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Coherent artists, incoherent policy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Sir Patrick Stewart is a terrific actor, and quite successful. So it’s not exactly his selfish interest he’s pushing when he objects to Britain’s recent cuts in arts funding. He can find work.


Still, he and a number of other British arts celebrities have signed a petition calling for a “coherent” arts policy, and he characterizes his stance with his fellow petitioners as a unified bloc. “We know that we represent part of British culture, which is a massive success.” But what he doesn’t know is what disturbs him: “We don’t know what policy exists . . . It seems as though we’re just adrift.”

In a way, Stewart is right. Britain should have a coherent arts policy. So should America.

I suspect, however, that Stewart and I have radically different ideas about what that policy should be.

Now, though our disagreement goes deep, we’re not so far apart where I believe Stewart to be an unreasonable man, or crazy or something. (Would he extend that same courtesy of sanity imputation to me?) When he questions the British government’s snipping away at public support for arts as “unnecessary” — a nearly 20 percent drop from last year in the number of groups to receive funding — and when his colleague Samuel West claims to find equal cuts “across all sectors” acceptable, while cuts for arts and continued support for (say) banks unacceptable, they do not seem exactly crazed.

But reasonable men should be able to provide good numbers and a broad perspective for their case. West claims that the “arts industry” is the second most profitable in the country. I wonder if he discounts all the taxpayer-funded investment against those accounts. I suspect not. Advocates for subsidy rarely do.


The fairness issue, however, remains. If banks are being subsidized, as well as eco-this and eco-that, while the arts are being cut, he should ask why. If austerity is required because of budgeting, why not across-the-board cuts?

And I’d stand with him. If the arts folks come to America, and petition Congress for a coherent arts policy, I’d side right with them . . . if their demand is also that ethanol be desubsidized, the sugar tariff reduced, and, and, and.

But that’s not what these artists are really after. Not fairness. Not really. “We want a government funded Arts Council that allows us to be as successful as we are at the moment and continue to play our part in paying for hospital beds.”

They want the status quo.

It’s the same all over. When times are good, they want more. When cuts become necessary, they’ll demand “only” the status quo.

But why not stick to their alleged guns and demand a coherent policy, anyway?

Well, it could be asking for too much. Too much of democracy. Economists far more skillful than I with algebra and calculus have demonstrated that voting procedures in a representative democracy can never yield consistent policy. It’s always going to flail around.

That’s one reason why we shouldn’t put everything up for a vote. Indeed, in America it used to be said, commonly, that the purpose of government was to protect our rights, not give us a myriad other goodies. Limited to a fairly narrow task, our elected representatives wouldn’t find themselves in an incoherent realm where “anything goes.”


Export the policy to Britain. And re-import back here.

For the best arts policy is no arts policy as such. Government defends our rights to life and liberty, and we negotiate how best to promote some luxuries (that seem so necessary, some of the time — I’m on board) without having to demand that other people spend more of their money on the arts in ways that I like (quite coherently, I dare say).

In the realm of the market, I’ll no doubt support Mr. Stewart in the future, should he make a decent movie again. And in the realm of community action, I’ll watch plays put on by kids and high-schoolers, and maybe even plunk down some of my own money for them.

And that’s the way it should be.

Is it “coherent”?

It’s sensible. It’s justifiable. And it’s not as incoherent as the vast array of subsidies and programs that Stewart and his friends think the ne plus ultra of British (or any other) culture.

A free culture is possible.

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