What Does It Have to Do With Culture?

I'm fully aware of what the fat cats are saying, that the world is run by the forces of the market and that the arts had better conform. After all, Shakespeare was a big hit in his day, and he did it without a public subsidy.

In one of Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek's stories, the protagonist is a mouse who lives in a laboratory. He presses a button, gets a piece of cheese, and is very much aware of the existential void he lives in. But, he says, "One has to live," and hastens to add, "But were someone to ask me why, I'll have to admit that I don't have an answer to that question."

A culture mouse like me has a ready-made answer to the question of why there is a need for the arts to be sponsored by public money: To ensure its quality. But I'm fully aware of what the fat cats are saying, that the world is run by the forces of the market and that the arts had better conform. After all, Shakespeare was a big hit in his day, and he did it without a public subsidy.

UNESCO recommends that 1 percent of a states' budget should be used to fund artistic and cultural endeavors. In Israel, we have not reached one tenth of a percent, but we will get there, hopefully. But a state cannot just hand out money according to artistic whims. It has to have clear and precise criteria for receiving a subsidy, especially after it turned out that for many years, many state programs meant to sponsor culture were just ways of directing public funds to places they didn't belong.

Such criteria have finally, after much committee haggling, been formulated and are there for all to see on the Ministry of Education and Culture Web site. Unsurprisingly, they are all about things that can be quantified and compared, and stay as far away as they can from matters of quality and taste, assuming those things to be self-evident. Which they are not, as we all know.

In the past, patrons of art financed those artists they fancied and demanded total allegiance of them. So did, and do, some totalitarian regimes. Democracies have committees and criteria. They also have the business community, which is sometimes ready and willing to spend some dough - small change for them but big money in arts terms - on this thing called culture. There are some artists who have turned private sector fund raising into an art form in itself.

The state has to justify to the taxpayers its expenditures for any objective, culture included. Similarly, businesses have to explain any expenses not directly related to making more money to their boards of directors and shareholders.

How does one justify spending money on sweet nothings? Much of art is, after all, about creating illusions. By labeling it as good PR, the Philip Morris tobacco company sponsors arts events all over the world. Yes, smoking can be harmful to your health, but art is good for you.

There is nothing wrong with a sponsor making sure that their name is mentioned. This is why they prefer to erect buildings or sponsor big festivals rather than finance the staging of a play. You can't unveil a plaque for a theater production. Although there were - and probably still are - donors who did not insist on their name being put on a building. For example, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who underpaid the workers in his factories, financed about 3,000 public libraries all over the English speaking world, on condition that they be free of charge and that municipalities match his contribution by 10 percent, for the upkeep of the libraries.

In Israel we have Mifal Hapais, the state lottery. It has erected cultural centers all over Israel and endowed a literary prize, which will be awarded tonight. It is all about a lot of money for the winner from a short list of five authors, and a public circus that is all about how glittering literature can be and how generous Mifal Hapais is for funding it.

Last week, Dan Tsalka, recipient of last years' Mifal Hapais literary prize - named after legendary finance minister Pinchas Sapir - died after a short illness, aged a mere 69. Mifal Hapais took out a black-bordered death notice in the papers. All of 27 words.

Three of them were the name of the late lamented, in slightly larger font then the rest, which were all about Mifal Hapais, the Sapir Prize and the fact that Tsalka was last years' recipient. And then the "logo." Would they have expressed their condolences if he had not won the prize last year? And what does all that have to do with culture? I really don't know.