Monday, February 13, 2006

The Art of Government, and the Government of Art

In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one party of the citizens to give to the other. Voltaire (1694–1778), French philosopher, author. Dictionnaire Philosophique, “Money” (1764).

If that is the art of government, how should we think of the government of art?

Should there be a National Endowment for the Arts? Does public funding for “the arts” make sense from a policy perspective? The FY 2004 budget for NEA was about $140 million, a pittance by nearly any standard. We spend that much on....well, almost anything.

What would the Founders of the American system have thought of Federalizing support for the arts. They would have known that in Europe – where Goya was enjoying the patronage of Spain’s Charles III and where Luigi Boccherini was being named court composer in Berlin – government support for the arts was taken for granted. They may well have been aware of the beginning of government patronage of the arts, under Amenemhet I (d. 1970 B.C.), king of Egypt, founder of the XII dynasty that initiated the Middle Kingdom. He centralized the government in a virtually feudal form (the first liberal!). The dynasty enabled the arts and science to flourish.

Well, the question isn’t completely hypothetical. On August 18, 1787, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina rose to urge that Congress be authorized to “establish seminaries for the promotion of literature and the arts and sciences.” His proposal was immediately voted down. In the words of one delegate, the only legitimate role for government in promoting culture and the arts was the “granting of patents,” meaning that we should protect the rights of artists and authors to make money from their creations.

Now, the framers treasured books and music, but they treasured limited government more. A federally approved artist was a repugnant a notion to them as a federally approved church or newspaper. That is why there is no explicit Constitutional sanction for subsidizing or formally supporting art and cultural organizations. It is why Americans are skeptical about the entangling of art and state. And it is why so many artists have rejected the notion that art depends for its vitality on some Washington agency.

(playwright) Thornton Wilder: “There are no Miltons dying mute here today…[even in small towns] anyone who can play scales is rushed off to Vienna to play music.”

(painter) John Sloan: “It would be fine to have a ministry of arts in this country. Then we would know where the enemy is.”

(writer) William Faulkner, on being asked to visit the Kennedy White House: “Too far to go for supper.”

1951: In a poll of the American Symphony Orchestra League, 91% disapproved of federal subsidies of any kind.

John Kennedy himself: “I do not believe federal funds should support symphony orchestras or opera companies, except when they are sent abroad in cultural exchange programs.”

But, in 1965, Congress created the NEA, a gamble overturning the wisdom of two centuries of separation between government power and artistic expression. The gamble has not paid off. Art in the past 30 years has not been improved; it has become more politicized. The support of the NEA has not inspired artists to reach new heights of expressiveness, truth or beauty. Instead, artists are encouraged to be shallow, understandable, shocking. Government-funded art is art that has sunk to noisome depths of coarseness and banality. Like other government handouts, NEA funding has fostered whining claims of entitlement – and hyperbolic forecasts of doom if the entitlement is reduced or cut off.

The fact is that American art will not dry up and blow away if public funding is reduced, just as it was not inert before the NEA rescue in 1965. The mainstay of American art is not the NEA. It is the tens of thousands of private Americans who voluntarily give $10 billion a year to the arts, a tidal wave of generosity unparalleled anywhere. And it doesn’t end with philanthropy: add to that $10 billion the vast sums that American spend on theater subscriptions and concert music recordings, on ballet tickets and nights at the opera, on literary magazines and jazz festivals, and then add to that the millions of person-hours donated by volunteer ushers and ticket-takers and docents and fund-raisers. The total is staggering, and it makes the NEA seem about as relevant to America’s artistic splendor as a falling apple is to the law of gravity.

Four myths:

1. Funding the arts is cheap, and helps cities attract tourists.

The argument is sometimes made that cultural funding is good for cities and towns. If it is, the cities and towns should decide that they will pay for them. The basic conservative principle is the benefits and funding should be as closely matched as possible, provided that those receiving the benefits have the financial wherewithal to pay. If the benefits are going to downtown developers and restaurants, then these entities should be willing to pay for the subsidies. If the benefits are for the poor, we are better off giving the money, not the art, to those in poverty.

The argument that it doesn’t cost much is a foolish one. Most programs don’t cost much on their own. But when we add up all the costs, the budget (and the deficit) is enormous.

2. Public funding makes art available to everyone, because
ticket prices are lower.

Nonsense. Suppose that it is true that without public funding many arts organizations might cease to exist. This would surely be sad. But the fact is that ticket prices now are calculated to maximize the revenues of the organization, as it is easy to show that lump-sum subsidies don’t change the revenue-maximizing, or profit-maximizing price. Public funding doesn’t affect ticket prices at all, but public funding does affect the viability of dance, opera, or theater companies and spaces for exhibitions. Many suchshows exist just for the wealthy, and exist only because of public subsidy.

The only people that can go to the opera now are the wealthy. The subsidies offered out of the public purse are classic political transfers from the poor and the middle class to wealthy people. Middle class people don’t value the opera, and cannot attend anyway because the ticket prices are too high. (NOTE TO FRED HEINEMANN: Middle class is not $180k! More like $36k) The public access argument has it exactly backwards.

