Is Skywhale an Economic Abomination?

Let’s be honest – the milestone of Canberra’s centenary probably would have gone unnoticed by the majority of Australians if not for the enormously controversial, enormously confusing and just plain enormous hot air balloon that has been created to mark the event. The ‘Skywhale’, commissioned by the ACT government, is the creation of artist, sculptor and former Canberran Patricia Piccinini. Australian media over the past week has been busy engendering a sense of outraged indignation that taxpayers could dare be expected to pay for this giant deformed whale type creature with 10 hanging breast-like formations protruding from its underside. Latest estimates have stated that it will cost the government in the vicinity of $300,000 to present this piece of balloon art to (admittedly) a relatively small proportion of the Australian population.

Elaborate public expenditure on art falls into the same category as that for sports, political advertising and free-to-air broadcasting. They are all by definition “public goods”. That is, goods that are non-excludable (impossible to prevent people from using it) and non-rivalrous (one individual’s use does not reduce availability to others). These goods often suffer from a ‘free rider’ problem. Uncoordinated markets driven by self-interested parties may be unable to provide these goods – leading to the Government stepping in to providing funding.

Funding for the arts is often called into question by Australians who cannot fathom that our public purse be burdened by such displays of non-critical indulgence. To put the $300,000 spent on this progressive piece of public art into perspective, Melbourne’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display costs $2.8 million of government funds. Compared with the Skywhale, they were almost 10 times the price, only lasted for 10 minutes, and in my opinion are a great deal less thought-provoking. In fact, at the risk of being labelled a traitor to my State, they seem to be the same every year and are decidedly dull. Australia’s recent bid to host the 2022 World Cup was supported by $45 million of government funding, the equivalent of 150 Skywhales. For the record, the bid was a total failure. That is the true definition of public money being squandered with absolutely nothing to show for it. Which brings me to my defence of the Skywhale itself.

20th century Hungarian economist Tibor Scitovsky published extensively on the nature of consumption, happiness, and the arts. In his 1972 book, “The Joyless Economy” he denounced the failure of consumers to properly understand and accept art and culture as symptomatic of the dispirited state of society, claiming that “our very modest appreciation of the arts is part and parcel of our very modest enjoyment of life”.

Scitovsky was a firm believer in the idea that exposure to art was crucial for development of individual complexity and the evolution of preferences. Were he alive today, he would perceive the issue of the Skywhale as a demand side rather than a supply side problem. Questions about whether the hot air balloon represents value for money completely miss the point. Scitovsky saw the Government as being in place to run not just an economy but a society. An active society demands that its members are engaged in civic life and encouraged to have strong opinions, and nothing quite stimulates heated debate within an overly placid society like a piece of controversial public art.

For those who are still yet to be convinced of the Skywhale’s merit, Piccinini herself was a graduate from the Australian National University (ANU in Canberra) with a Bachelor of Economics. Yes, she is one of us! Or at least she was, before deflecting to the Victorian College of Arts to study fine art. Detractors of the Skywhale have claimed that it “doesn’t represent Australia’s capital”, almost as if they believe that the ACT is abounds in rich culture that should be presented to the world in a more appropriate manner. Granted, the balloon looks like a cross between a bird and a turtle, like a giant inflatable pool-toy or the remnant from the set of a Pink Floyd concert. However, it is charming, has an uplifting (no pun intended) face, and has triggered fresh debate about the place in art in the public sphere and whether it should in turn be publically funded. For that I personally applaud her efforts, and excitedly await the Skywhale’s journey to Melbourne in the next few months, where we can view it in person and make up our own minds on its worth, rather than let the media do so for us.