Against accountability in the arts

The value of “accountability” is often counterproductive when applied to direct subsidies for art. To be sure, accountability is critically important in many contexts. For instance CEOs should be accountable to shareholders. But we do not stress accountability in every sphere of human activity. For instance, tenured college professors are not (usually) accountable to university administrators for the content of their ideas. Instead we believe that an ethic of academic freedom will best promote the mission of the university. Supreme Court Justices are not accountable for the content of their decisions, although Congress may respond by passing new laws, or the Constitution may be amended.

Along these lines, direct subsidies stand the greatest chance of making a positive difference when they are insulated from many pressures of accountability. We should return to the stylized facts about artistic discovery, namely that there are many failures for every success. Too much direct accountability causes the funder to be excessively afraid of failure. This limits risk-taking and in the longer run limits the number of successes. Accountability works best when the quality of the average outcome is a good indicator of the tails of the distribution; this is not generally the case with the arts.

By the way, here is the last paragraph of the book:

Given that so much of the aesthetic is hidden, what appears to be the subordination of poetry to philosophy is an illusion, albeit a creativity-enhancing illusion. Rather than subordinating poetry to philosophy, at most I have subordinated the public conception of art to philosophy. Poetry remains secure in its diverse and hidden niches, and indeed is healthiest when philosophy directs the public conception of art toward a regime of markets, indirect subsidies, and decentralization. In this sense we can put philosophy at the service of art, and not at war with it. I wish to overturn the victory that Socrates pretended to award to philosophy over poetry, and to paint an alternative vision of the broader compatibility between the two enterprises.


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