Sunday 8 June 2014

Why I Wouldn't Donate To The Arts

Peter Singer's "Good Charity, Bad Charity" was recently published in the New York Times. In the article Singer argues that donors should favour giving opportunities in "health and safety" rather than in arts and culture. I think this is obviously true - but nevertheless, the article has received some backlash. Here are a few reasons why I don't think people should donate to the arts:

Firstly, some health interventions like the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets are highly evidence-backed. It is even possible to quantify how much money a given charity needs in order to save a life. The effectiveness of arts and cultural organizations are not and arguably cannot be quantified or demonstrated with such rigour. There is evidence of positive effects coming from art, but little to no hard, causal evidence suggesting that art rivals efforts to save lives or eradicate terrible illnesses. I hold that we should favour the area with more evidence supporting it. This could be an argument for funding more research on the effects of art, rather than funding art itself.

It's also common sense, at least to me, that staying alive and healthy is a higher priority than widening the selection of art I can choose to enjoy. From a consequentialist perspective, more suffering is caused by death than joy is caused by new publicly funded art. Remember that the positive value of experiencing the artwork needs to be compared to the positive value of the alternative artwork that would have been experienced without public funding.

Many times now I've encountered the argument that staying alive and healthy is only worthwhile if one gets to experience a world with art. I think this is crazy. For one thing, it implies that animals (which do not experience art) do not deserve to live or do not have interests that need to be valued. Secondly, it implies that less arts funding equates to a world with literally no art, despite the fact that there are already countless artworks in existence and that reductions in donations would not stifle the production of commercial art and entertainment. Thirdly, it denies all the non-art pleasures that can make life worth living.

Thirdly, much art, especially the type that people donate toward, is targeted at middle and upper class educated Western museum-goers. This is hardly the demographic most in need of help. Rather, it is a case of the rich getting richer while the poor are neglected. I think that before the world's richest 1% (anybody making over $34,000 a year) receive new luxuries, the world's poorest people should receive fundamental care like food, water, shelter, basic infrastructure, freedom, etc. Denying this puts you in the awkward position of prioritizing your own rich community above the world's poor. Even arts-based charities aimed at the poor are offering a higher-level good to those in need of lower-level goods.

One of the most frequent criticisms of Singer's article is that it frames donations as either-or: either you donate to health interventions or you donate to the arts. This is true, but if you think a charity like GiveDirectly is superior to your favourite arts charity, then this likely applies to your second batch of money just as much as it applies to your first batch of money. If the charities aren't equal, then there's no reason for your donation sizes to be equal. The exception is if you supply your preferred charity with money until it has no room for more funding. This provides an opportunity to move down the list to your second favourite charity. The thing is, that there is not just GiveDirectly. There are hundreds, if not thousands of other health-based charities, that likely outdo even the best art charity. Even a multi-billionaire can go through all his or her money and never "max out" the non-profit health sector.


There is one exception to all this. Organizations that produce entertainment-education fall in between the realms of "health" and "art." Entertainment-education (E-E) is art that specifically attempts to persuade audiences toward healthier behaviours. Funding entertainment-education is arguably "arts funding" but it's unlikely to be what most people have in mind when they talk about funding the arts. E-E programs are typically soap operas and uninteresting from stylistic and aesthetic perspectives.

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