3. Public funds would not be replaced by private donations.

There are two possibilities: this argument is correct, or it is not. I do not believe it is correct. National Public Radio, when its funds were cut, found an outpouring of new donations. The fact that contributions to the arts have been declining over the past decade doesn’t mean much, because there has still been public funding available. If public funding were cut off, there would be a similar outpouring of new contributions and energy from volunteers from arts supporters.

But suppose the argument IS correct: that means that there are not enough people who care about the arts to want to pay the costs of artistic performances and shows. If this is true, it means that a legitimate threat to the existence of opera, theater, or dance companies, and to the viability of spaces for shows of visual arts, won’t bring new contributions. This has to make you want to wonder if arts funding is a business that the Federal government should be in!


Remember, taxes are funds taken by threat of force from some people, and then translated into a wide variety of services and transfers, many of which go right back to the people who paid the taxes. Wealthy people pay a lot of taxes, and they wield a lot of political power. The problem with the arts is that a small group of wealthy, educated people want the rest of the public to pay for their enjoyment. This is an enormous amount of money, per performance, which would be better spent spent on highways, mass transit, school children, the poor, the sick, or the aged. But none of these other programs are directly enjoyed by the wealthy patrons of the arts, so arts funding has a privileged status.

4. Great art is not popular art. We need public funding to
encourage great art.

I am always confused by this argument. The Soviet Union had public funding for the arts, and (to be fair) their performance arts were nonpareil. Russian ballet and dance companies were among the best in the world, ticket prices were low, and there seemed to be a genuine success for public funding, especially in the larger cities.

But there were some problems with the picture. First, the costs were enormous. Because it was impossible (or at least dangerous) to question spending priorities, there was no problem as long as the totalitarian regime persisted. But with democracy has come a lot of questions about whether this is best use of funds.

Second, public funding in the former USSR did not create good new art. The new art in the Soviet Union was awful! It seems to me there are three kinds of art: Great art (which is great), popular art (some of which is great, and some of which is only good), and politically acceptable art (which is awful).

Now, I don’t know how you create great art. I know that popular art will take care of itself, because that is how you make money. I also know how you create awful, but politically acceptable, art: you have public funding whose allocation is supervised byjudges or critics.

Some say that those who can’t do, teach (I would never say that). But, from this perspective, there is an even lower rung on the ladder: what if you can’t teach? Well, you can become an art critic! If you want to say critics have more taste (at least, more than *I* have!) about what is good art I may agree with you. But critics are notorious in their inability to recognize great art. The main job of critics appears to be preventing great artists from being recognized in their own lifetimes. Juries of critics who enforce standards of taste, fad, or political correctness are actually the bane of great art. Soviet artists, or American artists, who consciously try to win public funding are selling out to the forces of political fadism. Artists should be terrified of enforced public taste, whether that taste belongs to the political left, the right, or the dreary center.

Great art of the early 21st century is the art that will make people laugh, cry, or get mad fifty or one hundred years from now. I am absolutely confident that I don’t know (and today’s juries don’t know) what that great art will be. Contemporaries of Van Gogh dismissed his work; for years after his death, Van Gogh was an oddity, a strange man who used colors and textures in a jarring way. If Van Gogh were alive today, would public funding save him? No, he would be imprisoned in a mental institution, taking lithium and doing finger paints, being patronized by his keepers: “Oooh, nice colors, Vincent? But don’t you think you ought to rest? Here, come watch “SURVIVOR: Green Bay” with the rest of the loonies…”


How are we to decide between the market, and the public, as a source of funding for great new art? It is true that Van Gogh sold practically nothing during his lifetime, and that the open market failed to recognize his genius. Those who support public funding for new artists want us to believe the open market is failing now, too. I agree: the open market may fail to recognize greatness, though some great artists do become rich in their own lifetimes. Popular art at least passes the market test: people pay for popular art because they want to, not because government forces them to.

Those who favor public funding want to argue that there are great artists whose works are lost, or never attempted, because the market failed them. I want to know to how many great works of art have been lost because artists have tried to pursue creatively inert, but politically correct, themes in the pursuit of public funding. Public funding, by its very nature, creates new art that is either lifeless and safe, or shocking, but superficial. Unfortunately, then, neither the market nor the public can ensure great art. As is so often the case, the market does really fail, but the situation is not yet so bad that government can’t make it worse.


Conclusion
Could the arts survive without government funding? What a question!! The government doesn’t fund the Van Cliburn competition or the National Book Awards or the MacArthur grants. The government doesn’t organize poetry competitions or produce festivals of plays or commission new string quartets. Public funding does serve a small, vocal group who like to perceive themseleves as rebels, as tellers of truth, whose main job is to confront the public with its own hypocrisy.

The NEA is an experiment that has failed. In 1965, Congress may have that that a federal agency could improve or enliven American art. Now it should know better. I am sure that it makes some in the arts community nuts that more people will read books because of Oprah Winfrey than anything the NEA has done in its 41 years. If the endowment faded away, no one would notice. America’s tens of millions of arts lovers, swept up in the richest, most democratic arts scene the human race has known, would hardly notice it was gone.


Full disclosure:This little screed is substantially adapted from two articles.

Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, p. A-19, Thursday, July 3, 1997, “Next Week Congress Can Right a Mistake and Drop NEA Funding.”
Munger, Michael, Endeavors, Summer 1996, “Public Funding for the Arts.”