Faster Than a Speeding Bullet! More Expensive than a Diamond-Encrusted Skull!

March 20, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Essay, Field Notes

Just one B-2 Stealth Bomber costs $2.87 billion, "For the Love of God" by Damian Hirst cost $22 Million to make and an F-22 costs $361 million. The Air Force has 187 F-22 fighter jets and 20 B-2 bombers in its arsenal.

Yes, that’s right – the F-22 Raptor can literally fly faster than a speeding bullet! Think about that. While an average bullet flies between 500 and 1,000 mph, the Raptor is capable of flying at speeds between 1,200 and 1,500 mph. Since the F-22 is one of the fastest aircraft flying today, it is also one of the most expensive. According to the the Government Accountability Office the F-22 costs $361 million per per jet. All those millions in tax dollars translate into an airplane that is super stealthy, supersonic and almost invisible to radar and infrared sensors. And, amazingly, it can shoot down cruise missiles in mid-flight! Combine that with top-secret advanced electronics and software, it is to the military what Damian Hirst’s diamond-covered skull is to the art world – an expression of political power and wealth. Yet as decadent as it appears to be, the platinum and diamond-encrusted skull only cost about $20 million to make – even with 8,601 diamonds on it. And wasn’t paid for with tax dollars.

"For the Love of God" by Damian Hirst has 8,601 diamonds on it and cost $20 Million to make.

In fact, most art isn’t paid for with tax dollars. American, British or otherwise. Another fact is that artists pay taxes too and expect something in return, not just fighter jets. Art institutions and museums employ thousands upon thousands of people who all pay both federal and state taxes across America. In turn art institutions make purchases and spend money in local communities, contributing to the economy in the same way as any other business. Yet ironically, they serve to educate and entertain the general public – the very same public that accuses artists and art-lovers of being liberal elitists, whatever that means. Few in the general public realize that the board of directors of many museums are made up of powerful bankers, business people and politicians, not old hippies with dirty pony tails. The reason is simple: art is a GREAT investment and there is BIG money in art.

Why else would the former Chairman and CEO of Bank of America, and infamous corporate raider, Hugh McColl Jr.,  tell the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, “My art collection is holding up better than my stocks.”? Because it’s true! If one disregards things like meaning and love and cultural value and just focuses in on financial value, then over time, art just might be one of the best investments one could make.

This chart is mostly right but does not account for the $800 billion in tax dollars needed to pay for the corporate tax cuts congress passed

But I digress. Although the Raptor is more expensive than any other fighter jet, the B-2 Spirit Stealth bomber costs a whole lot more. Almost seven times more, actually. Each Stealth bomber costs $2.87 billion. They are designed to be invisible to radar and to carry a payload of up to 64 nuclear bombs. Each one of those bombs would be able to incinerate over 100,000 people instantaneously. So isn’t it fair to ask – with so much money being poured into such devastating weapons, – what’s the harm of funding some art programs for kids in schools? Or funding theater productions in rural towns? Or helping museums put on exhibitions that teach our citizens about American history? Where’s the harm in that? Those are the kinds things that the National Endowment for the Arts does. Tax money can be spent on nuclear bombs and it’s o.k., so why can’t tax money be spent teaching kids to be creative problem solvers and to be culturally literate?

Don’t get me wrong – it makes sense to want the best military in the world, to protect our own children from the bad men out there, both real and imagined – especially so if that means we can have a country where people enjoy “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But if we collectively decide to outspend all other countries on defense and then allow our largest corporations to pay little or no taxes, then the little revenue left over should go to creating a fantastic society, right? But it doesn’t. When looked at honestly, our tax dollars are paying for gargantuan military spending – over $600 billion a year – a lot of which is wasted and never audited. And while Congress claims eliminating NPR and PBS and the NEA and Collective bargaining by Unions will save money, it’s worth taking a look at how our taxes are also paying for what should be a criminal $800 billion tax cut for the financial industry and those involved in the military industrial complex. By now that’s all ancient history. All of that money – and I mean ALL of it – is down the drain.

From the "The world's top 5 largest military budgets in 2009. Figures sourced from SIPRI."

At least when we pay social security taxes the idea is that we get it back when we reach retirement age. Why would anyone in their right mind want to cut that – especially in an era when life savings evaporate over night as these huge companies, like Enron, fail catastrophically, leaving their investors with nothing? That said, the arts are a good investment – they teach critical thinking skills, creativity, tolerance and cultural history, which ultimately helps to unify rather than to divide people. If the United States wants to remain an innovative nation then it needs to provide people with the intellectual tools to get there. That’s a big part of what the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities are best at.

Interestingly, the annual budget for the NEA is just $146.2  million – about half the cost of just one F-22. The budget for the NEH is likewise $146.2 million. It is a pittance! Less than a penny a year out of each tax dollar! Yet many conservative members of congress have been suggesting both the NEA and the NEH should be eliminated. What I wonder is this: if we can have the most expensive military in the world with the fastest and most powerful jets anywhere then why can’t we have the best-funded art and cultural institutions in the world?

9 Comments

  1. Hungry Hyaena Says:

    Well presented, Mr. Cobb; one of the most persuasive arguments I’ve read for more robust NEA funding.

  2. Chris Cobb Says:

    I only wish more people would address this issue. It’s not complicated. It’s as if the art world has no voice, no way of communicating itself to the world. People on the other side want to take advantage of that.

