An Artful Way to Create Jobs?

By David A. Fahrenthold
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Okay, fine. But what kind of art?

After a debate that carried a whiff of the Reagan- and Giuliani-era fights over government arts funding -- remember the Virgin Mary daubed with elephant dung? -- Congress inserted $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts into the stimulus package. Republicans cried elitism and boondogglery. But Democrats won with the argument that art can boost a sagging economy just the way building roads can.

Now the NEA is requiring grant applicants to detail how their art projects will either save jobs or boost the work prospects of freelance artists.

But in the interests of efficiency, we have to ask: Is there one kind of art that's especially good at goosing the economy overall? Surely, in the vast world of organized expression -- everything from Shakespeare to Springsteen to people who decorate their bodies with stick-on rhinestones (more on that later) -- there must be good bets and bad ones. Some art must be the cultural equivalent of digging ditches and filling them up again. Some must have the multiplying effect of investing early in Google.

In a cosmic sense, of course, these are all the wrong questions. Art's value should be measured in terms of truth and beauty and how many nudes it depicts, not something as vulgar as dollars. But in this strange time, they're the right questions.

The NEA, unfortunately, won't give a straight answer. "We can't say that one artistic discipline is better than another," a spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.

So why don't we try?

Start with the lessons of the New Deal. Arts programs during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration employed nearly 40,000 muralists, musicians, writers and actors at a cost of about $160 million. That's more than $2 billion in current dollars, according to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen.

Today's NEA is planning to filter its $50 million through nonprofit groups and state and regional arts agencies. But Cowen said that would waste time and leak valuable cash. The lesson of the New Deal, he said, was: Spend money fast and worry about the art later.

"Hire a lot of people. Do it quickly. Don't obsess over quality," Cowen said. Some people the program funded produced awful murals. Others just stole the money. Doesn't matter, Cowen said, if the point is getting cash into the economy. Now, he said, the ideal project would be something in a high-unemployment area of the country. Something that wouldn't pay very much, so that only jobless people would be desperate enough to want the work.

"They could make a musical about, you know, investment bankers," Cowen said. But "you need the set-builders to be previously unemployed."

Another economist -- David Galenson of the University of Chicago -- disagrees. He said that New Deal programs backed some artists who later became giants, filling movie theaters and galleries: Orson Welles, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko. It also produced projects of enduring historical significance, such as the murals inside the Coit Tower in San Francisco.

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