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A letter to the Editor opposing government arts subsidies, published in The Australian on 13 December 1990, p.10

Normally, Mr Devine's views are as sound as his expression is eloquent but sadly, today, I must disagree with him. Perhaps he should not 'hate' himself tomorrow for saying so; simple regret for today's column (The Australian, 6 December 1990, p.11) should suffice.

I agree whole-heartedly that Western artists seem to have resisted the temptation of becoming governmental lapdogs -- it probably requires pure Stalinist terror to achieve such conversions. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are three good reasons for governments to refrain from subsidising the arts: one practical, one economic and one moral.

Firstly, it is no easier to 'pick winners' in the arts than it is in industry. The rejection of many great artists of the past not only by the 'philistine' public but also by professional critics and even artist peers suggests that errors are likely. After all, a prominent Viennese newspaper critic demanded, after listening to the exquisite Seventh Symphony, that Beethoven be send to the madhouse. Even personal greatness does not necessarily bestow good judgement on an individual. Tchaikovsky opined, in respect of Pictures at an Exhibition, 'Mussorgsky's music I wholeheartedly send to the Devil; it is the cheapest, the vilest of parodies on music.'

We should also not forget that the French impressionists felt a need to set up their own exhibitions after being frozen out by the art establishment. Judgements on artistic matters are necessarily subjective. A government appointed committee is at least as likely to either lag behind the times or be swayed by ephemeral trends as any private sponsor or critic.

Secondly, the economics of arts subsidies mean that they can easily have the converse effect to that which Mr Devine would seek. As with any product, subsidisation of the arts leads to oversupply and accordingly drives down the selling price (but not, of course, the income of the fortunate few). So any potential J S Bach or G B Shaw out there who does happen to slip through the subsidy net not only misses out on the handout but is undercut in price by the recipients of government largesse.

Thirdly, Mr Devine should consider the morality of subsidies. There is a cost to Government funding that is too often overlooked: the cost of prising additional sums of money from this Nation's citizenry. That cost cannot be measured in money terms -- it is charged against their stock of good-will and tolerance.

Let those who enjoy the arts pay for as much of them as they wish. But it should be their own money they spend, not that taken from the pockets of those who may prefer Ken Done to Brett Whitely, Stephen King to Peter Carey, and Guns 'n' Roses to Steve Reich.

© 1990 - Stephen Dawson