  3. Hungry Hyaena Says:

    The art world’s communicative failure is a very real, pressing issue. I started a dialogue over at my blog about how we might begin chipping away at the challenge; if you have any insight, please jump in!
    http://hungryhyaena.blogspot.com/2011/03/communicating-arts-relevance.html

  4. Christine Wong Yap Says:

    The idea that there’s a vacuum of communication (“the art world has … no way of communicating itself to the world” and the implication that the art world is inactive in terms of “spilling ink, hosting panel discussions, and building programs”) is untrue. That two blog posts will be the beginning of a dialogue is a bit self-congratulatory, don’t you think? How breezily rhetoric can sweep away the life’s work of a Jerry Saltz or Peter Schjeldahl, or even the immense popularity of Giant Robot or Fecal Face, not to mention the efforts of countless writers, editors, publishers, and museum community engagement workers (whose work, if you’ve ever gone to a panel or read a review, you’ve benefitted from), gallerists who make a point to greet and educate visitors, or curators who’ve ever done shows involving collaborations with scientists, writers, poets, historians, skaters, musicians, and so on. I would acknowledge that there’s a gap between contemporary art and mass culture but when the calls for improvement are articulated as calls to action or allegations of complete inaction, I think it undermines your case.

  5. Christine Wong Yap Says:

    Not to mention the irony is that Open Space is a program of the Community Engagement department of SFMOMA. And the other contributors include writers for popular publications and curators at city agencies.

  6. Hungry Hyaena Says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Christine.

    Your points are generally good, and I acknowledge that my little-read corner of the Internet is unlikely to be the site of an art world communication breakthrough! ;) If the HH post came off as self-congratulatory, that’s unfortunate. It is an issue that I care a lot about, and my writing may sound bombastic as a result.

    In any case, I haven’t, in over a decade of involvement with the art world, heard wind of a panel discussion or read about a graduate program dedicated to communicating fine art’s relevance to general populace. There have been essays and articles, but nothing like the concerted effort made by contemporary science writers to identify the problem and generate support from the scientists (who, by the way, resisted for years — since the writers were pointing out their failures). Of course, the federal arms of science are better-funded (as Chris’ piece above points out), but meager funding isn’t reason enough to shrug off a vital need.

    Giant Robot and Fecal Face are quite popular, it’s true. Part of the reason I was excited to be moving from NYC to SF is to try the west coast art scene on for size. Back east, however, the art world generally doesn’t make room for artist of GR or FF’s tribe (at least, not in earnest). “Lowbrow” ain’t a compliment in NYC. “It’s not art, it’s illustration,” is the standard dismissal I heard for years about lowbrow art. Even Marcel Dzama is still despised by many artists; I thrilled that he’s found such success and I hope that lowbrow art makes further inroads into the art world; it could do all parties much good.

    I don’t intend to “sweep away the life’s work” of a Saltz or Schjeldahl (both of whom I appreciate a great deal), but the fact remains that 95% of my non-art world friends not only have no idea who Schjeldahl is (and I’ll get to why they MIGHT know Saltz in a moment), they don’t recognize the names of the artists he or Saltz writes about and, when introduced to the artwork, they typically react against it. Granted, the lion’s share of my friends (and my blog’s readers) are in science, medicine, conservation, public policy, or non-profit social/environmental aid; it’s certainly possible that those professional provinces attract people who celebrate “rolling up sleeves” and therefore harbor more resentment of fine art (since, in their estimation, as I so often hear, art is masturbatory and selfish because it doesn’t do anything concrete to fix the world’s ills). They’re wrong, I think you’ll agree, to dismiss all of art of those grounds, but their critique isn’t wholly unfair; it’s true that the narrow confines of the luxury market-approved, high-art world are largely irrelevant to the so-called “real world.” Moreover, shouldn’t we want to be inspiring THOSE people, the ones who are dedicated to “making a difference” (for lack of a better hackneyed phrase)?! Instead, most of the art world seems interested in reaching out to other art world professionals; it has become something of a vacuum.

    I take some solace in the fact that the problems of the contemporary art world are on the mind of some major critics, including the likes of Holland Cotter and Peter Plagens. Still, what is it that will be the catalyst to change? Could it be a television show like “Work of Art,” ridiculous on many levels and yet so accessible and fun? (And that’s why Saltz will be more familiar than Schjeldahl, if not yet as beloved as Tim Gunn!)

    Anyway, I’m sorry Chris….this totally hi-jacked your thread. Maybe you’d consider posting your above critique at HH, Christine, to generate more dialogue?

  7. Brendan McCall Says:

    Thank you for this provocative and illuminating essay. This topic brings to mind the old expression that war is the “last resort of kings”. If the United States as such vast resources of wealth to spend on the military, why not invest much more in the “first resort of kings”, namely culture and the arts?

    Oftentimes, culture, art, and artists can cross geographic and ideological borders more effectively than any government, using the tools and tradition of cultural diplomacy.

    Brendan McCall
    Artistic Director
    Ensemble Free Theater norway

  8. Chris Cobb Says:

    Mr. or Ms. Hungry Hyaena,

    I don’t think you need apologize, I am happy to have you address those points for me, which it sounds like you have given a lot of thought to. You are right – the simple truth is that art is a very narrow field whether people want to face that fact or not. The consequence of that fact is that everyone else thinks it’s o.k. to eliminate the funding for art classes in schools, the NEA etc., and spend that money on tax cuts for the wealthy and/or bombs.

  9. Cheryl Meeker Says:

    Thanks for your interesting piece Chris. And I especially appreciate seeing it here.

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