(Editor's note: This is an edited version of a commentary that appears in the November 2009 issue of The Freeman, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.)
It's feeding time again, and artists and cultural groups are lining up at the trough. The bailout package approved by Congress in February threw another $50 million at the arts. For the better part of the past year, music impresario Quincy Jones beseeched Barack Obama to add a secretary of arts to his cabinet. In March the President established a new staff position to oversee arts and culture in the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. Kareem Dale, named special assistant to the president for disability policy in February, was elevated to the new post. This — or any — government interference in the arts is at the very least shortsighted.
For the nearly 250,000 people who signed Jones's online petition, the arts are touted as critical to our national identity and even a source of spiritual sustenance. Use of the term "art," however, is rife with conflict — raising more questions than answers. For the purposes of this essay, let's agree that art, as a result of its examination of the myriad states of the human condition, can be a repository of both empirical and received knowledge and lore, an outlet for specialized creativity, and a cultural bonding agent. But to speak in the high-flown language of art's ability to convey a national identity is to make teleological claims that can be neither substantiated nor dispelled. It sounds cool, sure, but so does visualizing world peace and (for some) levitating the Pentagon. And the claims for spirituality are best left to the theologians. My heart leaps when I behold a rainbow in the sky, for example, but I'm afraid those refracted light rays may leave others colder than Miss Havisham on her wedding night or a Jack London character attempting to strike his last remaining match.
Different Art, Different Audiences
Defining art and its many purposes and intended audiences is tricky. Classicists, for example, probably would say that art can be appreciated only from a distance of 100 years or more, assuring historical validation from critics, academics, and a refined general public. For this audience, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Beethoven are art's sine qua non. Only recently — within the past 50 years or so — have they been convinced that James Joyce, Virgil Thompson, and Joan Miró belong to the canon.
Others position art at the vanguard of culture — always one step ahead of the rest of us with self-referential and highly individualized creations that eventually percolate to the fringes of the mainstream and exert a huge influence on subsequent generations.
The Cherry Pickers
In between the snobs and the avant garde are the cherry pickers, the multitude who have no trouble bouncing from Mozart and Mahler to Berry Gordy and the Beatles. "It doesn't have to be old to be classic, it just has to be good" was the classic-rock radio tagline a few years back. Informed cherry pickers recognize that cultural uplift-however pristine or watered-down - can be found at the local cinema, on television programs, and even sandwiched in the spaces between those programs. The 1968 record "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)," for instance, began as a group effort between gurus at advertising agency McCann Erickson and their client Coca-Cola. It became a hit single, selling 8 million copies.
Cherry pickers can immerse themselves in many different art forms, increasingly blurring the distinctions between high art and low art. High art often borrows from popular (or low) art as evidenced by the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
Conversely, popular art borrows freely from high art. The artist Hieronymus Bosch, for example, may be well-known to some, while others know his work only from the use of his "Garden of Earthly Delights" as cover art for an album by folk-rock group Pearls Before Swine or the song "OK, Hieronymus" by British-born rocker Graham Parker. Shakespeare references abound on such television programs as Star Trek. Even Barry Manilow cribbed from Chopin.
In short, let's acknowledge that art is important for most of us and that the enjoyment thereof is a matter of degrees. One man's Proust is another man's Pelecanos. One woman's Bach is another's Bachman Turner Overdrive. Cherry pickers are dilettantes, but that need not be used in a pejorative sense, since they can — and often do — create a wider cultural perspective through aesthetic cross-pollination across genres and the blending of high and popular art.
Because art is many things to many different people, how can government-funded agencies hope to anticipate the aesthetics of a wide-ranging, diverse population? The question is moot, of course, but the larger questions remain: Can government money create a nation of renaissance men and women equally conversant in the realms of visual, written, and performance art - and are such ends desirable in the first place? Have government subsidies sparked the creation of any prominent new art, reintroduced the best of historically validated art to new generations with lasting impact, acculturated immigrants to the best of Western thought, ideals, and talent, or led to anything remotely resembling the equivalent of Italy's fifteenth-century Rinascimento? Whither art without my tax dollars?
In his 2008 book "Money for Art," David A. Smith presents a detailed history of U.S. government funding for the arts, beginning in 1817 when Congress commissioned four paintings by John Trumball. Nine years later, Trumball unveiled four historical paintings depicting events of the U.S. Revolution. According to Smith, Trumball was paid $32,000, a sum that rankled several politicians. One disgruntled senator reportedly believed the paintings unworthy of 32 cents, while Smith quotes one congressman's observation that "if the Fine Arts cannot thrive in this country without government jobs . . . let them fail."
By the end of the nineteenth century art flourished largely due to the largess of successful businessmen. The Gilded Age captured in the literature of Mark Twain and Edith Wharton was highly fruitful for the nation's art, witnessing the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870, New York), the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (both 1876), the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (1879), and the Corcoran (1869, Washington). All opened their doors without government money, as did a plethora of other museums, private collections, and art schools.
