Supporting Artists...With Capitalism?


So the current budget proposal from the President was recently revealed, and people are already taking sides on his intention to decrease the National Endowment for the Arts' budget of $148 million. Some arguments supporting the NEA seem to be along the lines of "oh, what a horrible world it would be without the arts, and a public who supports them."

I agree. I am a huge proponent of promoting visual and performing arts. Both my full time editing job, and my freelance work often focuses on celebrating art and pop culture. However, when you change the word "public" to "taxpayer," then that’s where I have a problem. I don't, and never have, felt we need government funding or support from taxpayers for arts to thrive.

When the government gets it paws on the arts world — regardless of the which political party is in charge — it degrades it, just like government cheese and government housing. Since I have limited space, I'll focus here on visual arts as an example.

In the spirit of full disclosure I worked for my city's Arts Resources Department for a year, in "audience development" (aka publicity). It was while working with this department creating flyers, programs and more, I learned a very unsexy, yet necessary fact about the fine arts: Capitalism is its best friend.

Capitalism and art? Isn't that "selling out" like Banksy rages against? Not really. If what an artist is doing is in any way viable, someone somewhere will support them, whether through money or word of mouth. Many of our city exhibits were funded, partially or fully, by corporate sponsors or private patrons. Even in our city-run organization, private funding was always being sought.

The concept of "art" in itself is a free spirit. If I created a painting just for me or to give away, it doesn't matter if it’s good, bad or unfathomably embarrassing to the art world. Now, stick a price tag on it. This is no longer just "art," but a consumable good. If someone deems it to be pleasing, they will spend money on it. It doesn't matter if I feel it's "art," I won't be selling anything that doesn't resonate with the purchaser.

If that disgusts you as an artist (and I don't blame you if it does), then don't create art hoping it will be a means of feeding your family. However, you shouldn't rely on the government to give you money to create something no one wants.

How then, can an artist survive without help or support of the government? Well, there are privately owned art galleries; art collectives; online art sharing sites like DeviantArt and Etsy (both which offer ways for members to sell their work), weekend art festivals hosted by schools, churches, or some non-profit groups and, of course, the wonderful world of crowdfunding.

One of my favorite innovative ways to bring inexpensive art to the consumer is the Art-O-Mats vending machines (repurposed cigarette machines) found in some restaurants, galleries, malls and bars nationwide. All of these are ways of offering a product to the public and hoping someone takes a bite. Often the artist pays a percentage to the gallery or hosting entity, but this way everyone can profit a little in the process.

Then, there's the undesirable but realistic idea of finding another means of income and just creating your work for the love of it. I know some very liberal street artists in my region who certainly feel this way. They maintain other jobs and take their chalk art to the streets on weekends, or find a building owner who doesn't mind their exterior wall used for graffiti-style art canvases (yes, some graffiti artists do get permission). These artists are free to express themselves, and many eyes will see their work. No grants necessary.

That's what art is all about; the freedom to create. As long as creativity remains, so will the arts, with or without government funding.