The Problem with Taxpayer-Funded Public Art

At the height of the Second World War, the British government tackled the unenviable task of reorienting the besieged island-nation’s economic productivity towards the war effort. A well-known anecdote recounts how a member of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet asked if they should also ax funding for the arts. “Then what the devil are we fighting for?” came Winnie’s blunt response, uttered in his characteristic drawl. 

The episode encapsulates the dramatically high stakes of their desperate struggle for civilization. But Churchill didn’t speak those words. In fact, that entire exchange never took place. The fact-checking site Snopes.com categorizes the Churchill arts funding story as “False.” This compelling tale actually first exploded across the internet in early 2017, in response to President Trump’s then-plans to cut funding to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. 

Accurate or not, this anecdote is intended to illustrate the inherent social benefit of state (read “taxpayer”) support for the arts. Such a view has certainly been upheld by many – particularly those in the artist community – who genuinely believe that artistic expression provides an intangible value proposition for human culture and therefore deserves our hard-earned tax dollars. Formulated in this way, art grants constitute a necessary, if not sound investment into a nation’s economy, education, civic life and cultural legacy. 

Yet the drawback that comes with the government sustaining the art industry is that the government is also empowered to arbitrarily shape the trajectory of a nation’s cultural legacy. The fact that taxpayers become, for all intents and purposes, unwitting shareholders in a nation’s art and culture investment portfolio can lead to the sort of awkward identitarian dilemmas that Armenians have found themselves tackling over the past month. 

A still from the CoChoLab performance in Yerevan, Nov. 2, 2019 (Photo: Vodka House Artistry/Instagram)

Two weeks ago, I reported on a controversy which involved an altercation at an open-air contemporary dance performance, which would go on to have repercussions in Armenia’s ongoing low-intensity “culture war.” For those trying to picture the kind of dance number that would provoke so much scandal, it involved a number of young women, some sporting “alternative” haircuts dyed in neon colors, engaging in a series of somersaults dressed in white overalls, while another woman read poetry from a megaphone. 

More so than the dance itself, several commenters seemed particularly offended by the idea that such a display could be contrived as “art.” Parliamentarian Naira Zohrabyan even chastised its “intellectual elitism.” While I have found that my personal tastes continue to evolve over time, I’ll reserve judgment on the merit of the artistic performance as I am by no reasonable means an authority on the matter. Still—conspiracy theory peddling aside—I cannot help but acknowledge that there is some substance to these detractors’ objections. One could argue with some veracity that the CoChoLab dance studio receiving the equivalent of $5,000 in state subsidies effectively deputized all taxpayers as de-facto art critics. After all, if public art is funded by everyone, shouldn’t all interpretations of its value remain equally valid?

Indeed, the core of this dispute lies in our inability to come to a consensus as to what defines art in the first place. Classicists, like the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, see art as the pursuit of beauty through harmony as it interacts with our values. Modernists dismiss aesthetics as a superfluous imitation of reality, instead favoring a definition which emphasizes expression or intent. Unable to reconcile these conflicting axioms ourselves, we have instead relinquished the responsibility to rule on the merits of artistic contributions to Armenian identity to government bureaucrats. 

Admittedly, this is common practice around the world. Governments typically provide subsidies in the hopes of stimulating indigenous art industries, while shielding their citizens from foreign cultural contamination. While in theory governments claim to remain impartial in the way grants are allocated to artistic projects, in practice, the over-reliance of artists on these subsidies places them at the mercy of government-appointed committees. 

If art indeed provides an undeniable public good, why not devolve the power to shape it away from the Nanny State and back into the hands of individuals?

The results of submitting inherently subjective decisions to committee vote are as obvious as they are common. At the more mundane end of the scale, it entails questionable purchases of abstract public display pieces or a preference for funding statement-less art performances to avoid offending anyone. Extreme examples invoke memories of totalitarian regimes using censorship to cultivate an art form which conforms to desired ideological orthodoxy. 

Of course, government meddling in identity-building is not merely hypothetical, nor is it limited to frivolous contemporary art spending. It affects most aspects of our cultural life. The reason that the writings of Avetik Isahakyan can be found in every home in Armenia today, while the works of Levon Shant or Zabel Yesayan remain (relatively) obscure, has as much to do with his undeniable talent as to an arbitrary decision by a committee long ago to immortalize him into the official Armenian literary almanac, while the latter two were suppressed by communist authorities. 

Still, the practice of endorsing an official cultural narrative remains malleable to the ideological predilections of successive governments. Awkward juxtapositions like the conspicuous presence of a statue honoring  Bolshevik leader Suren Spandaryan (a Soviet holdover) at the center of a square (re)named after anti-Bolshevik crusader Garegin Njdeh in Yerevan has come to epitomize the resulting unintentionally humorous narrative contradictions.

The controversy that arose over this month’s dance performance – and a similar scandal over funding for a documentary – inadvertently revealed an interesting truth about how we perceive identity. The Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined communities” in 1983 to describe what he identified as the socio-political constructs of nationhood. In this sense, members of even the smallest nation will “never know most of their fellow-members,[…] yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” 

Most of us assume that we are privy to an unwritten consensus over the attributes – common faith, shared experiences, shared culture, and so on –  which collectively constitute “Armenian values.” Yet the malaise articulated over the divergent expressions of Armenian values and subsequent incoherence in artistic sensibilities suggests that the terms of the social contract are still open to some interpretation.

The premise of the Churchill anecdote discussed earlier hinges on the flawed tenet that a nation’s artistic and cultural fortunes are conditioned on the promise of state subsidies. Yet the oldest cave painting in El Castillo predates the oldest organized government in ancient Sumeria by at least 33 centuries. Rembrandt’s invaluable artistic contributions to Dutch culture never relied on the green-light from a state review committee. Similarly, the creative flame that drives the Armenian people was not extinguished with the fall of the Lusignan Dynasty in the 14th century. Indeed, the six-century long interlude in Armenian statehood, lasting until May 1918, witnessed a veritable golden age of artistic innovation. During that time, Armenians would continue to develop a unique visual style, publish iconic works of literature and erect increasingly ornate churches, despite the unavailability of public art grants.

The aesthetic and artistic customs which enrich Armenian civilization predate the Westphalian state and have outlived countless empires, survived genocides, defied totalitarian regimes and continue to thrive in the stateless Diaspora. If art indeed provides an undeniable public good, why not devolve the power to shape it away from the Nanny State and back into the hands of individuals? The best way to solve this artistic tragedy of the commons is to let private citizens determine the value of art out of their own pockets. 

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

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