Not “Or”, “And”, but . . . .

NotOrAndButA recent Op-Ed piece by Peter Singer in the New York Times, “Good Charity, Bad Charity”, has been the subject of considerable discussion in the arts world. Singer’s premise is that a way to make choices in charitable giving is to evaluate social return on investment. He specifically compares “health and safety” giving to “arts, culture and heritage” contributions and comes to the conclusion that the former yields greater benefits for society. While he does not cite it, his argument is rooted in the old question: “How can you give to the opera when children are starving?”

Linda Essig’s reply Either/Or or And rightly faults the binary construct of that question and Singer’s updated take on it. The charitable ecosystem, like all others, requires diversity. So, I disagree with the simplistic analysis in Singer’s essay. At the same time, there is something in the “arts are important, too” counter-argument that is an elephant in the room we don’t often acknowledge.

But first let me expand a tad on the need for charitable diversity. I’ve come to be fond of nutrition as a metaphor for this topic. We all understand that addressing poverty, homelessness, disease, and hunger are critical needs in philanthropy. Singly and collectively they “trump” other areas of service. They are the protein and carbohydrates of charity. (I did not claim that this was an elegant metaphor.) However, we have come to understand that protein and carbohydrates alone are not enough to sustain life. The National Institutes of Health has a paper on The Essential Trace Elements that addresses the vital need for a wide variety of other nutrients.

Research during the past quarter of a century has identified as essential six trace elements whose functions were previously unknown. . . . [S]igns of deficiency for chromium, copper, zinc, and selenium have been identified in free-living populations. . . . Marginal or severe trace element imbalances can be considered risk factors for several diseases of public health importance . . .

A bit sciencey, perhaps, but you get the idea. So, any argument that suggests some charitable causes are more worthy than others (and therefore should be supported to the exclusion of those others) deserves serious pushback. Each enterprise supporting the public good contributes (and/or bears the potential for more contribution) to others.

So far so good. However, the elephant to which I referred earlier is that in order for the nutrition metaphor to hold up, the arts industry needs to be serving the public good. If its service is limited to “society is better off because we exist,” the argument is less than compelling, especially when wide swaths of the public do not feel served. And if someone being served does not feel they are being served, are they being served? That’s an interesting philosophical question, and while there are theoretical answers in the affirmative, they do not have much practical use.

The more significant point, however, is that as long as arts institutions see their role as service to art or to art and their patrons, the service to society that is the basis of 501(c)(3)–charitable–status is extremely questionable. This is the source of the flak that arts giving is taking in the public arena. The more we demonstrate commitment to and action for the public good (as seen by the public, not ourselves) the less danger we will face here.

In response to the conversation about charitable choices, I agree that it should be framed as not Or, rather And

but . . . .


On an unrelated topic and, for what it’s worth, I will be in Sacramento, CA September 10 speaking at a gathering of the Irvine Foundation’s Arts Regional Initiative Central Valley Cohort.



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  1. says

    Your argument pushes the can, or in this case the elephant in the room down the road.
    Every state and federal grant application, and now more and more foundational and private support, includes the language of “engagement” that calls for the arts to serve the public good. In reality we have removed the experts in the field of the arts, the artists, performers, historians, academics, from the process of deciding who and what is good and what should be supported. Who then will decide what is the “public good” and when is it being served? You and other administrators? That’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The public themselves? That’s like asking a sick person to heal themselves.

  2. MWnyc says

    Who then will decide what is the “public good” and when is it being served? … The public themselves? That’s like asking a sick person to heal themselves.

    Yikes. That’s exactly the kind of attitude that makes the general public think that we in the arts are really just a bunch of wankers (as the Brits and Aussies would say) who should pay for our own damn projects and keep their money out of it.