(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
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
(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
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