Intrinsic Value As A General Value

Recently there has been a sentiment that the arts community shouldn’t use economic benefits as an argument for supporting the arts. I agree with this because there are a lot of problems with the argument which can weaken your position. The difficulty is that in trying to reframe the argument in other terms, you are fighting a sort of cultural inertia.

Arts Alliance Illinois Executive Director, Ra Joy retweeted lobbyist Dan Johnson who wrote “Instead of using the phrase “I’m a taxpayer” to legitimize a comment about government, we should use the universal phrase “I’m a citizen'”

We have a consumerist mentality which leads us to feel we get a say in how all our money is used and should expect a certain level of satisfaction. Businesses we make purchases from extend money back guarantees to assure our satisfaction so there is a tendency to apply a similar outlook to other areas of our lives. In addition to those addressing concerns to the government, students often use the my taxes/tuition pays your salary argument with their teachers.

The problem is, people often over estimate how much of the cost their share actually covers. Hamilton College recently launched a campaign at their students showing that after February 23, someone else was paying for their education. As most of us in the arts world know, a taxpayer’s share of the National Endowment for the Arts funding is below fifty cents.

And, of course, in many cases the price of a ticket to a performance at a non-profit organization only covers about 1/3 of the cost of the production.

Johnson’s suggestion to use “I’m a citizen” is essentially the argument for the intrinsic value of the arts. It harkens back to the social compact theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau that influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States. (My first major was Political Science.) It is an argument that the government owes us based on the intrinsic nature of our relationship rather than our dutiful payment of taxes.

The influence of money which drives the concerns over the Citizens United decision and those of the Occupy Movement illustrate the problem of equating economic influence with general worth and merit. It is probably time to emphasize intrinsic value in general and not solely in the arts.

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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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