Opinion and Economic Analysis

HICKS: The arts matter ... when art lovers are free

August 25, 2012

Anticipating some anger over a recent column that singled out performing and creative arts majors, I thought it might be useful to write about the value of the arts and artistic endeavors. This will not be a Panglossian tract, wistfully looking back at kindergarten fingerpainting classes, musing over the captured elegance of a Turner sunset or gushing over interpretation of a jazz riff. As you might expect, this treatment of the arts will be one of cold-hearted economics.

Advocates often begin discussions about the value of the arts as supplementary education to life’s other endeavors. The argument is familiar. Exposure to the arts provides some of the discipline and insight needed to excel in other fields. True, but so do basketball and a close-order drill. This is not a compelling argument for special consideration for the arts.

Others argue that the arts provide an important window from which to view life’s varied experiences. Again, this is true. I never understood the meaning of Picasso’s Guernica until I received enemy artillery outside Hafr al Batin. It was an amusing comfort at the time, but somewhat less valuable to me than words of the psalmist. No, this is not what gives art value.

Arts of all kinds matter because we value them. Americans spend some $13 billion on the performing arts alone, and much more on arts of all types. Moreover, we inconvenience ourselves mightily in time and treasure to expose our kids to arts, with no expectations of their becoming artists. We erect and sustain artistic endeavors in our communities because we think they make the quality of our lives better. We are quite right in doing this and most likely need to do more.

Economists would say that the arts are important because they enhance individual utility, which in this context means happiness. It is worth noting that the anthropocentricity of free societies offers this view of support for the arts. Nazi Germany, the USSR and their ilk provided enormous financial support for the arts in order to promote a particular culture or ideology. That art, culture and ideology are now remembered primarily for their unique badness.

In places where art is supported through market forces, it flourishes—along with the culture that nourishes it.

To be clear, the existence of market-based support for arts does not mean the government should not be involved in financing art. But it does raise an important point: The measurement of value in an artistic endeavor will always lie in the hearts of men and women.

The magic of a canvas or stage is not measured by the cost of oils or lights, but in what we give up to experience them. This opportunity cost is the measure of our value of art. And this value is maximized only in societies where we are free to choose.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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