By Jim McCarthy Jan 20, 2011 0 comments

The Herd Needs Thinning? You Go First (contd.)

The “arts” are oversupplied.  We’ve heard this before.  There are, according to this thesis, too many organizations and the resources to support them are therefore spread too thin.  Kill off the bad ones (we’ll worry about what the hell we mean by “bad” in a minute) and then everyone will have plenty of money and the “arts” will be robust, and full of enterprising, innovative and successful people, who also have great teeth and tans.

This idea has a simplicity and appeal to it, like realizing that if you just pitched a few of your less desirable crew mates out through the airlock and into the void of space, your onboard oxygen would last long enough for the rescue shuttle to arrive and take you safely back to Houston and a big plate of ribs at that place out by I-45.

Here’s a snippet from the piece I linked above that I think exposes the fundamental flaws in this kind of thinking: 

“My dad used to keep a goldfish pond in our back yard. Without some form of population control, goldfish ponds can become overstocked, a situation in which the fish become sick, or even die, from lack of oxygen and competitive stress. “

This is a neat metaphor for the world which the author and many others feel exists: there’s a pond, there are resources that the pond can contain, and if they’re stretched too thin, the ecosystem suffers.  This metaphor suffers from being kinda true, but really, completely irrelevant.

Irrelevant because first of all, there’s no ‘pond.’ If you look at a lake or the ocean and mentally throw a section of rope around part of it and call it a pond, that doesn’t make it a pond.  “Arts” as an industry is not a thing.  At best, it’s a fuzzy logic concept, wherein we might all agree that the San Francisco Ballet is part of the “arts,” half of us might agree that “Stomp” is part of the “arts” and one or two of us might think that my touchdown dance when UCLA scores is the “arts.”  (And since that last one is rare, it’s a tough ticket.)

That pond is in your mind.  The ropes you’re using to create this concept don’t stop the fish and all the other stuff from swimming around wherever they like.  Resources and creatures come in and out all the time.

Second, if something exists, it’s because someone wants it and can fund it, and if they want it, and can fund it, it belongs, at least until no one wants it or will fund it.  Got that?  Whether it’s debt-funded, revenue-funded or donation funded, if it’s operating, for the moment, it’s needed.  It won’t be there forever, but neither will Mt. Everest.  In “the arts” there are a lot of people willing to work for little or no money and a lot of people willing to give a lot of money with little or no expectation of the organization succeeding.

Why?  Because people like art, they like to be entertained, they like the feeling of contributing to the betterment of society, and they like the idea of a job where they get to be part of those things.  It creates a supply of labor that is and always will exceed the demand for it at a price that allows everyone who’s interested to make a living at it.

Third, who’s the “dad” in this scenario?  Most people who write about these things seem awfully uncomfortable with the wisdom of crowds and letting these things sort themselves out.  The author repeatedly talks about what “we” should do:  “how, realistically, can we address this ‘fish too many’ problem…“; “We appear to have neither the mechanism nor the will to effectively downsize the sector.“  Who the heck are “we”?  Is there a mouse in your pocket?  Is there a Council of “The Arts” Deciders that meets in secret and then promulgates its decisions out secretly via text message to its army of Sith-like apprentices?

People make decisions, big and small, important and unimportant, and all together, it adds up to what happens.  You can certainly advocate for the idea that people should make the decision to shut down or de-fund certain kinds of “arts” organizations, but don’t blame it on “we.”

By the way, the greatest possible source of oversupply in a market is, in fact, government spending because it is the least responsive to the marketplace.  That doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t spend any money in this area, but I would bet that the people most likely to complain about  “oversupply” are often people who also believe the government should spend more money supporting “the arts.”  (It’s only fair to say that the author of this piece doesn’t mention government funding at all so I don’t know what her opinion on that subject is.)

Fourth, humans and organizations are not fish in a pond; they’re far more resilient and they can grow value.  Ah, the allure of the zero sum game.  If you assume that there’s a literal wall around the world of “the arts” and that nothing moves in or out that wasn’t already there to begin with, you’ve created a mental trap.  If you’re constantly fretting over recycling a limited pool of dollars more efficiently, you’ll go crazy and miss the big story, which is this: there’s no limit to what you can do if you are creating value.  If something that people want is being delivered to people for less than they’re willing to pay for that thing, you are creating value.

Here’s a scenario to illustrate this.  Suppose you have a guy who knows how to grow grain, a guy who knows how to bake using grain, and a guy who knows how to build houses and they’re in an imaginary island where only the three of them exist, alongside natural resources.  They can either all three forage for food every day and be exhausted and hungry and miserable, OR the guy who grows the grain can sell it to the guy who bakes the bread who can sell it to the guy who builds houses.  In that circumstance, instead of spending all their time foraging for food and living on the ground, they’re all living in houses, eating fresh-baked bread.  Multiply that by billions, and that’s how wealth creation happens.

There’s no set amount of wealth that’s devoted to “the arts” and there’s no set amount of wealth in a society.  In fact, if you create the right conditions, both of these things should be growing as a society progresses. Our three friends didn’t have a lot of time for leisure and enlightenment on their island, but with time, they might. ( I suppose they also need some more people to help them grow the population.  Ok, it’s not a perfect metaphor.)

If downsizing is right, it will happen of its own accord.  Imagine if “the arts” had the opposite problem of too few participants or too few people willing to throw money at organizations that might not survive into the next century.  That’s what you call a real problem, and it’s not such a remote possibility that this industry should get cocky about it.

I understand this kind of commentary is coming from a serious and constructive place, but whenever I hear someone talking about “thinning the herd,’ I can’t help but ask if they’d like to go first.

I’m guessing all that “downsizing of the sector” is for other people.

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