Speaking of Daniel Drezner, he has a post up about the MacArthur Foundation Fellows program. Drezner discusses a story in Crain’s Chicago Business by Marc Sheffler that examines the relative lack of success of grants to writers in leading to new significant works. Tyler Cowen also comments.
Assuming it is true that, as Sheffler’s story says, the MF grants don’t really foster the production of new great literary works, what are we to make of the Foundation’s claim that the “program works fantastically”?
In several respects, the grants have worked fantastically. First, the program works as PR for the Foundation, which gets associated with genius and artistic merit. My guess is that the Foundation’s reputation is more associated with the existing work of the recipients at the time of the initial grant, and not so affected by the future work done during or after the term of the fellowship.
After all, the Foundation doesn’t assert any creative control over the recipients, so if a Fellow’s next book is lousy it isn’t the Foundation’s fault. If MacArthur did exercise explicit post-award control over the Fellows, then the Foundation’s reputation would be more closely associated with the (risky, unknown) quality of the Fellow’s new work.
On the other hand, if the Foundation chose someone who had only produced mediocre work, then clearly the Foundation’s reputation would suffer. They maximize their reputation by choosing folks with existing well-regarded books, not by gambling on the value of future works.
Second, the programs do work culturally by signaling what the Foundation finds to be of value. Clearly, capitalism directly rewards many of the creative contributors to society, but by spending large sums to reward writers and artists (among others), the Foundation is saying to society, “These creative contributions, too, are valued.”
Now, it isn’t clear the society undervalues novelists in general. The supply of fiction these days clearly exceeds the demand, ask any publisher about their inbox, and many people labor away at their keyboards and dream. But in the cultural sphere, willingness to put this kind of money into the hand of artists serves as a signal of value. And, whether you agree or disagree as to whether the foundation needs to encourage this sort of behavior, I’m inclined to think “Their money, their choice.”
Third, by giving fellowships both to relatively well-known authors and to relatively unknown scientists and social entrepreneurs, the program transfers some of the “superstar” status associated with successful artists to the more pedestrian world of science. It is a way of saying, “Hey, these folks are doing cool stuff, too.” MacArthur takes a bundle of cash made in insurance and property investments, and turns it into some solid high-culture street cred.
So long as you judge the Fellows program as a PR effort to enhance the reputation of MacArthur and, perhaps, as a vote in favor of Culture-with-a-capital-C in a culture that more readily funds others kinds of enterprise, then the program seems a success.
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Moorishgirl writes, “Must be nice to work for somebody who doesn’t do performance reviews.”
Actually, I find I usually do better work when faced with the prospect of eventual adult supervision, but for $500 thousand from the MacArthur folks, I’d be willing to risk sputtering to a halt.