The Unneeded Crocodile Bird

June 24th, 2009  |  Published in Journal  |  12 Comments

Sam edited

Sam Westrop

Sam Westrop is a first year music student and Chairman of the Freedom Society at the University of York. Here Sam argues that culture should not be dictated by the government.

Art is no longer a hobby; it is a job. This is the consequence of statist government. Between 2008 and 2011, the Arts Council England (ACE) is expected to distribute £1.6 billion of public money. If one is to think of the drastic cuts made in the 2009 Budget, one must ask why only £4 million is being taken from the ACE’s pot. Even the strongest advocate of big government would surely concede that the government must protect its people before it entertains them; and the New Generation may have to demand it.

The defence budget is facing a £2 billion cut next year, and by 2011, the NHS must find £2.3 billion of savings and education £1 billion. Why then, one asks, does the funding for the arts continue? In a recession, should government be providing money for sharks to be floated in formaldehyde for little perceivable reason?

Classical liberals and large sea creatures should be worried. Labour has developed the polar opposite of Milton Friedman’s idea of government. In early 2008, the Culture Minister Margaret Hodge called for City workers to provide more private donations to the arts. But with a new tax rate of 50%, there is a predictable lack of response from those of whom the government demands altruism. There is weary outrage among libertarians that government is happy enough to injure vital public services but then insist on greedily preserving a socially progressive image.

The American equivalent of the ACE is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which gets around $126.3 million (£79 million) per year. This appears a paltry sum when compared to the ACE’s £463 million budget for next year, even more so when one considers the vastly greater amount of government spending in the US. America’s arts rely heavily on private donations – and citizens, both rich and poor, are eager to provide. As a percentage of GDP, the charitable contributions from individuals in the US are twice that of in the UK.

The relative lack of philanthropy towards the Arts in the UK has several possible reasons. The most obvious answer is the respective states of our collections of taxes. The huge welfare state and social interference that exists in the UK is no more than an arrangement of forced charitable donations. Taxpayers feel they have little left, and indeed little obligation, to provide charity for others. This is especially true for local charities, for why should the upkeep of local community be important if government forces politically correct and culturally manufactured community upon us?

The commensurately greater amount of charitable giving in the US can be attributed to the individuals’ quest for community. For example, 45% of American citizens’ donations are given to religions and local charities, as opposed to 13% here. The endless social interference has backfired once more.

77% of collection methods here rely on spontaneous takings of loose change, whereas in the US there is a strong culture of ‘planned giving’ (this provides 61% of non-profit organisations’ income). Furthermore, according to the newspaper Chronicle of Philanthropy, 54% of the richest US donors said that they have made charitable donations because of tax benefits and incentives. In the UK, it is the charities that obtain tax refunds and not the individuals. The British charity Art Fund recommended tax incentives before the most recent budget, but these proposals were shot down, such was the government’s dislike of offering tax benefits to the wealthy. The difference that is apparent between the UK and the US is quite clearly a consequence of the statist British government.

There once was ample example of private charity funding in the UK, from schools to art galleries. This convention, argues the Institute for Philanthropy’s director, Hilary Browne-Wilkinson, ended as the introduction of an enlarged welfare state – after the Second World War – destroyed Britain’s tradition of Victorian philanthropy. Some proof of this can be found with the American NEA. When their budget was reduced by 40 percent, from approximately $170 million to $99.5 million, private giving to the arts actually increased by 40%. The economist David Sawers’ comparison of subsidised and unsubsidised performing arts realised that cultural venues would continue to flourish were government subsidies to be abolished

The argument that government funding allows penniless individuals access to the arts is a fallacy. Most of the funds go to immensely rich organisations that often cater to a very limited section of society. For example, post-modernist art appeals to a tiny minority, and its funding has no arguable benefit for most of the public. The only time I have vaguely approved of a Labour minister was when Kim Howells said of the Turner submissions, “If this is the best that the British art establishment can come up with, God help us. It consists entirely of conceptual bullshit and the final insult was to walk through a room of Francis Bacons and Henry Moores that exude artistic ability and humanity.” The often-used argument that post-modernism should appeal to classical liberals because its iconoclasm is a strong example of individualism is nonsense; these so-called artists subsist on the involuntary contributions of the collective.

