HOW do you attach a value to art? Not an individual painting or play, but art itself and its effects on a society? The question is unanswerable; nay, it's meaningless. The cantata isn't accessible to the calculator. Yet that's the conundrum facing federal and state budgetmakers asked to allocate funds to art. In a time of ``more will than wallet,'' every public expenditure is expected to yield a return. But what's the return on art?
Whoever becomes the new chairman or chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts had better be prepared to answer that question.
The endowment distributes federal grants to orchestras, museums, theater groups, schools and universities, individual artists, and state arts councils to promote artistic achievement and education.
Created by President Johnson and given a hefty budget boost by President Nixon, the endowment has a legacy of strong bipartisan support. But the fiscal environment has changed.
Although President Bush has endorsed a proposal by the outgoing Reagan administration for a small increase in the endowment's budget for fiscal 1990, the agency still faces lean times. Since 1981 its budget has increased just 6.5 percent, to $169 million, while inflation has risen 31 percent over the same period.
If arts funding faces a challenge in Washington, it faces a crisis in some states. In recent years, lawmakers in at least half a dozen states with budget deficits have considered eliminating arts councils altogether; though the councils have survived, they have taken heavy cuts.
This spring in Massachusetts, legislators confronted with a $600 million deficit nearly stripped all money from the state Council on the Arts and Humanities. A compromise appears to have salvaged $9.5 million for the council from state lottery proceeds, but that's just half the level for the current year.
Lawmakers have an unenviable dilemma. Who would want to explain to a homeless family why tax dollars should go to chamber music? Yet most people sense that our society would become culturally impoverished, and ultimately less civilized, if the arts had to rely solely on private support.
Some people turn up their noses at utilitarian claims for art, but in an era of tight purse strings, ``art for art's sake'' doesn't go far. Leaders of the arts community must become more adept at linking their cause to the achievement of other vital public goals, such as improving education, assuaging poverty, and offering alternatives to the drug culture.
Just because art is resistant to cost-benefit analysis doesn't mean it lacks great public worth. But the case has to be made.