Subsidizing art, subsidizing yourself

14 Nov

What is economic growth for, anyway? It’s for expanding our choices and making life better. Is it really so surprising that, as we grow wealthier as a society, more and more of our young people, when the amazing resources of the modern university are put at their disposal, choose to use them learning something satisfying and enriching and not for anything except cherishing the rest of their lives?

As we grow wealthier as a society, we also devote ever more money and time listening to music, attending performances, reading books, watching film and TV. Somebody has to make this stuff, and I’m certain its full value is not captured in the economists’ growth stats… I appreciate everything math majors do for us. I really do. But, as far as I know, a math major has never made me cry.

Why we subsidise arts majors

I saw this everywhere. There are so many things wrong with both articles.

First off, can we really ignore the Gursky Phenomenon? The dream of superstar art wealth is a dangling carrot that certainly lures some students to art. Of course the number of people who make it to that level is a very very tiny percentage of those who try, but it doesn’t stop people from trying, just as many people try to be actors despite a very low pay-off for the average actor.

Andreas Gursky

Though I agree with it for the most part, the Economist article eventually sinks to the same level as the Tabarrock piece it criticizes. Tabarrok evaluates on the criteria of contribution to economic growth and the Economist author (oh use bylines already!) evaluates on the criteria of personal fulfillment. But both miss the glaring point that we shouldn’t evaluate any field on either of those criteria alone. (Read on for more on that point.)

Tabarrock is wrong. Though the arts may not contribute a huge percentage of total GDP, subsidies for the arts are similarly tiny. Compared to the level of energy (average $16 billion* per year from 2002-08) or agricultural subsidies ($15 billion in 2010), the arts do not make a dent. Created in 1965, to date the NEA has given $4bn worth of grants. That’s on average $87m/yr. That’s about half a percent of the farm subsidy. Considering that the arts do generate tens of billions, that’s not a bad investment. And yet, we live in a culture where the first things you get when you google “arts subsidies” are calls to eliminate them. (At least there are people across the pond who believe that the arts are affordable and profitable!) Who’s really subsidizing artists anyway? I’d hardly call a loan you have to pay back with interest a subsidy. After graduation, day jobs (yours or your partner’s) and commercial gigs subsidize artists.

The Economist is also wrong. Some lab work is indeed mindnumbing and unfulfilling in and of itself, but so is spotting dust spots off film scans or cleaning paintbrushes.Yet it’s work we do to accomplish our higher level goal of discovering new scientific knowledge or making art. Studying the stars or the genome is just as exciting and inspiring of an occupation for some, and it is strange that the author can’t see why it might move someone to tears to contemplate impossible mathematical puzzles or the scale of the universe. Some artists certainly seem impressed enough by those concepts to reference them in their works! To dismiss practical jobs as the equivalent of lab gruntwork is to set up a straw man.

Graduation numbers don’t tell you much

These numbers do not tell us anything about how many artists persist in the field but simply the number who graduate with an arts degree. We can’t draw any real conclusions from that given the following questions:

Did these arts grad focus on arts alone or also double-major in something else that may be “practical”?

Is an arts degree a statement of intent to pursue art as a career specifically? If it’s true that everyone knows that engineering pays better, everyone also knows that having a degree period pays better (see Is College Worth It?). What percentage of arts grads choose art as part of a plan to study liberal arts and pursue office work? This may irrelevant if we’re talking about what people desire to study, regardless of what they intend to do with what they learn. But in that case, we should be looking at the number of undergraduates who choose to study art in college beyond a class or two, not who graduates with an arts degree.

But. BUT!

Back up: bad data alert!

That aside, there is something that feels wrong about the piece of data we are all basing these arguments on. The graph in the Tabarrok article doesn’t seem right at all to me, so I dug around on my own. Look at the Tabarrok graph:

Now look at this chart from the National Center For Education Studies from 2010-11:

Obviously students ARE choosing and have always chosen the field that pays, which is business, which is by far is the most popular field, and in fact the field that has grown much more than other fields in the last 10 or so years. Students do very much have dollar signs in their eyes.

Also notice that there is an entry for engineering. Despite mentioning engineering repeatedly, Tabarrock uses a graph that lists only chemical engineering, a small segment of the entire field. From our charts, we can see that on its own, engineering fields attract as many students and produce as many graduates as the arts, and if you add that to the CS numbers, there are, very roughly, 50% more tech grads than art grads. All in all, that chart is a very selective subset of the whole picture.

However, it is surprising to me that the number of computer science and engineering degrees have not grown exponentially in popularity given the huge growth of the tech sector, but the low numbers may simply be explained by the unavoidable fact that there are some areas of the tech world where people who have learned on their own can get a decently paying job by simply demonstrating technical competence without never needing to either begin or complete an actual degree. I’d be interested in any data that shows us the proportion of tech workers who have degrees vs not.

Then there’s the likely possibility that our perceptions are skewed. There are other sectors that tech is just far more visible and tangible to us as consumers than other fields which may actually contribute more to GDP.

And why shouldn’t artists choose money?

I’d be remiss to suggest that monetary motivation is the only reason artists decide to pursue the careers we do (obviously that is not the case if we simply look around the blogosphere), but if it is, is that so bad? What irks me about the article is that doesn’t address what we should do about low pay in the arts as a problem in and of itself. It comes close to saying we should be proud of being poor, that not being able to make a living is somehow a badge of how committed we are to our work. That’s just rationalization. We could be paid a living wage for our work AND be fulfilled by it.

What use is a manifesto about choosing fulfillment over money when you have to take a second non-arts job to subsidize your art? As a recent grad trying to patch three or four different things together to make a living or develop leads for making a living, that we can enter college in pursuit of something other than the means to make a better living is great, but to leave it at that without taking the opportunity to address the sad finances of most artists upon graduation is to avoid the reality that artists need money to survive.

As someone tweeted, “money doesn’t buy happiness, but it buys film.”


* Check out the rest of the GOOD Magazine’s too (like the ones on incarceration rates, Congress and pedestrian fatalities!). They’re great.

2 Responses to “Subsidizing art, subsidizing yourself”

  1. Blake 11/15/2011 at 5:07 pm #

    I think anyone who goes into the arts for monetary reasons is foolish. There is very little money to be made. I think there’s only one reason to become an artist and that’s if you can’t help becoming one. If you have to make art you’ll make it. It doesn’t really have much to do with the market. I’m not sure what the proper societal balance is, how to keep artists afloat without going through the market. But it seems fairly obvious that the art market is aesthetically bankrupt and can’t be depended on as a stimulus for art making. In the end, artists make art. Regardless of money, time, health, etc. Period.

    • Jin 11/17/2011 at 1:41 pm #

      I agree that it’s foolish, but that’s never stopped anyone from doing anything before. To say that we know why all artists go into artmaking as a career is like saying we know why all cops become cops. I’m not sure we can making a sweeping statement. I will say that I do think artists who do stay in the field for years and years are not motivated by money, but I’m sure any number of 18 yr olds go into art thinking they are going to be the next great thing, just as any number of 18 year olds get into computer programming or business thinking they’ll be the next great thing.

      What frustrates me about both articles is that they blow a bad piece of data out of proportion without context and then make sweeping generalizations from that. Both of them. My point is that the number of people graduating with an arts degree doesn’t tell us much about how dedicated they actually are to making art or why they do it.

      But then again, we never really know why people do it do we? There are public reasons and there are private reasons.

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