Government funding also jeopardises the independence of the arts. Not only does this interference reveal the consequences of pseudo-multiculturalism, it can constrict the variety of art produced. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that, ‘Beauty will not come at the call of the legislature…. It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men.’ David Sawers has noted that British government subsidies reduce the choice and variety in the art world, whereas privately venues are more flexible, and are responsible for many different artistic genres, such as the recent revival of early music.

After over a decade of Labour in power, with tens of billions wasted on bureaucratic nonsensical jobs, with the creation of an arts scene that government ministers admit is appalling, and in the middle of one of the worst economic crises the Western World has seen, the New Generation demands to know why illogical funding continues to be inequitably poured into the modern arts?  John Adams once said that, ‘”The science of government is my duty to study…the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, so that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.’

If government ends the funding of ‘culture’, the New Generation will then provide. Government is not a Crocodile Bird – there is no symbiotic relationship between the state and the individual. It is simply not the business of government to dictate inspiration and cultivate the art of the people. Trophies of creative thought will materialise from the free man, one who is not shackled by the chains of his self-appointed patron.

And so the New Generation should ask of this government: do not fund runners to jog through the Tate Gallery every thirty seconds. If you give us working hospitals, good schools, equipment for our Armed Forces and pensions, we will provide you with art that is far sweeter than money could ever afford.


  1. Emily says:

    June 25th, 2009 at 4:50 pm (#)

    Is this £1.6 billion funding Damien Hirst and his diamond encrusted skulls or other more worthy projects? What about community outreach~ workshops in schools? The free entry into museums? Does this sum fund any of these things too? If it does then isn’t this an acceptable price to pay? How could these projects be supported and managed by donations?

  2. Winnie says:

    June 25th, 2009 at 7:30 pm (#)

    Brilliant article and absolute nonsense from Emily. For Goodness Sakes, who does she think founded the great museums and institutions we enjoy. Not a single one was publicly funded. As for the ‘outreach’ stuff in schools, it was always done , even more and better quality before all this progressive public funding. And with respect to that Bling skull, it should be asset stripped and the proceeds donated to reduce our soon to be £ 1.8 trillion public debt by however small an iota; or our children will be too busy starving to notice or care about art at all.

  3. Simon says:

    June 26th, 2009 at 11:03 am (#)

    Art probably always has been a job – for instance, think of all those Renaissance jobbing freelances and their wealthy individual patrons. That commercial relationship produced some of the most enduring art of all. But I agree that the state now uses our money to employ artists with apparently little regard to merit in pursuit of trendy but misconceived ’social policies’. If ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty…’ then this is hardly surprising , because, as we know to our cost, our politicians have no acquaintance with either of those values.

  4. Sarah says:

    June 27th, 2009 at 4:20 pm (#)

    I work in the public arts sector and see at first hand exactly how government funding is spent. The majority of spending goes towards keeping open the institutions we already have and frankly, it is hardly enough to scrape by on. Vast amounts go on the running, staffing and promotion of the gallery, particularly aiming it at certain members of society who may feel excluded by it and helping to enrich their experiences of it, not as Westrop put it on “immensely rich organisations that often cater to a very limited section of society”; nor on Damien Hirst’s shark, which I might add was commissioned and paid for by Charles Saatchi and is now hidden away in his private collection. It is naive to think that offering these art works up to private individuals will encourage philanthropy. In recent years, art has become the choice of investment for extravagantly wealthy individuals who don’t appreciate it for its beauty, but only for its market value. Artwork such as Van Gogh’s paintings have been sold for millions and then locked away in vaults. Even with government funds, the gallery still relies on the donations of local people to keep it running. Most people, however, see it as the responsibility of the government to keep galleries free and open, as ACE’s survey shows “79% of the public agree that the government should provide funding for the arts”. Public art galleries make very little income, we barely break even, but our purpose is not to generate income but keep our doors open to the public.

  5. James says:

    June 27th, 2009 at 7:09 pm (#)

    Even though this may be seen as keeping to the party line (I am treasurer of TFA for York uni in the interests of full disclosure) I have to say Sam makes a persuasive argument. If you sat in on our discussions you would see that we do not necessarily agree upon everything. However, I do agree with him on this point. (I am, of course, not speaking as a representative of TFA here but as a private individual.)

