Commentary: Supporting the arts is an act of good citizenship

"Hamilton," winner of 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, had an early reading in 2013 at an artistic incubator funded by the NEA.
(Joan Marcus)

In the aftermath of the November election, there was a spike in subscriptions to newspapers and magazines. The endless months of the primary campaigns and general election — and beyond — having been colored by rumor, superstition and fabrication, many people seemingly felt it might be time to support some of the old established organs with their quaint devotion to fact and informed discussion. The mainstream media, although imperfect and maligned from this side and that, have expertise, resources, clout and rules.

It was a reminder that you get the world you are willing to pay for. (We’ll assume, for the purposes of argument, that you are a person with disposable income.)

Such payment may well come at a premium: If you want a world where, say, organic produce is available, you might have to cough up a little extra to make it so; if you want bookstores in your life, you have to buy books from them, even though you might find what you’re looking for cheaper online. To watch “Westworld” you must subscribe to HBO. Unless you steal it: An Irdeto survey through YouGov from earlier this year found that a third of U.S. consumers download or stream pirated video, that two-thirds of those would continue to do so even knowing it was illegal.

As consumers, we can be bad at drawing the lines between producers and product. Still, we don’t expect to walk out of a supermarket with food we haven’t paid for. We expect to pay the people who fix our cars and our plumbing. We pay, even when we sometimes suspect we might be overpaying.


But because the arts seem glamorous, and can indeed be fulfilling and fun to do, it’s easy to regard them as something different — a lark, a hobby. The fact that some artists make art whether or not there’s money to be made might be taken as an argument that they don’t need to be paid because they’re just doing what they like. (And work, for many people, is a matter of doing what they don’t like.) But even crayons cost money.

The president recently proposed a budget that, among other deep and draconian cuts, would completely eliminate support for the arts and kill funding for public broadcasting. That there are more alarming items on the chopping block — Meals on Wheels, Head Start, Planned Parenthood — doesn’t change the fact that art too is a social good that improves individual lives and the world at large.

Of course, some think that that government shouldn’t pay for anything at all; some would rather eat the pennies their household contributes yearly to the National Endowment for the Arts than possibly contribute micro-fractionally to work they might find objectionable. (Art, of course, can be both objectionable and good; sometimes it’s good because it’s objectionable.) Some will say that, in a free market, art should be able to pay for itself or perish. But the market isn’t really free, anyway, and the best work is often, and probably more often than not, not the most popular. The ability to turn a profit is no way to judge creative success or cultural value.

Like television, the Internet gives the illusion of being free. We imagine, because we have bought a computer or a phone and perhaps paid for online access, that we have paid all we need to, that everything that can be found there to some extent is ours to use: We copy and paste without a second thought. Faced with a paywall, we head in another direction to find the same or a sufficiently similar thing — news report, video, song, photograph — for free.


This disinclination is nothing new; it didn’t arrive with the digital age nor is it unique to phone-besotted millennials. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, kids knocked down fences at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight festivals and elsewhere in the conviction that their desire to hear music was morally superior to being made to pay for the privilege. (Woodstock — $18 in advance, $24 at the door — became a free concert only because it became impossible to keep the freeloaders out.) Bootleg records, though a byproduct of fandom, violated intellectual property for profit. Anti-materialistic, anti-corporate, property-is-theft rhetoric surrounded much of this activity, paradoxically, notwithstanding that it was theft itself.

As a people, we need to learn to be embarrassed by such bad habits and create new, better ones; we need to need to consider paying for the arts as an act of good citizenship; it should become reflexive, almost thoughtless.

There are systems already in place to help and encourage you. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo work like taxes or charities in spreading the cost around; you vote with your wallet for projects you want to make happen. (I recently contributed to a Kickstarter campaign by Bridey Lee Elliot to fund a film starring parents Paula and Chris Elliott, sister Abby Elliott and herself. It took only 239 contributors — about half the capacity of a mid-sized rock club — for her to reach her goal.) Patreon allows you to help support individual artists on a monthly basis; for however little or much you like, you can become a crowd-funding junior de Medici. Digital Tip Jar lets you send virtual dollars to artists by text.

Let’s assume the worst — that government support for the arts does entirely disappear. It won’t be the End of Art, certainly. But it’s fair to treat this as a kind of national emergency, and as with other national emergencies patriotic citizens are called upon, by their conscience if not by their leaders, to step up and do what you can. Contribute to public radio and television, certainly if you watch or listen — but even if you don’t, if you approve of their mission, in order to benefit the people who do. Buy a museum membership, subscribe to a theater.


Not everyone can afford to, of course, and killing arts programs takes them out of communities and away from the very people who may need them the most. But many cultural institutions — museums and dance companies and symphonies and the like — practice community outreach and will happily take your donations to help that continue. (Just search for “name of institution” plus “community outreach.”)

The arts aren’t for everyone, as odd as that can sound to a person who loves them. But as a race, humans have long found uses for apparently useless beauty. The past we need to understand in order not to repeat the bad parts, and to redouble the good, is written not merely in the annals of kings and presidents, law books and military histories, but in paintings and symphonies and books and buildings, in movies and even in television — in the evolving picture of human progress and variety that culture paints.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd