Excerpt from: The Culture Crash by James Panero

While the argument Singer is making here is about philanthropy, one could extend that to any effort made at all. Why make art when you can volunteer at a soup kitchen and make a real difference? The author’s rebuttal I find a little lacking and I think our artists have made a much better case. (of course our artists aren’t making multi-million dollar paintings either)

With irrecoverable losses in endowment income, at least for the foreseeable future, the survival of arts organizations will depend not just on cutting their budgets without negatively affecting their core services, but also on finding new sources of revenue. Unfortunately, in perilous economic times, attracting new donors may be harder for arts organizations than for other nonprofits. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer exemplifies the attitude against arts funding in his new book, The Life You Can Save: “Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious.” Singer points to the $45 million that the Metropolitan Museum spent on a Duccio painting in 2004 as an amount that would pay for cataract operations for nearly 1 million blind people in the developing world. “If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child?” Singer asks.

Such ideas, of course, ignore the fact that arts organizations, unlike “feed the world” campaigns, have a proven track record of serving and elevating the poor and dispossessed. They also employ many workers. Still, studies by the Conference Board and by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University find Singer’s anti-art attitude reflected in the habits of many donors during troubled economic times. “When you’re providing human services or feeding the hungry, people understand that maybe this is a time to dig a little deeper,” Patrick Rooney, interim executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, told Bloomberg News. “Helping an arts organization? That’s a tougher sell.” Randall Bourscheidt, president of the Alliance for the Arts, concurs. But the “deeper values of society that are in education and the arts are important,” Bourscheidt maintains. “These activities are not competing with basic needs but complementing them.”

via The Culture Crash by James Panero, City Journal 20 July 2009.

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