A case for government funding of the arts, part 1

August 16, 2011

Those familiar with my postings may know that I am a proponent of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). I endorse its mission and its work, and I firmly believe that the federal government (not to mention state and local governments) should support the arts in a material way.

There are people of intelligence and goodwill who hold the opposite view; who believe government at all levels should withdraw its direct and indirect support for the arts, minimal as that support is. For them—and perhaps for you—I offer this rationale:

Governments, nations and societies are not remembered for their leaders, or for battles lost or won. For better or for worse, they are remembered for the culture they create and leave as a legacy for the world.

Everyone knows who Aristotle and Plato and Sophocles were, but few could tell you who headed the government of Athens when those great thinkers and writers lived and worked.

Everyone knows Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, but few could tell you what Pope commissioned the work.

Everyone knows Mozart, but few can name the Austrian emperors who reigned during his lifetime.

And practically every American teen can tell you who Lucille Ball and Elvis Presley were, but very few can tell you who Dwight Eisenhower was.

Given the fact that artists and works of art achieve iconic status far more often than political leaders, it's astonishing that so little attention is paid to the arts and culture, at least in the United States. Of course, many artists and their supporters probably prefer it that way, arguing that coercion and outright censorship are inevitable when government supports the arts.

Indeed, the track record of smothering intellectual and expressive freedom is nearly as old as expression itself. When Athens was in decline, it began to censor theater.

Shakespeare's history plays indirectly flatter the Tudor dynasty of Queen Elizabeth I. King Louis XIV prohibited public performances of Moliere's Tartuffe until Moliere rewrote the ending. Stalinism crushed Shostakovich. In the Untied States, the tremendously influential (still) Federal Theater Project of the 1930's lasted only 18 months before conservatives in Congress killed it.

But there is a big, big difference between the USA and the examples I've cited of other eras and other nations, and that difference is this: First Amendment protections mean the government in the United States does not have the power or the legal authority to censor art (at least not at present).  The only constitutionally approved means through which government can limit art is by limiting - or withdrawing - government funding. The Federal Theater Project could not be censored, so it was murdered.

When the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, it was set up to be free of programmatic oversight by Congress precisely to avoid the threat of political coercion, and that policy has worked every bit as well as had been hoped. Still, just as with the Federal Theater Project, Congress could vote to kill the National Endowment for the Arts outright. Over the last 20 years, the NEA has survived a dozen conservative onslaughts in Congress attempting to dissolve it completely, although the NEA has had to endure huge funding cuts of more than 50 percent.

It seems that some members of Congress fear the marketplace of ideas, artistic expression and creative innovation precisely because they can't control them. At worst that's a form of fascistic thinking, and reason enough in my mind to support the NEA. At very best, it's using personal values to assess the arts, by which some members of Congress confuse personal morality with public policy.

There are plenty of other reasons to favor the NEA, beginning with the fact that it's a tremendously efficient and modestly-run agency; a model for a federal bureaucracy. Even in its fattest days, back in the 1980s and very early 1990s, the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was only 1/10,000 of annual Federal expenditures.  Today it's far less than that.

Even more, the NEA funnels 50 percent of its money directly to state arts agencies (by congressional mandate), thereby allowing local standards and selection criteria to prevail (I'm not sure everyone in Congress understands this part). Also, the NEA primes the pump for private giving to the arts by individuals, foundations and corporations in amounts which dwarf the NEA's own budget by thousands of times. I doubt that can be said of any other federal agency.

More about how the NEA works — from an insider's perspective — next week.