Art may be defined in many ways. It means different things to different people. It serves different purposes, or no purpose at all, depending on who you speak to. What constitutes art is a matter of some debate. But one thing is clear about art in this country, and that is that it is hugely unpopular, especially when compared with the various forms of popular entertainment – soap operas, reality TV, pop music and so on. Compared with these activities, the arts, whether visual arts, opera, classical music, contemporary music or sculpture, appeal to and are enjoyed by a very small section of the population. The vast bulk of society consistently and repeatedly shows little or no interest in the world which so animates and inspires this small select group.
But this is not the problem. The problem is that because of its huge unpopularity, no artistic endeavour can hope to survive without financial support in one form or another, that is, grants, subsidies and tax exemptions. There are few if any examples of the arts in this country today that are totally self-financing. Such financial supports come ultimately from the taxpayer, and the majority of income tax in this country is paid by the PAYE sector, the very sector that have clearly and repeatedly demonstrated their lack of interest in matters artistic.
The small elite within society that does enjoy the arts comes mainly, though not exclusively, from the more privileged middle classes, those with the education and background to appreciate the arts. Yet this community appears unwilling or unable to pay for the art they enjoy, and so art in this country becomes an activity which is mainly enjoyed by a small and privileged section of society, but one which is largely paid for by the less well off, and those with no interest in it in the first place. Art is, in effect, a tax imposed on the poor for an activity enjoyed by the wealthy.
And it is quite a substantial tax. Last year the Arts Council received in excess of €73 million in taxpayer’s money, and it is estimated that the Revenue Commissioner foregoes income tax on some €250 million of artists’ earnings each year. Add to that the various other forms of handout, such as the stipends paid to members of Aosdána, and you end up with quite a substantial amount of revenue.
Now I am sure that many of those blessed with an appreciation of the arts will loudly protest that the government should support the arts, that there is nothing wrong with taxpayers’ money going to such important cultural and artistic activities. Why? Why should the ordinary taxpayer be required to pay for an activity in which they have little or no interest? Why should their tax euros be diverted into funding events that are enjoyed by a tiny portion of the population? If the art appreciators of the country are not prepared to pay the market rate for their enjoyment, and not prepared to pay what it would take to make such activities self-financing, why then should they turn to the hard-pressed PAYE workers and demand that they pay for it for them?
Yes, they may protest, but if such activities are not subsidised then they will die away, and society as a whole will be the loser. It is hard to avoid the element of snobbery in such an argument. If Kylie Minogue finds that people no longer want to pay to hear her, she doesn’t go demanding government subsidies to sustain her now unpopular offerings. If the latest Spielberg offering falls flat, he doesn’t demand taxpayers’ money so that it can continue to be shown in almost empty cinemas. Yet a small, mostly elite, section of society feels no qualms about demanding continued and increasing subsidies for their chosen artistic enjoyment. Why? Because they are ‘superior’ to more popular offerings? Because in the unquantifiable world of the arts they are ‘better’, somehow more worthy?
If such superiority could be demonstrated, or if some benefit to society as a whole could be evidenced, then this argument might be sustainable. But no Mozart aria ever built a motorway, no Van Gogh ever put more Gardaí on the streets, no Fellini film ever shortened hospital waiting lists. We are told that art has more ephemeral benefits, such as ‘enriching the soul’ or ‘lifting the spirit’. Fine. If people want their souls enriched or their spirits lifted off they go. But pay for it yourself, don’t demand that others pay for it for you.
This is not an attack on the arts or an argument against the value of such activities. But if such projects are as important and valuable as supporters claim, then why are they not prepared to pay to sustain them? If they benefit the individual and society as much as they claim, then why are they so unpopular? Why is one musical offering, a Mozart opera for example, worthy of taxpayers’ money while another, a Justin Timberlake album, is not?
Some may splutter and snort derisively, may smirk in supercilious dismissal of popular culture, but until they can answer that question they should stop demanding that others pay for their enjoyment.
Published on 1 November 2006