Stewart Lee, probably the funniest comedian in the world, is at his best when he’s not making political asides in otherwise ok articles. Whilst most of the piece covers a genuinely interesting case of how the Market (triggered by an angry rant by Lee that went viral) reacted against Foster’s ill advised and badly thought out poll to discover the “Comedy God” of the last 30 years, it unfortunately goes into typical pro-government ugliness for a brief tangent:
But the administrative errors in Foster’s now discredited poll are trivial compared to the questions it throws up about the ethics of corporate sponsorship: questions that are suddenly newly significant as we enter the era of Dave Cameron’s “Big Society”. Dave tells us that the way forward for areas of life that once received public funding, or that might have benefited from it, lies in partnerships with charitable organisations and businesses. But charitable organisations have ethical agendas, businesses want bang for their buck, and the moral scruples of their supposed beneficiaries have to take a back seat when the cash starts flowing.
Stewart Lee unfortunately, because he is a hero of mine, makes the typical leftist error of thinking that the Government can be wielded for social good. That the same organisation he detests for taking us to war, or funding the Pope’s recent visit, can simultaneously correctly decide what art is worthy of funding. And not only can it decide this but it can do it better than private charity, individual consumers or corporations who’d seek to sponsor such endeavours. Here’s my take, as an anti-war, pro-drug-legalisation, completely open borders libertarian:
The government should absolutely never, ever be in the business of funding any kind of art whatsoever.
Let me attempt to justify that statement.
Firstly, the quality of art is entirely subjective. One person’s favourite stand-up comedian will bore the shoes off somebody else, as Stewart Lee knows full well, retelling in his book the story of Robbie Williams walking out of one of his shows. Some people love classical music but can’t stand Rap, others hold the opposite position. Furthermore, what is even classified as art is entirely subjective. Lee, again, has intimate awareness of this fact after the campaign by Christian Voice to shut down Jerry Springer The Opera which he co-wrote and directed. The important broadsheet critics loved it, Christian Voice thought it was blasphemy.
Secondly, making a living through art is a luxury, not a right. Anybody who can get paid to create art should be very happy indeed. For the majority of people who sing, or paint, or play in a band it is a hobby; something they do in their spare time for the enjoyment of it. It’s their evening or weekend reward for the 9-5 slog they have to put up with to put food on the table.
Thirdly, not everybody can be an artist. We intuitively know that some people have to farm and build houses and sort out the sewage systems and fly the aeroplanes. So if there is a finite amount of resources that can be spent on art, what is the fairest way to distribute that money? As far as I can tell there are two main ways, you can distribute it through the market or government. Let’s examine those two ways:
The Market: On the market an artist is compensated to the degree that other people enjoy his work. Because the quality of art is arbitrary, your ability to earn a living on the market will be decided upon by whether you can get people to voluntarily pay to come and see you or buy your DVDs or whatever. If you think you’re a great artist, but nobody will pay to come and see you, that’s your signal that you might have to keep what you’re doing as a part-time hobby and not pack in the day job.
Now Stewart Lee, I suspect, would argue that this is putting a purely economic calculation on something that should be about more than just money, but what does it mean to spend money to go and see your favourite Stand-up? It means that you value that experience more than the money you’re willing to pay. You are showing how much you appreciate X piece of art by literally giving up X amount of time that you had to work your 9-5.
The Government: The government solution says “We know better than you the individual what art is worthy of your money. You think you’d rather spend your cash on a Tim Minchin live show, or a Lord of the Rings Boxset but you’re wrong. We know better what is worth funding so we’re going to take X% from your pay cheque each month and funnel it through our bureaucratic wasteful channels into a 14 piece Avant-Garde Jazz troupe.”
And who do you think goes to see these unjustifiably expensive productions that often don’t even fill their extravagant government built theatres? Yes, it’s mostly university graduated middle-class people. And I say this as a university-graduate who has been to plenty of such things in my time. The people in the audience could have paid for the event, but the tickets would have had to be £100 each. They won’t pay that cost, because they themselves do not think the “art” is worth that price. However, if they can get other people, to give up their money involuntarily, to bring those prices down, they will happily attend.
They want other people (many of whom either have no interest in self-indulgent art, or would prefer to spend their money on the art they subjectively prefer) to subsidise their subjective idea of what is worthwhile art but they won’t pay for it themselves.
So let’s boil this down further. I’ll leave you with two ways to fund “art” and leave you, the reader, to decide which is the more just and fair system, remembering that what art is is arbitrarily defined and always changing and what is considered good art is entirely a matter of opinion:
Market: People spend their money on the “art” they like best.
Government: People have their money taken from them by force and spent on “art” that people don’t want to pay for voluntarily.
[Although this article quotes Stewart Lee, most liberal Guardian readers in the UK seem to think the Government should be in the business of funding the arts. It's always more distressing when somebody you look up to holds contrary beliefs to your own than if somebody you don't respect does. My hope is one day Stewart Lee realises the folly of using aggression to try to achieve socially beneficial ends and gets on the Anarchist bandwagon, after all, his own hero, Alan Moore, has been riding it for some time.]