    Frankly Sarah, if you look at the motives behind a lot of what we would take as art nowadays, it was created with profit in mind. If I may cite “Ways of Seeing” by Berger, this would provide ample examples. Even though the critique the contributers provide is based upon the ideas of Marx, I have no problem using them – some of them are particularly relevant to this discussion. Even much of the art which was funded by the state in earlier centuries was done so by the (now) extraordinary powers of patronage and taxation which would not normally be seen as prudent now.

    If museums and galleries do not provide what the public wants then there is no economic case for keeping them. Of course there are other criteria by which art can be judged, but when it comes to the public purse, I would rather go by purely fiscal metrics than that more arbitrary method by which some paradigm owning mandarin (a la Kuhn) somewhere decides what deserves funding.

    A good case in point is the current music scene. Mostly it is outside what is considered ‘art’. And this appears to be what is successful!

    But the crux of the issue is: private individuals, who are _spending_their_own_money_, will have a better idea about what deserves funding than some woolly notion of a public good.

  6. Winnie says:

    June 27th, 2009 at 9:32 pm (#)

    I don’t think Sarah quite gets the point. The galleries and quango boards may well spend lots of public money, as she says, in their attempt to pull in “members of society who feel excluded” by art. This does not mean that the sort of elitist art commissioned by these bodies will ever appeal to anyone. And it is disingenuous to say that private investors lock their art away because all the audit reports show that most public art is locked away and a lot has actually been loaned out and simply lost. As for the upkeep of the galleries, most of them originally came with huge endowments and trust funds and if the public bodies stopped commissioning stuff, the art budget would go further for routine maintenance. And if Sarah doesn’t like the ‘extravagently wealthy’ interfering in art, she will have to reject the whole of the Italian renaissance.

  7. Eli says:

    June 28th, 2009 at 10:07 pm (#)

    I’m not sure that Art by ‘artists’ such as Damien Hirst would ever be funded by private investors. I would suggest that this sort of art is a consequence of state interference and in the event of the elimination of state funding, conceptual works would be replaced by works of beauty (discernible and symbolic beauty) – Art to please the majority of the public.

  8. Dan says:

    June 30th, 2009 at 5:37 pm (#)

    Hullo, i think, in response to winnie’s point, that it is patronising to suggest that there is “elitist art” that wouldn’t appeal to the “plebs” of society. Isn’t it every person’s right to at least have access to art before they determine whether they like it or not? In fact, there seems to be rather an anti art feeling surrounding this whole discussion. All art was progressive in its day and seen as fantastic to some people and utter trash to others, very few people liked the Impressionists. The whole point is that art is subjective, you can’t tell which is good and which is bad, opinions about it change from one century to the next. But this is what makes it so ineresting and stimiluating, if art gets people discussing different opinions about it then surely this has some intellectual value. We think its the government’s responsability to educate us in maths and literature, so why not in art?

    Yes its true that most public art is locked away, but thats only because there is limited gallery space, therefore curators rotate the art work round in exhibitions so that each piece at least gets a viewing.

    I don’t agree with the idea that most art is produced with profit in mind. Artists wouldn’t become artists if they wanted to earn lots of money these days. In the past it was different, artists could earn quite a good living. Yes, lots of art was comissioned by private individuals, but the biggest patron of all, especially during the Renaissance, was the Holy Roman Catholic Church – a big board of old duffers all deciding on what they considered best for public interest – rather like the government.

  9. Alison says:

    July 10th, 2009 at 4:59 pm (#)

    Further to Dan’s point about rotating and viewing public art, I work for a regional museum and art gallery where our policy means that any member of the public can access items from the collection that aren’t currently on display and items can be brought out for viewing at our study centre. Resources like this are fantastic for engaging the general public with local collections, encouraging them to be enthusiatic about art and their interests. Without government funding these sorts of resources wouldn’t even exist.

    Sam’s argument picks on a few specific examples and completely ignores all the great work that relies on government funding, particularly outside of London. One of our best received temporary exhibitions of recent years has been a series of contemporary solo shows by local artists, it such a blanket statement to say that the majority of the general public don’t have any interest in post-modernism.

    We should be fighting for better allocation of funds, NOT arguing that funds should be stopped! It is totally naive to think that if we get rid of funding that our nation will suddenly start creating this magical artwork that the country loves. If you remove the funding some of our country’s greatest talents will never see the light of day and it will be due to something as simple as lack of funding. We shouldn’t be so quick to slam down the results of this art funding, once it’s gone we’ll find it incredibly hard to ever get any back!

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