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Should the government fund the arts?

by Aloysius Chia

Some comments arose recently that said that the government should not fund the arts, and that preferably, funding for the arts should be eliminated given how governments get the flak whether it funds or does not fund particular art works with an ideological or subjective bent. This piece argues for why the government should fund the arts.

That a piece of art work can have no ideological or subjective bent is nonsense. Art or creative pieces, whether funded privately or publicly, conveys different messages and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. On the one hand there is the art creator, who harbours particular intentions when creating a piece of work, and who works in a particular background or context. On the other hand there is the audience or viewer, who chooses to look at art or creative pieces that are acts of interpretation.

To say that the government should minimize or eliminate funding for the arts just because it cannot fulfil the expectations of everybody is poor reasoning. Just about almost everything the government does, from the curriculum of education to the intensity and method of policing, cannot appease everyone. But just because one cannot appease everyone does not mean that it is necessary to eliminate funding for which the government has an important role to play.

Critics of arts funding say that it is a waste of resources, is inefficient, and worse of all, forces the art creator to betray him or herself to ‘self-regulate’. They say such funds would be much better used elsewhere, if at all. These critics usually take art as an extremely narrow view of something that is consumable like any product that only market forces can decide is worthy. They view art or creative works as something that is created for the purposes of consumption.

Yet much of arts and what goes into funding it is more than simply creation, art is also the passing on of traditional practices, it is the cultivation of a unique way of looking at things that reflects identity and memory, it is the development of perspectives that enables one to see the world in critical lens and vivid colours, leaving room for play and re-imaginings, rather than shades of grey. It is history and human engagement not just for those who can afford it.

To say only what is economically profitable is valuable, and that the government should do what is only profitable, is to deliberately ignore aspects of government that are economically unprofitable but those who argue for its elimination want to keep, such as the maintenance of a police and fire fighting force for the safety of property, the upholding of impartial rule of law and its corresponding institutions, and the maintenance of workable roads and pipes. Not all that is profitable is valuable, just as not all that is unprofitable is not valuable.

To say that art or creative authors are forced to self-censor, is to conveniently ignore that artists and authors can choose not to go to the government and select other ways to fund their creative works. The government is not forcing them not to use other resources as a means of creation. More importantly, to say absurdly that whatever works are accepted to be funded is propaganda, is to fail to recognize that authors of creative works have autonomy, and there can be a select set of expert and experienced arts practitioners who know their own respective art fields who can work with agencies to choose both conventional and unconventional works in terms of funding.

It is ironic that whereas those who say that authors of creative works have to self-censor would be much better off elsewhere, do not themselves admit that many artists and authors fail immediately in the marketplace, even though they are very good. Either there is no demand for their works, or the market for it has not yet been developed. These critics readily applaud that rich private patrons with their own selective and contextual tastes in art should be encouraged, even though these very tastes are by itself subjective and therefore, defines what is not very good. Artists and authors who thus find themselves working not in an accepted artistic realm easily accessible to patron funding are therefore situated no different from those who say that the government creates self-censorship.

In any case, the reality of government arts funding is that it often goes hand in hand with private sources, artists and creators of imaginative works often navigate between both worlds so as to achieve recognition and sustainability eventually. A considered, nuanced and reflective entity within government, working with many in the arts industry, can help make initial artistic endeavours, which are often very difficult and challenging, become more successful. Government funding, if done properly and accountably, can be a source of intellectual vibrancy, progress and richness. It is not incompatible with the market as is often misconstrued.

That one should take the position and reject all government funding just because Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was initially given and rejected funding, and the subsequent uproar that ensued, is to be cynical not just of the role of government, but the arts in general. It is to think that government cannot be improved and become better. More significantly, one has to be absolutely straight-laced about the nature of the arts to think that all arts funding should be entirely eliminated, since if Sonny Liew’s excellent and imaginative book did not win any awards, gain any recognition, or receive any controversy, one would come to the opposite conclusion that there is any good reason to eliminating funding for the arts. One would be strangely silent about anything to say about art.