Why Don't We Subsidize More (Timeless) Art?

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame. — Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (III.I.8)

People gravity towards novel accomplishments. Novel books, music, art, and other acts that are out of the ordinary. We are drawn in by the explosion and the glow. We are drawn by what appears to be acts of super people doing amazing things. 

But novel isn’t always lasting. In the long run, timeless themes are appreciated. These themes tend to be those that speak to what motivates the characteristics of humanity. Stories, poems, and other art forms that we can connect with and take something away that is meaningful to our own lives. 

This is a reason for why I enjoy biographies. They tell us about the normal experiences in the story of a person who has done extraordinary things. In a way, a good biography is egalitarian. They tend to show that people have the same faults, the same types of challenges, the same reactions to successes and failures. The stories speak to our humanity. 

If man desires to be loved and to be lovely, as proclaimed by Smith, the question is “to whom?”

Is there a sense of time conveyed in Smith? Are we in the present and thinking of pleasing or peers today, or are we thinking about pleasing others at some other point in time? How do we weigh each time period and group of interest? 

If we are interested in pleasing people in the future (and not just our immediate peers) by creating something lasting and profound it may be better that a contribution is not necessarily novel but that it speaks to our humanity. 

There is a difference in the consideration of timing, Smith believes, that is derived from the objective versus the subjective value judgement. We will be drawn to the present if the value of the contribution is subjective. The present value is not necessarily important if the value is objective. 

Here is Smith in Sentiments (III.I.25): 

There are some very noble and beautiful arts, in which the degree of excellence can be determined only by a certain nicety of taste, of which the decisions, however, appear always, in some measure, uncertain. There are others, in which the success admits, either clear demonstration, or very satisfactory proof. Among the candidates for excellence in those different arts, the anxiety about the public opinion is always much greater in the former than the later. 

One’s peers appreciation is less relevant when the value of contribution is objective in the sense that it can be proven. More Smith in Sentiments (III.I.27):

Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the trust and of the importance of discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public.

But it’s not that the mathematicians are indifferent to the public reception. Rather, it’s that they more heavily weigh the future value placed on their contribution. 

If this is true, the relevant question then becomes, why don’t more artists whose work is subjectively determined consider the lasting value of their accomplishments? In other words, why don’t more people spend time producing lasting works rather than the novel? 

Perhaps the source of meaning in the art is to provide a voice to a current event or feeling. It has immediate value to people because it speaks to the moment. 

This also raises another set of important questions that have implications for policy. For instance, would future generations be willing to pay for lasting accomplishments? Would they be more or less willing to support a piece of art that allows for an important expression even if that expression won't necessarily speak to future generations (e.g., sometimes society just needs to get stuff out)? If so, how much are they willing to pay? And how much are we willing to pay today for, say, the potential of producing another Shakespeare?