Saturday 25 March 2017

The Case for Subsidising Art (and Taxing Junk Entertainment)

High art – i.e. real art - like Booker prize winning novels and Beethoven is objectively superior to junk entertainment like Piano Tiles and most reality TV. Some egalitarians of taste dispute the existence of any objective distinction in quality between pushpin and Pushkin because, they claim, the value of anything is merely the subjective value people put on it.

I will humour them.

The case for the objective superiority of art can be made entirely within a narrowly utilitarian - ‘economistic' - account of subjective value, because in the long run consuming junk entertainment is less pleasurable than consuming art. Art is the most efficient use of your time.

At best, junk entertainment passes the time and brings us closer to death in a relatively painless way, like a general anaesthetic. At worst, passing a lot of time in this way makes us stupid by atrophying our abilities to appreciate anything more interesting. Hence the pejorative term ‘junk', for there is a strong resemblance between this sort of mental activity and eating cheeseburgers: the more cheeseburgers we eat, the less we enjoy each new one, and the fatter and more unhealthy we become.

In contrast, art has the capacity not only to fill up the limited time we have in our lives, but in the process also to educate us in the enjoyment of its intellectual depths so that it produces more delight in us the more of it we consume. In economics terminology, the consumption of art exhibits increasing marginal utility and increases our human capital while the consumption of junk entertainment exhibits the opposite. Art is special.

Market Failure

The logic of this is fairly intuitive. So it is puzzling that it is not reflected in the real world, where junk entertainment is consumed in vast quantities and art is associated with upper class snobbery. The best explanation for this is that the prices consumers face in choosing between the two types are extremely misleading about their real costs and value to them.

The money price per unit of junk entertainment is often relatively cheap – indeed it is so cheap to make that dozens of TV channels churn it out non-stop and charge consumers nothing at all (except for the shards of our attention they chip off to sell on to advertisers). It is also easy to enjoy, requiring little from you in the way of mental engagement; you often have to do little more than sit there and let it happen to you. It is as comfortable and familiar as pizza, and just about as exciting.

Yet those prices in money and attention are misleading. The full cost of consuming junk is the opportunity you are giving up to do something better – more enjoyable – with your time, which is after all the ultimate scarce resource in life. With every half-hour of junk TV you watch, you drift further along a path that leads to a dead end.

In contrast, the money price of accessing art is often high, as for theatre, because art has high production costs that cannot always be defrayed by economies of scale and modern reprographic technologies, as for Penguin editions of Dostoyevsky. Hence the unfortunate association of expensive art like ballet with the conspicuous consumption of the upper classes, for its very expense makes it a useful device for creating exclusive social networks and fortifying ones wealth with a sense of moral superiority over poorer ‘less cultured' people. These philistines are of a piece with the nouveaux riche currently trying to buy their way to social supremacy with piles of Hirsts and Koons's. They are motivated by the special expense, not the special pleasure of art. They are too interested in looking around at who is seeing them 'do art' to pay proper attention to what is in front of them.

Fortunately, wherever access to art is made cheap, whether by paperback novels or classical music on the radio or Britain's free to enter national museums, one finds its audience no longer dominated by upper class status chasers but by millions of normal people willing to explore and enjoy it.

The reason art is so expensive to produce is that it is characterised by a multi-layered complexity whose construction requires a great deal of skilful attention. But unlike, say, the Spiderman movie franchise, which also cost a lot of money and had very complicated special effects and editing, the final product of a poet's work is also intended to be cognitively expensive to enjoy. Understanding art requires the effortful exploration of different modes of appreciation in search of insight, resembling not merely the challenge of solving a difficult puzzle, like a Sudoku, but also of wondering out what kind of puzzle it even is.

The peculiar thrill of art, what we call aesthetic pleasure, consists in this search for understanding and the full use of our mind that it demands. Yet further unlike junk entertainment, our relationship with high art has the potential for upward development. We can get better at appreciating modernist poetry because, with practice, critical reflection, and conversation with other consumers, we can get more out of the exercise; we can get further in exploring what we can make of it. That doesn't happen with Minesweeper.

(I can't resist adding a non-utilitarian point here, made very eloquently by Samuel Fleischacker, that engaging with art also trains the general life skill of judgement, the stuff of true liberty whether of the citizen who can see through politicians' bullshit or of the lover contemplating a proposal of marriage. Judgement - what Kant called "the free play of the imagination and the understanding" - is essential wherever we have to work out, as part of the exercise of making sense of something, what the criteria for such an understanding should be.)

Junk entertainment is superficially attractive, like junk food, because its consumption is characterised by an immediate hit of pleasure, a little squirt of dopamine, as you receive exactly what you expected. That is in spite of the fact that this is followed by declining pleasure for each further unit of consumption – each additional game of Minesweeper - as our brains adapt to its essential sameness and the capacity for joy dwindles away.

In contrast, art is superficially unattractive despite its long term potential to enhance our capability for pleasure. Because of the way art works – because so much is going on in a poem by Emily Dickinson or a painting by René Magritte – the consumption of art is at its most cognitively expensive and unrewarding at the beginning, when you are still lost and fumbling around for landmarks that might guide you.

