In early December 2010 a proposition was made with the suggestion that “all public monies for the arts should cease… a better case could be made to fund professional wrestling—it’s what the working class enjoy.” It should not be difficult to google out the context in which this proposition was made, with its heavy bag of politics, religion and gender. But instead of digging out again those juicy details, it is also a good opportunity to re-think why public sponsorship of beauty is actually vital.
Public provision is typically deemed justified in cases of coordination or market failure. Vaccination is a classical example: if all kids but one are vaccinated against a particular disease, the parents of the remaining kid have little incentive to vaccinate her, since she would never catch that disease from her friends. But if all parents free-ride with the hope that others will vaccinate their children, then too few might actually do so. Hence schools mandate a certain vaccination schedule as a pre-requisite for admittance (exempting very few on religious grounds), and health services provide vaccinations for free for those who haven’t received them otherwise.
Against what disease does beauty immunize us? Thousands of years ago, our sweet tooth for hoarding fat was selected for, since fat and glucose were hard to get; likewise, our instinctive attraction to flickering movement was fit, because it meant either predator or prey. Today, however, our favorite greasy meals do not nourish our body, but rather make us obese and ill. Likewise, when we zap to the next glittering channel, website or chat-room we ride ever faster the roller-coaster of gratification; we produce more rapidly content that others consume, and the economy is growing. But all too often this content does not nourish our mind. It sums up to no more than zero-drift white noise, that makes us comfortably numb.
Beauty is the antidote to white noise. Beauty, in the sense meant here, is not in the eye of the beholder, not a matter of taste. The Taj Mahal, Bach’s ciaccona, the double helix, Godel’s incompleteness theorem don’t gratify us – almost the opposite: they arrest us. They strike us against our boundaries, against the inevitable necessity of the world, with tension, proportion, balance.
And when beauty strikes us, we wake up. We no longer just passively swallow the external sensations from the world. We begin to perceive the world actively. We willfully move not only towards the steepest gradient of pleasure, but also against our limits. This to-and-fro dance turns our sensations into sense, and some tasks emerge as meaningful challenges for us. At least for a while, we become entrepreneurs. And possibly, part of the challenge in our enterprise is not just to take advantage or to buy the time and effort of the people with whom we interact, but actually to engage with them and with their own enterprises.
Beauty cannot be provisioned in a decentralized market. Unlike with vaccinations, the problem has nothing to do with free riding. The point is that there is no way in which beauty can be marketed: there can be no promo to genuine surprise. We cannot form demand for an experience which will alter our outlook, because the new outlook makes no sense to us before we actually have it. Our only chance to have beauty is to commission it by a centralized, public initiative.
There is an additional important difference between vaccination and beauty. If a vaccination program is ever frozen but the disease bursts again, it is easy to de-frost the vaccines and start re-administering them. Beauty, in contrast, cannot be stored. Among all the books in the world that Google can scan for us there is no manual for beauty, because invigoration can be encapsulated in no formula. Beauty is always a living experience, and one can be apprenticed to beauty only by others who are already striving for it and have already been apprenticed. So if the sponsoring of beauty is ceased for a single generation, it might take many generations to restore. Unfortunately, many parts of the world have experienced such long, dull and dark periods.
It is true that funding beauty is extremely frustrating, because most of the time we get only second and third and fourth – rate imitation of beauty. The artists who wish to strike us with beauty all too often manage merely to provoke and unnerve us. In some better cases they manage only to confront us with the fractures of our era, but in a way that preempts any balancing catharsis. In worse cases we are handed pompous kitsch. And those scientists – they ask us for billions to build particle accelerators in which maybe, only maybe, they would be able to catch a glimpse of an elusive quark which would confirm the super-symmetry of the world.
But if we do not want to drown in white noise there is simply no alternative to the centralized funding of beauty. This is the only way to allow for few apprentices to eventually come up with beauty that would nourish our mind. And when this happens there is a slim chance that beauty will percolate further in society, as wide-eyed entrepreneurship is, after all, contagious.
And sometimes, just sometimes, beauty can actually pay off. Like when one college dropout Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy course, which he attested to be “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture”, so that ten years later he and his partners “designed it all into the Mac.” Or when those physicists at the particle accelerator of CERN invented the internet only so as to share among themselves the huge amount of data, didn’t even think they should patent their invention, and delivered to the world more bang for the buck than could ever be imagined.