"Arts Ogres" and Killer Bees

For many people, personal freedom is a value which takes precedence over all competitors.

Personal freedom is guaranteed by limiting government to functions which enhance liberty, such as protection against invasion and crime and the provision of a system of justice for the peaceful resolution of private disputes. Limited government protects freedom of worship, speech, press and assembly, and the right to keep as much of one's earnings from being siphoned off by the state as is compatible with order in a free society. Personal freedom is not just any value; it happens to be the one upon which the distinctive institutional foundations of America rest. Any invasion of institutional foundations of America rest. Any invasion of government into inappropriate areas threatens our freedom.

But apparently for a noisy few, there seems to be something much more important, even if it's hardly ennobling. I am speaking of some self-designated "representatives of the arts" and who place at the top of their value list not just art, but government subsidies for art.

Governor Engler`s proposed budget cuts have elicited some of the most indignant choruses ever heard from a special interest group. Like the killer bees swarming north from South America, the vanguard of the art subsidy-seekers seems driven not by reason but by some instinctive urge to attack anyone who disturbs the hive and to sting and sting again.

The "Accent" section of the January 26 The Detroit News provides an example. Its lengthy features bemoaned the budget reductions as meaning apocalypse for the arts and implied that the Governor is a bumpkin, or worse, an "arts ogre," for even suggesting them. (Some of the "evidence": he has degrees in agricultural economics and law, not art history or literature, and he likes country music!) The clear impression conveyed to the reader was that it is the duty of government, with the advice of an arts elite, to use public money to make the rest of us appreciate the finer things of life. Those who ask for the right simply to support the art they choose with their own money endure the stinging wrath of the swarm.

Many, perhaps most, members of the arts community reject the tactics of these elitists, whose antics are deeply disturbing to those of us who support the arts with our time, purchases and contributions and who feel art should be untainted by the political pork barrel. A belief that one's interests entitle him to a portion of other people's earnings is bad enough, but coupling it with a condescending disposition compounds the error and demeans the objective of fostering appreciation for the arts. Henry David Thoreau put it will when he said, "If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my home to do me good, I'd run for my life."

Except for a brief stint during the Depression, artists in America had no federal program until 1964. Michigan began doling out subsidies in 1966. It may come as a surprise to some, but art did indeed exist prior to the mid-'60's. And many self-respecting artists in this country have vigorously opposed government funding--including novelists John Updike and George Garrett, painters Larry Rivers and John Sloan, and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They have opposed subsidies for good reasons. Government support politicizes art and subjects artists to the uncertainty of shifting political winds. It creates dependency and stifles a healthy self-reliance.

It also frequently comes subject to conditions on the sort of art which can be funded, leading to cries of "censorship," that term having been implicitly redefined to mean refusing to distribute taxpayer money to the arts establishment for its unbridled self-indulgence. And it is puzzling that the arts hive is unimpressed by, or ignorant of, the fact that federal funds usually come with conditions. Funding for highways is contingent upon a state's increasing the drinking age to 21. Federal funds for education come with requirements of nondiscrimination and affirmative action reporting, to name just two examples of the myriad of conditions attached to the distribution of governmental largesse. For some reason, art is thought to be exempt from such constraints.

Perhaps this arises from the fact that, as author Edward Banfield has pointed out, "The art public is now, as it has always been, overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class and above average in income--relatively prosperous people who would probably enjoy art about as much in the absence of subsidies."

There is no shortage of evidence to support Banfield's view. In a recent study published by the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, novelist Bill Kaufman writes, "84% of art museum visitors have attended college; less than a third of the entire population has. Blue-collar workers constitute 47% of the work force but just 7% of art museum audiences. African-Americans, 12% of the population, make up one-half of one percent of the clientele. High school dropouts are three times more likely to 'never' visit art museums than are college graduates. Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson calls subvention (government support) of the arts 'highbrow pork barrel': an income transfer from middle class taxpayers to affluent museum goers."

As it turns out, when the self-designated "representatives of the arts" talk about spreading art to the unwashed masses, under the guise of "improving the quality of life," they really mean two things: government should make the rest of the population pay for the art it is too unsophisticated to realize it should also want to enjoy.

The arts elite is careful to disguise this message. A Detroit Free Press art critic, in a January 27 article, reports the concerns of Arts Commission chairman A. Alfred Taubman about the effect of cuts on the Detroit Institute of Arts. What the article does not report is that Mr. Taubman is one of the richest men in the country and could probably afford to make up the $11 million reduction to the DIA out of his own accumulated wealth. The hard-pressed taxpayer might well suspect that this particular swarm of killer bees, unlike its apian counterparts, is not just protecting its hive, but rather is angry that its access to the honey of its less ferocious neighbors is being terminated.

Fortunately, there are supporters of the arts who recognize the demeaning, destructive nature of the pursuit of funds plundered from the taxpayer. Some of them believe in government funding but are tolerant of dissenting views. And fortunately, the boards of many arts organizations regard the funding cuts as an opportunity to wean themselves from dependence on government. They believe their programs should be self-supporting, through admission fees or voluntary contributions or a combination. But the buzzing of the killer bees threatens to drown out that good news.