Free Markets And The Artists Unappreciated In Their Own Country

I was reading a piece by economist Tyler Cowen on how Milton Friedman’s views apply to the arts. According to Cowen, Friedman essentially felt that free market commerce creates diversity in the arts, in types, method of expression, funding and innovation. “Our most effective arts policy has been tax incentives for donations, which has kept choice and quality control in private hands,” writes Cowen.

Cowen acknowledges that we don’t always like the way this manifests itself.

“In other cases, many people, most of all intellectuals, object when apparently nonmeritorious individuals earn huge salaries. The same objections surface in the cultural realm. Madonna earns hundreds of millions, whereas a first rate opera singer might pull in only $50,000 a year or perhaps cannot earn a living from singing at all. The best response, well understood by Friedman, is the same. A system that permits such “inequities” will in fact generate the greatest number of opportunities for performers of virtually all kinds.”

I am sure I was being stubborn when I decided I wasn’t completely convinced by this assertion, though there were enough examples to support Cowen that kept creeping into my mind. It wasn’t until later in the piece when Cowen cited the example of Monet that I had to reluctantly fall more in agreement with him.

This story of free trade and creativity runs throughout the history of culture. Claude Monet had little success marketing his paintings to the government run Salon in Paris in the late nineteenth century. His style and colors were considered to be too radical and too unpleasant. Monet had greater success selling to wealthy North Americans, who were not bound by prevailing French artistic conventions. His haystack paintings proved particularly popular in this country, which is one reason why they appear so frequently in American art museums.

The Monet example illustrates a broader (but sometimes neglected) benefit of international trade. The common arguments for trade cite the benefits of drawing on producers from other countries. But trade also mobilizes the benefits of the consumers from other countries. Consumers hold embedded knowledge. Their purchases can induce suppliers to elevate quality, help suppliers pursue careers of greater pleasure (for example, art), and help generate the artistic heritage of mankind. The greater the diversity of consumers to draw on, the better markets will perform these tasks.

This past week we premiered an original work about the Hawaiian snow goddess, Poli‘ahu which pretty much illustrates his point. It employed hula, ballet and contemporary dance. The artistic director brought in dancers from Japan, a Yupik Eskimo from Alaska and an exchange student from Mongolia to work alongside local dancers to tell this story. While we hope to tour this throughout the rest of the state and take it to the continental United States, there were already plans forming to take it to Alaska and Japan as the show closed opening night. Colleagues at another performing arts center took a show about Kahekili, the chief who nearly united all the islands under one king to Germany a few years ago.

As Cowen’s talked about how international trade brings benefits to the arts, it struck me that without it, the performance we just had would not have developed as it did and the opportunities that may open up and indeed have opened up for colleagues doing similar works, would not be possible. Some of these developments are owed to technology and the internet which enables people to become aware of these shows and evaluate performance videos. But international trade and interactions make people more comfortable and curious about each other and willing to consume other artistic experiences.

The inspiration for our production of Poli‘ahu originated during a bush flight over the Anaktuvuk Pass when the artistic director we partnered with was invited to bring hula to the Arctic Circle a few years ago. Granted, trips to Alaska from Hawaii are not international and there are some areas where they share a certain kinship, but in many respects they are diametrical opposites.

The dancers from Japan didn’t bring anything overtly Japanese to the performance. The role they played could have been performed by any well trained dancers. But their presence was a product of the international commerce to which Cowen refers. The artistic director of the production had been visiting their dance school in Japan for over 10 years and had worked with these women since they were children. He arranged accommodations for them during the rehearsal period so that they could participate in his production as part of his company.

It has been awhile since I invoked the concept of the Creative Economy so let me do so here. This production probably won’t constitute a large enough segment of the emerging economy to pull us out of the recession, but the dynamics which made the production possible and the activity yet to result from it may play a tiny part in moving things toward such an economy.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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