By the end of the century, art school alumni were producing a surfeit of fine art, which coincidentally is the title of a Jacques Barzun essay warning that government subsidies for art could produce such a large quantity of high-quality art that the nation would be unable to discern between what is merely good, what is very good, and what will stand the test of time.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president, he helped infect the American population with his passion for art. But Roosevelt's views on art were somewhat provincial. He famously disparaged Modernist art in a review of the 1913 New York Armory Show and openly sneered at American painters who traveled abroad for their subject matter. Before leaving office in 1910 he ordered the establishment of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) to encourage arts and culture in Washington. Proving the wisdom of Ronald Reagan's adage: "The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program," the CFA received $10,426,000 in 2008 federal money. For 2009 the CFA requested only $2,234,000 - covering only department salaries.
The New Deal of the 1930s found innovative ways to fund art by offering commissions to artists seeking work. In 1933 some out-of-work artists formed the Unemployed Artists Group, which eventually became knows as the Artists' Union (AU). The AU unsuccessfully sought the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Fine Arts.
Although the New Deal programs for artists expired when the nation emerged from its financial travails, they left an indelible imprint on the nation's cultural mavens. As Smith so aptly states: "The New Deal's most important legacy to artists . . . was a mild sense of entitlement among professional artists and the beginnings of strong organization and collective action to pressure the government to respond to artists' needs."
While FDR's administration was busy inventing new sleight-of-hand parlor tricks to divert tax dollars to individual artists, others took a more honorable route. Automotive scion Edsel Ford and his wife, Eleanor, for example, became the Detroit Institute of Art's (DIA) greatest benefactors by commissioning art from the likes of Diego Rivera and purchasing with their combined fortune works for the DIA's permanent collection. They even took it upon themselves to cover the museum's payroll during the Great Depression.
Fiscal restraint for government arts funding fell like dominoes in the 1950s and 1960s. Eisenhower approved the National Cultural Center (completed with government funds and renamed the Kennedy Center during the Johnson administration) in 1958; Kennedy ordered Congress to establish the National Council on the Arts, which during the LBJ administration became the overseer of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Reports of the first meeting of the Council mention that work progressed only in the morning, because members Harper Lee and John Steinbeck needed to sleep off their lunch-hour tippling - auspicious beginnings for an institutionalized steward of American tax dollars with a budget that reached $176 million in 1992 and receded to $145 million in 2009 plus the $50 million stimulus supplement.
Artists In Their Own Words and Works
Most artists believe that without government subsidies, quality art would disappear. "The voice of the artists has been relegated to entertainment or a marketable commodity or to a nuisance, but neither the political class nor the mainstream media are paying attention to what the artist is saying and that to me is worrisome," Mexico-born performance artist and National Public Radio commentator Guillermo Gómez-Peña told me in a 2008 interview. "We can see since the mid-'90s art has been defunded systematically throughout the world not just in the U.S. but also in European societies that were leaders in that funding in places like Germany, the U.K., France or even Eastern European countries that took very good care of their artists. Even Mexico, for centuries paid very careful attention to its artists."
Although Gómez-Peña, a very articulate, intelligent, and accomplished artist, adopts a pessimistic view of art without government support, he attaches to it an almost religious urgency: "In a sense, this systematic attack on the arts by the political class, the corporations, and the mainstream media has resulted in the spiritual impoverishment of society."
Likewise, Dolores Wilber, a Chicago filmmaker I interviewed in 2006, believes public funding of private art is a net positive for the American people: "Art is a reflection of the society and it's about creativity and being alive and has provided a lot of positive things in the social fabric with every society whether it's democratic or a totalitarian government. . . . I think it's a great thing about our country that in general we do support art making."
Serious art and serious artists can survive - and have survived - without subsidy. In fact many of the greatest poets of the past 100 years pursued careers that greatly enhanced the literature they produced: William Carlos Williams was a doctor; Wallace Stephens was an insurance broker; former NEA head Dana Gioia worked as an advertising/marketing manager for General Foods; T. S. Eliot was a banker and editor; and Gary Snyder worked as a lumberjack and fire lookout. Many current artists are also tenured faculty at esteemed universities that pay them healthy sums to court their respective muses.
Gómez-Peña and Wilber are earnest, but one also senses a degree of hubris in their overstatements of art's transformational and spiritual powers - as well as their belief that it's the public's responsibility to pay for it. After all, we can accept the importance of art privately without the concomitant expectation of having to pay for someone else's transcendent experience. In fact, it wasn't government largess that created and distributed HBO's "The Wire" and "The Sopranos," arguably the pinnacle of the last 10 years of visual storytelling; Coppola's "Godfather" epic; The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper"; or even initially transferred millions of consumer dollars to Robert Mapplethorpe and his estate — it was talent, drive, unfettered creativity, and the public's willingness to purchase these works on their own terms rather than the whims, opinions, and highly subjective tastes of government bureaucrats.
Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.