Better Price Signals

Where prices become systematically detached from costs, where 'the market' can't be relied upon to signal relative value, there may be a case for government intervention. Perhaps the easiest part of this is to argue for subsidies for art, since most governments do that anyway. Yet the case is worth making anyway since the public justification for art subsidies is often a hodge podge of all sorts of strange things such as rightist attachment to cultural nostalgia and ethnic identity (shrewdly included in a White House petition to save the National Endowment), and leftist dreams of social mobility.

The money price of art relates to its especially high production costs. These may be defrayed by subsidies, such as by creating more places for students at art, theatre and music conservatories, or by government commissions for sculptures and performances for our public spaces - thereby also reclaiming them as public spaces rather than merely as empty spaces for sale to advertisers.

But though it is certainly important that we have new lively and timely art, we should also make better use of what we already have. London's 30 years old Poems on the Underground provides a model for what can be done and how well art can hold our attention and delight us all in the right circumstances, when we are in the mood for a break from our distraction, as do the decade old outpost of classical paintings from the Dutch Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam Airport and recent experiments with screening live opera performances into cinemas.

Art museums have a particular responsibility to help people connect with art, beyond lowering the money price of entry. At present they too often fetishise art objects as idols to be venerated, or treasures to be guarded, rather than as icons to think through. (Michael O'Hare has an excellent essay on this.) Those grand museum buildings should be universities of art, run for the public not the curators. They should be open after people finish work. They should offer classes to every age, in making art as well as appreciating it. They should be centres for intellectual excitement and conversation.

Since the cognitive cost of consuming art is at its highest in the beginning, we should also pay particular attention to the training that school children receive. We already spend lots of time teaching art at children, in the form of literature classes as well as music and visual art, though my own recollection of these is that they were designed to be as joyless as possible so as to justify their place in the academic curriculum.

Taxes on junk entertainment are equally justified in principle. A standard rationale for taxation since Arthur Pigou's ‘discovery' of externalities is to correct for the failure of the money (‘market') price to incorporate the real costs of consuming something. For example, coal seems very cheap to mine and turn into electricity only because the full costs to society of its pollution - the unbreathability of the air and global warming - isn't included in the market price. If energy companies had to pay the full social costs of this pollution via a tax, only the genuinely profitable uses of coal - the ones that did enough good to add to society's welfare despite the costs - would continue.

Similarly, it can be argued that long-term costs to one's future self are often excluded from the money price of products; as in the case of tobacco which is very cheap to grow and make into cigarettes but costs its consumers dear in the long run. While tobacco shortens your life by cutting off the end of it, junk entertainment shortens your life by cutting you off from experiencing it while you are still alive.

Sin taxes such as are levied on tobacco can be seen as discouraging excessive consumption by making transparent its hidden costs to that person via the money price. They can be seen as a device for helping consumers to make decisions consistent with our own subjective preferences by overcoming our bounded rationality, the irrational biases in our meat brains that undermine our ability to make good decisions in the moment.

Imposing taxes on junk entertainment, whether through direct sin taxes on consumers or taxes on its production and distribution, will make it more expensive to consume. But this can be justified as a service to consumers as a whole, just like subsidies for accessing art. By correcting for a failure of prices to reflect genuine - subjective - costs and benefits, junk taxes and art subsidies respect and actually enhance consumers' sovereignty, our capability to make rational ('economic') decisions about how to make best use of the scarce time we have to live a life we find valuable.

Some people will point out that demarcating art from junk entertainment requires judgement, meaning that it cannot be entirely captured by explicit rules. Consider the trouble government agencies have had in the past in distinguishing pornography from literature, or junk food from proper food.

I think this concern is overblown. We don't need to pin down exactly where the boundary lies between art and junk in order for taxes and subsidies to be effective and justifiable. Most cases will fall quite clearly on one side or the other and disputes over marginal cases don't challenge that. (Consider a real disputed border, between India and China. The fact of the dispute doesn't prevent us from saying with great certainty that Delhi is in India and Beijing is in China.) One doesn't have to be able to determine whether Game of Thrones or The Simpsons is art or junk or some other kind of thing (‘middle-brow') in order to say that Jersey Shore is a waste of time.


Many people cleave to what might be called the broccoli theory of art: since they didn't immediately like the taste the first time they tried it, they decided never to try it again. The fact that these self-professed philistines don't recognise the subjective pleasure they are passing up is not the conclusion of their own rational choice but a bias in the information they received. The justification for institutions like America's National Endowment for the Arts is that society owes everyone - the poor as well as rich - the chance to taste art properly and make a decision for themselves.

This is consistent with egalitarianism about taste. The point is not to impose some perfectionist set of tastes on people ‘for their own good' but to achieve something closer to neutrality than the combination of free markets and human cognitive biases currently produces. Broccoli is more difficult than French fries. Some people who have tried both properly will rationally decide that they prefer fries, at least on those days when they have no mental energy left for anything but mental junk food. But most people who give broccoli a proper chance find it delicious. 

Publication history
This is a revised and extended version of an essay originally published on 3 Quarks Daily. Heavily revised and republished also on ABC's Religion & Ethics site (in March 2017)