An op-ed piece in the Washington Post earlier this week suggested that the effective altruism movement could kill the arts. Effective altruism purports to apply rational decision-making to funding charities. In theory, anything that demonstrates a good bang for the buck could be effective altruism. In practice, effective altruism means alleviating world poverty, improving animal welfare, avoiding global catastrophic risks, and—of course—building a bigger effective altruism movement.
I could spend this entire post skewering those goals as no more rational than other charitable impulses. I could also dispute the statement that “Americans have generally not paid enough attention to the crushing human catastrophes in the Third World — public health, poverty, refugees.” In fact, Americans have a good record of charitable giving.
Instead I want to address two points. The first is the idea that there’s only so much pie to go around, or that for every winner there is a loser, or that money donated to arts organizations is forever unavailable to other charities.
It amazes me that Bill Gates, ostensibly one of the world’s smartest businessmen, champions the effective altruism idea, not acknowledging it as the zero-sum fallacy that it is.
A small example: many artists—myself included—have benefited from training or residencies at non-profit arts institutions. All artists are frequently asked to donate work for fundraising auctions. (See Penobscot East’s annual buoy auction, for example.) We do this even though such donations are not tax-deductible. The initial investment in the arts organization yields a continuing return for non-arts organizations down the road.
Even though Americans are, by and large, the best givers in the world, we still give only a small fraction of what we are capable of giving. We don’t need to take away from the Met to fund AIDS programs in Africa; we can easily afford to do them both, if we’re so moved.
The second is the pernicious philosophy that man can live by bread alone. If that were true, then art wouldn’t be a unifying theme across all times and cultures.
For decades the Philistines have worked to remove art and music from public school curricula, saying we need more ‘competitive’ education so that we can become more like the Japanese or Chinese or Germans. Yet, in the days when American education emphasized Latin, music, history, art and language, we led the world in technology and manufacturing. Art is not useless to culture; it is its highest achievement. It sets the tone for all other thinking.
I’ve taught enough to know that painting can be the spark that lights up an intellect, that it can revive a flagging soul, and that it reduces anxiety. Art lessons cost half of what antidepressants run. Of course there is no place for them in modern society; the proceeds don’t go to a vast multinational pharmaceutical company, so they must not be real.
Ironically, defunding museums would have virtually no effect on the majority of working artists. We mostly sell our work to private individuals. What it will change is opportunities to educate future artists and art lovers. Operas and symphonies are expensive to put on and they need specialized venues. These are either state-funded or supported by public subscription. Likewise great art must be kept in very expensive, secured, controlled environments.
Perhaps the point of these attacks is to free up great art to be snapped up by the Bill Gates of this world.