on three dubious premises:

  • Art and culture would or could not arise through entirely private efforts such as philanthropic grants, patron support, or artists' own resources;

  • A politically appointed arts elite can distribute the "right" mix of theatre, paintings, music, and dance to match the varying desires of different segments of the population; and

  • Government intervention will not break the all-important link of accountability between artists and art consumers.

And the Best Foreign Film Oscar Goes to America?

The European film industry is a good example of how government funding removes accountability from art and entertainment markets. Last year, 88 of the top 100 highest grossing movies in Europe were American-made. The overwhelming majority of European moviegoers preferred dubbed or subtitled American films to those made in Europe. This is not to say that high-grossing films represent the pinnacle of art, either. After all, "Ernest Goes to Camp" was popular among some at the box-office, but you'd be hard-pressed to define it as path breaking artistry. Still, no one was forced to pay for its creation. State-subsidized art endeavors are a different story.

European governments provide lavish subsidies to their movie industries, which allows filmmakers to create products that they find valuable but which the public may not find valuable, artistically or otherwise. By contrast, American filmmakers work in a relatively undistorted marketplace where each ticket sold at the box office is a vote for a particular type of movie (and against other types). The final tally of these votes signals Hollywood to produce more or less of a certain movie form. The American public's tastes can, for example, be traced from periods such as the 1930s, when gangster films were popular, to the 1950s when science fiction movies reigned supreme, and so on. In addition, pop culture readily absorbs films that are both artistically acclaimed and successful commercially: Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," and Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" come to mind.

The Emperor's New Clothes

Art subsidy supporters often argue that public funding of the arts is needed to support artists and art patrons who would otherwise not have the resources to enjoy art. The naked truth is that subsidy supporters have convinced themselves of this need when evidence suggests that government art subsidies flow from the poor and middle classes to wealthier citizens, and not vice versa. Consider just one example.

In 1998, the State of Michigan appropriated over $21 million for "arts and cultural affairs." The money was distributed to 38 of Michigan's 83 counties, according to Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs documents obtained by Michigan Privatization Report. Of the initial 38 grant recipients, the county of Alpena received the smallest grant of $2,500. The largest grant, a hefty $12,944,237 (or 61% of the total) went to Wayne County. Typically, every county eventually receives some of these funds through a "re-granting" program that allows initial grant recipients to dole out "mini-grants" of up to $2,000 to organizations that they believe are deserving.

One result of this grant process is that wealth is often taxed from lower-income Michigan workers and families and given for the enjoyment of higher-income workers and families. Wayne County, for example, has a population of 2,127,000 and a per-capita income of $22,900. Alpena, in contrast, has a population of 30,638 and a per-capita income of $20,000. As a ratio of grant funds to population, Wayne County will receive back from the state $6.09 per citizen while Alpena will get back only $0.80 per citizen.

The issue of fairness goes beyond number crunching. Supporters of government art subsidies should explain why it makes sense to tax people who do not voluntarily patronize the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) for the purposes of subsidizing those who do patronize the DSO. Would government grant makers indulge a crowd that wanted subsidies from symphony-goers to pay for tickets to Ted Nugent's "Whiplash Bash"?

Privatize the Arts

Art is highly personal and subjective. Forcing one person to subsidize another person's art is inherently unfair. Talented Michigan artists, like other professionals, should look to the private sector for income, not to government, for their sustenance. Every year, private philanthropists donate nearly $10 billion to further artists' visions of American culture. Artists whose work pleases their audiences will soon find voluntary support from such benevolent patrons.

Art and culture are too important to be left to the whims of politics. Michigan should rebuild the wall of separation between art and state.