A Sense of Entitlement in the DC Arts Community

The bill keeping the federal government open through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year slashed nearly 70 percent from the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs’ grants, a tiny program that supports the District’s cultural scene in a big way. As Washington City Paper reported last week, the cuts will have a miniscule impact on some of the city’s biggest arts organizations—but a devastating effect on its tinier ones.

-Washington City Paper, “Why Cuts to National Capital Arts Grants Are Disastrous for Small D.C. Arts Groups

The article quoted above is written in a traditional new story format, meaning it advances no argument explicitly. As with all stories in this format, an argument is nevertheless quite easy to spot.

First, the spending cuts are causing suffering among the little guys in DC’s arts community.

The Kennedy Center received an NCACA grant last year of $650,000—the largest in raw dollar terms, but barely a sliver of its operating income of $94 million.

Then there are groups like Dance Place, which took in just a hair over $1.1 million last year. The Brookland studio is the smallest and newest NCACA beneficiary. The $290,779 it received was the least doled out by the federal program but accounted for a full quarter of its budget. For a group like Dance Place, the federal grant quite literally keeps the lights on, pays the rent, and hires performers and instructors to fill the calendar.

Even a cold-blooded, heartless libertarian such as myself doesn’t enjoy it when people are put out of business because their government funding is yanked. Still, the same can be said for many other situations where the transition is unpleasant but necessary or legitimate. For instance, the fact that word processors and printers have dramatically reduced the employment in typewriter production does not make me dislike word processors or printers.

Now writer Benjamin Freed could just be telling a straightforward empathy piece for the plight of these small arts groups, but I don’t think so. Through the quotes from people at these groups, an argument is brought forward.

“I think the thinking is, ‘That’s OK, no free art’,” she says. “It’s not just about art. It’s about jobs and cultural programs and keeping teenagers off the street and keeping them employed.”

Further down:

“This is just a terrible time for the city to be losing $7 million that goes to arts organizations and from there into the city’s economy,” Epstein says. “They’re the economic engines that revitalize neighborhoods. They pay vendors and salaries. The nation’s capital should be a shining light where the country showcases its arts and cultural life. This cut is going to diminish that.”

Here we are presented with a defense of spending on the arts–it is good for the economy.

This is disingenuous–you don’t have to spend on the arts to spend on DC. This is an argument against spending cuts overall, not spending cuts in the arts.  I don’t want to tackle the question of federal spending on DC in general–that’s an entirely separate question. The question is why tax money should be spent on the arts specifically.

As you will no doubt be shocked to learn, I am against it. I don’t see why any particular arts program deserves to get any more money than what people are willing to give them voluntarily.

Moreover, comments like this get my blood boiling:

Studio Theatre’s retired founder, Joy Zinoman, was more blunt in her criticism of the federal budget process and angry the slashing of NCACA grants wasn’t noticed sooner. “What [this] will do to the cultural life in Washington is a criminal act,” she said.

Two things bother me about this.

First, the sense of entitlement that people like Zinoman have is unbecoming. Why should citizens in California, New York, Texas, and the rest of the country have to pay for arts programs that nearly all of them will probably never see? Why does Zinoman think that Studio is owed their fellow citizens’ money?

Second, the implication that DC’s “cultural life” needs these subsidies. There are plenty of artists, writers, performers, and creative individuals of every stripe living in the District. Most of them can’t make a living doing what they love but they are still doing it; they are still participating in and contributing to the District’s cultural life. This is how it is in every city, how it would be with or without subsidies.

Moreover, these subsidies always go to a certain category of “cultural life”. I submit that you are unlikely to hear Zinoman calling for subsidizing romance novel writing, or producing soap operas, in the District. That is because there are already big, healthy markets for genre fiction and television dramas of many stripes. The natural market position for the kind of art that the Studio Theatre or Dance Place produces is much smaller than some people are happy with, and so they demand that taxpayers augment them.

When funding for the arts cannot be obtained in the market, they ought to be obtained in civil society or not at all.

Discovering Civil Society in DC

Civil society is composed of the totality of voluntary social relationships, civic and social organizations, and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society, as distinct from the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state’s political system) and the commercial institutions of the market.

I did not come to the District in search of civil society. In point of fact, I came here for love. Even before I moved into DC proper, though, I was aware of the vibrant blogosphere. I didn’t read too much myself; mostly I was interested as an observer of a new phenomenon. I’ve written about online communities of interest for years, and the additional element of location made it all the more fascinating to me.

DC’s blogs exist in a conversation with the readers, with each other, with more traditional publications, and with the community at large. In the cracks between these high level, high attention conversations are enormous expanses filled with energetic social media activity. Twitter, in particular, plays an enormously central role in this community–so much so that one of the community’s critics famously referred to its members as “myopic little twits.”

This isn’t just a bunch of people chattering over the internet, either. The internet is a means to an end–sure, that end does involve a lot of conversation, as well as sharing links, pictures, videos, and so forth. But just as often the end involves gathering groups of people in person.

There are the friendly get-togethers and there are artistic and cultural events. There are happy hours and there are political debates.

I am young, and inexperienced with this sort of thing. But it seems to me that the community I stumbled into by accident is the very definition of civil society. It is people voluntarily spending their time trying to shape the cultural–and increasingly, the political–scene in the District. It is something much larger than any of the individuals participating in it.

These were thoughts that I had when I read this post by Dave Stroup a few weeks back. He wrote:

I’m sick of hearing that government is the “problem.” Government should be where we all come together to do the things none of us could do on our own. It’s where we come together to make the impossible possible.

To me, the only thing special about government is that it relies primarily on nonvoluntary means of organization. The fact that we live in a democracy often masks that fact, but other than the mechanism of voting itself, most of the things that make a healthy democracy great do not fall under the umbrella of government. Instead, they involve people working within civil society, attempting to influence not just politicians, but fellow citizens. “The argument for democracy presupposes that any minority opinion may become a majority one”* and every day various opinions that are a minority within this community or in DC at large outside of it are advanced and discussed.

Civil Society, in short, is really “where we all come together to do the things none of us could do on our own” in the sense that Dave was talking about. And civil society in the District is changing very rapidly along with many other changes it is in the midst of.

The District Libertarian was created for the precise purpose of increasing my participation in that civil society, and to encourage other libertarians in the community to participate as well.