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Once again, the budgets of the agencies that support the arts are to be cut. Meanwhile, costs in the arts are going up. But one continues to read and hear of one more dance group being formed, yet another theater company striving to lure audiences. Each new enterprise is self-assured of prestige, confident of support, and hungry for subsidy from public funds.

This disparity between shrinking means and growing supply points to assumptions about art that have not been examined for a long time. The most common is that there cannot be too much art. If private funds fall short, let public money make up the difference. The tendency to speak of Art with a capital A is the first cause of confusion. Art is not a substance like milk, of which the need and use are self-evident. What the public is offered in the name of Art is a multitude of objects and performances that differ significantly in quality and in kind.

The old, established institutions are in trouble, as anyone can see. Museums and libraries have entered the retail and mail-order businesses: they sell books, facsimiles of art objects, cuff links, ashtrays, calendars, and reproductions of drawings and paintings in all sizes. The New York Public Library rents out its lobby for dinners and cocktail parties; in Washington, the galleries of the Phillips Collection can be rented for an evening for $5,000.

As for the artists, most are periodically in dire straits. Seeing this spectacle, the devotees of art are apt to lash out at what is commonly called “our materialistic society.” It should pay for art more lavishly. This is nonsense.

We are familiar with the dangers of too much farm produce, too rich a diet, too many births; we should also see too much art as a predicament.

Such is the fated result of an assumption, deeply buried in our collective mind, that appeared early in the last century with the glorification of the artist. He was a hero, a seer, a genius; and geniuses must be allowed to do as they please while the rest of mankind gratefully brings its offerings to the altar. The popularization of this myth in our time has had dire consequences. Because a great many people have some little artistic gift, and because the life of the artist looks wonderfully free of workaday routines, more and more people in each generation decide that they want to be artists.

And wherever we turn, some agency is at work to multiply their kind. Schools watch over every spark of talent and try to fan it into raging ambition. The finger paintings of two-year-olds are put up on classroom walls and child poetry is publicly recited. This encouragement continues in colleges, where scholarships and prizes spur whole classes to proficiency. The résumé of any would-be artist shows a string of awards and commendations. Technique and professional skill are no longer distinguishing features; they are the norm. In short, with the best of intentions, we have created a glut.

No doubt a certain number of these are great painters, composers, poets, playwrights. If they also have stamina, let them attempt a professional career. They will face a life of solitary toil and repeated disappointment, of problematic reward and fitful success. A few of them will eventually achieve affluence and world renown. In colleges and art schools the young should be taught what “the glorious life of art” is really like. It is a test of endurance, willpower, and maniacal faith in oneself.

Already in 1840, Balzac noted with dismay that there were two thousand painters in Paris. Degas, fifty years later, said: “We must discourage the arts.” But the ever-enlarging display of art cannot, of course, be held back. We can pay farmers not to grow crops, but we cannot pay artists to stop making art. Yet something must be done. To lead people on when there is no chance they will ever fulfill their desire is immoral.

From “A Surfeit of Art,” which appeared in the July 1986 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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July 1986

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