Why should tax dollars support the arts?

As recent budget discussions have illustrated, governments fall into routine traps that they seem loathe to pry themselves from, in spite of the fact that simple logic should facilitate easy extrication.

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As recent budget discussions have illustrated, governments fall into routine traps that they seem loathe to pry themselves from, in spite of the fact that simple logic should facilitate easy extrication.

For example, Councillors Cindy Jefferies and Chris Stephan got caught up in such a debate over Jefferies’ desire to have the city fund a gala for the Lieutenant Governor’s arts grants. The common refrain is that we “must support the arts.”

Why should we use tax dollars to support the arts?

Do we support the arts because we feel that artistic careers are something we would like to see our children involved in because they generally feature good pay and benefits that will help them provide a good living through which they can raise and support a family?

Well, if that’s the case, why does a good segment of the artistic community seem in constant need of government funding? If artistic ventures are so lucrative, why do we feel a constant need to keep funneling tax dollars in that direction?

Outside of government employment, lucrative careers should be ones that pay taxes, not receive them (notwithstanding the simple fact that there should be no lucrative careers in the public sector).

If artistic ventures don’t pay all that well, we have a responsibility to encourage our children to either eschew them entirely, or at least cultivate the commercial aspects of artistic careers before trying to make a living on the purely artistic side.

After all, last time I checked, we need more people who earn enough to pay taxes, not receive them.

Must we mandate support of the arts simply because the arts enrich us in ways to numerous to quantify?

If that were truly the case, then the collective wisdom of society would ensure that artists of all stripes were well supported by the fruits of their artistic endeavours.

Because the opposite is true, then we can essentially surmise that artists in general are essentially rewarded in a fashion commensurate with the value society places on their works.

Just because we apparently value midwives, welders and accountants more than we value those who labour as actors, painters and sculptors, does not necessarily make us uncultured louts and rotten-toothed hicks.

It’s simply a fact that most of us are obligated out of necessity to put a higher value on the services that artisans and craftsmen such as welders, machinists and cabinet makers provide.

Do we mandate support of the arts because we feel a need to help artists reflect our society back to ourselves? This is a stretch, as one will be hard pressed to find a notable Canadian writer who doesn’t stand miles to the left of the average Canadian, politically speaking. Actually, you’d be hard pressed to find too many Canadian writers who write books we actually read.

By contrast, 20-some years ago, I read a couple of pretty good Cold War novels by Canadian author Dennis Jones. You’ve never heard of him, yet two of his novels have outsold many of Margaret Atwood’s, and he’s never won a publicly-funded arts award.

Should arts awards celebrate success or failure? Successful artists don’t need government-sponsored awards and failing artists shouldn’t really get awards, should they?

After all, we don’t give the Stanley Cup to the first team out of the playoffs, do we?

Art is a lot of things to a lot of people. Almost all of us engage in some form of artistic expression. I became a machinist partly due to innate artistic ability. Some people quilt or sew, some cook, some paint, some write poetry that no one ever even gets to read.

When we decide to take public money and use it to support one form of art over another, or simply use public funds to purchase art, we have committed a deep and egregious breach of the social contract between the state and the citizen.

This is why you can easily find citizens of Red Deer who maintain strong negative opinions to this day of the public arts debacle of 1980, when publicly funded sculptures of dubious beauty were foisted upon us and paid for with money taken from us under threat of penalty of law.

The merit of the art was secondary to the issue of it being publicly funded.

Any artist who wishes to make their way through life on the value of their art has a simple obligation to do so by selling their art in the public square, just as a carpenter or welder does.

We, on the other hand, must be allowed the choice not to buy.

Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.

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