The Right Coast

August 15, 2004
Art for Artists' Sake
By Gail Heriot

"What public art does best is impossible to measure," testified one artist bent on receiving legally-mandated subsidies for himself and his fellow artists. Precisely. And that is a large part of the reason the City of San Diego (and hundreds of other cities across the country) should have refrained from requiring private commercial and industrial projects to pay such subsidies. Since it's impossible to tell whether the buyer of public art is getting his money's worth, it makes a lot of sense to let him or her make the decision whether to make the investment. After all, it's their money; they are less likely to make foolish mistakes with it than others.

The San Diego City Council nevertheless voted a little while ago to require private companies building commercial and industrial projects worth $5 million or more to spend at least 1% of their budgets on public art (to else "donate" half that amount to the San Diego's Public Art Fund). Where I come from, that's a lot of money--much of which will likely eventually come out of consumers' pockets. And if the public art it produces is like most of the public art I have seen, it will be money down a rat hole. I for one would rather see the money spent on landscaping (or as Joyce Kilmer might have put it, "I think that I shall never see a legally-mandated public sculpture as lovely as a tree"). And I'm not usually regarded as a complete philistine in these matters.

Not surprisingly, those testifying in favor of the law tended to be artists themselves, who stood to benefit financially from its passage. I'm curious. When Congress conducts hearings on whether to purchase a new weapons system for the military, do members seek out the opinions of military contractors who stand to gain financially if the project is approved? If they ever do, I hope the media takes them to the woodshed for it. But when potential beneficiaries for San Diego's art tax testified in its favor, as far as I can tell, no one in the local media peeped. Maybe it's considered impolite to accuse artists of behaving like pigs at a pig trough. They're so cool. And they provide us with immeasurable benefits. Yeah, yeah.