Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ruskin on the arts budget

In February 1867, in a letter published in Time and Tide (something of a run-up to Fors Clavigera, a series of letters to Thomas Dixon, a cork-cutter), Ruskin notes a parliamentarian objecting to government spending on the arts in language with which we are familiar:
in the debate on the grant for the Blacas collection [of classical & early Christian antiquities, which was being acquired for the British museum], "Mr. Bernal Osborne got an assenting cheer, when he said that 'whenever science and art were mentioned it was a sign to look after the national pockets.'"
Ruskin goes on to quote from the same issue of the Pall Mall Gazette, summarizing military expenditures:
(1) The total sum asked for in the army estimates, published this morning, is £14,752,200, being an increase of £412,000 over the previous year."

(2) "Yesterday the annual account of the navy receipts and expenditure for the year ending 31st March, 1866, was issued from Admiralty. The expenditure was £10,268,115, 7s."

Omitting the seven shillings, and even the odd hundred-thousands of pounds, the net annual expenditure for army and navy appears to be twenty-four millions.

....the grant which the House of Commons feels to be indicative of general danger to the national pockets – is, as above stated, £164,000. Now, I believe the three additional ciphers which turn thousands into millions produce on the intelligent English mind usually the effect of – three ciphers. But calculate the proportion of these two sums, and then imagine to yourself the beautiful state of rationality of any private gentleman, who, having regretfully spent £164 on pictures for his walls, paid willingly £24,000 annually to the policeman who looked after his shutters! Your practical English! – will you ever unbar the shutters of your brains, and hang a picture or two in those state-chambers?
United States National Endowment for the Arts budget, FY 2009: $155,000,000 ($155 million)
Estimated United States Department of Defence budget, FY 2009: $651,163,000,000 ($651,163 million)


Vance Maverick said...

Without disagreeing in the least with the tendency of his argument, I would note that (1) many private gentlemen were spending money on the arts, and there was no private army or navy, so he's comparing unlike terms, and (2), more trivially, despite the rhetorical call for us to "calculate the proportion", he doesn't bother to do so himself (it's 1:146), but rather scales both terms down by 1000 to bring them into what for the upper end of his audience would have been the domestic range.

It's well enough written, but doesn't (in the excerpts you give) wrestle with the hard questions about government support of the arts. Again, of course, at the base, I think more arts is good, so they should be funded more, by all sources including the government, but that doesn't help explain, say, to the Plain People of Ireland whether the common exchequer should fund art of esoteric interest.

Mark Scroggins said...

Spot on, Vance. JR has this habit of "personalizing" his fiscal points, here & elsewhere, by making the nation into a landowner & then rounding everything down.

& of course he's only talking about aesthetic known quantities, destined for public collections -- I'm sure he'd no doubt be horrified not merely by Andres Serrano, but by much of what gets funded by contemporary arts agencies.

Vance Maverick said...

How can you ask the public to fling a pot of paint in its own face?

Too, the focus on proportion implies another fallacy -- that spending reveals preference. We know, for example, that the proportion of the average domestic budget that goes to food, or housing, varies depending on the place and time, but we wouldn't generally conclude this tells us much about the relative importance of the goods to the buyers. Of course the disproportion of the budgets for arms and the arts is far starker, but this does indicate, I think, that the precision of JR's accounting is mere flourish.

(I always wanted to start a sentence with adverbial Too, and now I can rest.)

A. said...

Greetings sir!

I have a Zukofsky/Williams question unrelated to your post here that I was hoping you might have some insight into. Is there an e-mail address I might contact you by?

Mark Scroggins said...

A. --

by all means: mw-dot-scroggins-at-gmail-dot-com will reach me.