Pennies from heaven

Jim Munroe of No Media Kings makes a case for arts grants: Don’t think of them as free money, think of them as the R&D budget for our cultural future.

I explain it this way: arts grants fund the R&D wing of our cultural operations. Just like research and development in the scientific community, this allows for new methodologies and new strategies to be investigated without having to turn a profit. But in science, experimentation is a valued part of the process. When an artist is called “experimental,” it’s often derogatory. There’s this idea that if it’s not understandable to a mass audience or a layperson, it’s fraudulent.

But mass culture doesn’t spring from a vacuum. The arts and the sciences are both communal activities — everyone’s building on and reacting to the stuff around them. So that neat camerawork in a blockbuster summer movie was inspired by some more obscure film the director saw, which in turn was inspired by an underground photo exhibit, which in turn was inspired by something else… but only the person at the end of the chain of inspiration gets paid — the guy at the head of the line is the only one who isn’t invisible.

Grants address this blind spot of pure market capitalism. As much as economists like to present it as a force of nature, capitalism is a construct we made, a robot that can’t tell the difference between things that we feel are priceless and things that are valueless unless we step in. Clean air, for instance, has less inherent market value than a can of Coke. Grants are a little like speculation. By supporting projects and propagating ideas that are currently too far ahead of the curve to make money, we’re investing in an artistic legacy that we all benefit from.