A few months ago, I attended a free Sunday afternoon community orchestra concert. Halfway through, the orchestra director recognized the individuals whose support had made the concert possible… and free.
And that got me thinking. Why was the concert free? Was it worth so little that it depended on sponsors to make it available to me at no cost? If people were not willing or able to pay to hear the orchestra perform, did the concert have any economic value? I enjoyed the music very much, but would this music be able to survive in a market system?
Then it occurred to me that the concert was a product of a market system.
A few centuries ago, the members of the orchestra, the other members of the audience, and I probably would have been fighting to survive in a subsistence economy. A community orchestra likely would not have existed because it would have required a wealthy patron to sponsor it, and few would have had time to participate in it or listen to it.
We Are No Longer Fighting for Survival
A few centuries ago, the average human being had to work all day every day to avoid starvation. The market served as a vehicle to making a small profit and for buying animals, equipment, food, clothing, etc.
The market has allowed us to become more specialized so that we no longer have to operate within a subsistence economy.
We Have More Leisure Time Than Ever
We have more time than ever to devote to arts, education, and entertainment, even though we tend to take our time for granted.
Think about it. The average person works eight to nine hours per day and sleeps another seven to eight hours per day. That leaves them an entire third of the day for whatever they want to do! Most Americans no longer have to work from daybreak to dark to make ends meet and that extra time results in more demand for arts and entertainment.
Anyone Can Be a Patron
A few centuries ago, the arts relied on the whims of a few wealthy patrons—who often cared more about using art to glorify themselves rather than to promote it for art’s sake.
Those wealthy patrons still exist—only now they are typically successful business people who want to devote some of their wealth to philanthropy. But in addition, millions of ordinary people can support the arts today. Just by attending a concert or paying an admission fee to a museum, you can both enjoy and support culture in a small way. And when you really want to go the extra mile, you can become a member of your favorite cultural venue by paying a yearly fee.
Granted, not everyone has these tastes. Many people choose to spend their money on pure entertainment without thinking of its artistic value. Others choose to use their funds to help fight poverty or disease and see the arts as a waste of money. It all depends on what they care about most and how they choose to use their money
It’s also true that in our country, the government is a huge supporter of the arts. But some of the biggest and most successful art venues are private institutions, supported by major philanthropists and the general public.
The point is that today the average American has the choice to support something he or she values, which means the arts no longer rely on a few of the wealthiest people in society.
It’s tempting to think of economics and the market system as dry, practical, and unsupportive of “higher” pursuits, such as music or art. But in reality, the market has democratized art—and in so doing, has done much to further and support the pursuit of beauty.
It’s just one more reason that we shouldn’t take the market for granted.