Funding For The Arts

It is revealed wisdom among the enlightened that government (especially federal government) funding of the arts is a public good and that only the worst Philistines oppose it. It is also generally accepted that government sponsorship of the arts in the United States is so low that it ranks below that of San Marino.

I hold it to be true (though proving so is harder than might be imagined) that art serves the public good, and that one cannot be educated without knowledge of all the arts, and that the quality of life is immeasurably bettered when the arts thrive. Because the United States often does not seem to value its great artists as much as most other countries in the Western tradition, it does not follow that the overall good will be helped by the establishment of a federal arts bureaucracy dedicated to overcoming a supposed lack of support from an indifferent populace. In fact, I think such an establishment degrades the arts.

Supporters of the National Endowment for the Arts often argue that without its meager budget there would be no federal support for the arts. You will hear this argument echoed by our symphony orchestras and opera companies until their next fund raiser when they recall that contributions to them are tax-deductible. Charitable contributions of all kinds in this country amount to close to 200-billion dollars. This represents about an 80-billion-dollar subsidy on the part of the government to charity. It is difficult to know how much of these tax-subsidized gifts go to the arts, but if it’s only five percent, then the indirect federal subsidy to the arts in the form of tax forgiveness is more than ten times the budget of the N.E.A. Furthermore, most of the income of our charitable organizations escapes taxation not only from the federal government, but from state and local governments as well. This untaxed income is additional billions of subsidies. Some of the downtown areas of our major cities are largely off the tax rolls because they are owned by tax-exempt organizations. Thus, it is meaningless to compare funding of the arts in this country to funding in all other developed nations. Our system is unique. No other country has our charitable tradition. It is one of our most admirable traits. Of course, our system of indirect subsidy through tax forgiveness doesn’t preclude direct subsidy by a federal arts commission. What should preclude it is an understanding of the uneasy and necessarily adversarial relationship between the government and the artist. Great art tends to be subversive. The government’s reaction to the subversive requires no elaboration.

Define art. It’s not so easy. If you’re going to hand out taxpayer’s money for the arts, someone will have to do it. Are you comfortable with Senator X or Congressman Y making that decision? If you support the N.E.A., you’ll have to live with congressional arbiters of art. What about decency? Are we going to fund “indecent” art? Who will define “indecent?” If we deny “indecent” and “degenerative” art federal funding, we’ll probably miss some of the greatest stuff that will come our way while funding “junk food” art. Remember that the work of the greatest writer of English prose in this century was widely held to be indecent, was denied entry to the U.S. for years, and was burned by the Post Office. It is impossible to have a national arts agency without some form of censorship, no matter how disguised.

Many of our art museums, symphonies, and opera companies-alas-are little more than artistic graveyards, devoted mainly to warehousing old art. The Metropolitan Opera, for example, endlessly repeats Aida and La Boheme to full houses charging up to $150 or more a ticket while occasionally mounting a new opera that nobody wants to hear.There’s nothing wrong with Aida and Boheme, but I don’t see why performances of them should be directly subsidized by the government, though the Met obviously thinks they should. It’s enough that when I make a contribution to the Met, which I annually have done for more than 30 years, that the government pays for a portion of it.

Most of our museums of fine arts have the charm of a sepulcher. I get terminally depressed on touring an art museum and seeing embalmed art, no matter how grand. Museums remove art from the world; they rarely if ever contribute towards its creation, but they all want N.E.A. money. Do you think that Van Gogh, who never sold a painting in his life (well, perhaps one), would get N.E.A. funding were he alive today? (Of course, at age145, he might not be as productive as he was when he was younger.)

The government generously supports scientific research; why shouldn’t it do the same for the arts? Scientific research potentially benefits all and therefore deserves direct public support. These benefits are tangible and require no serpentine justification as does arguing that supporting an experimental ballet company potentially benefits all, which it clearly does not. Whether the Metropolitan Opera mounts a new production of anything is a matter of indifference to the vast body of mankind; curing cancer is not. Furthermore, modem science is so expensive that it is impossible without massive governmental underwriting.

Do not think that government’s support of science does not impose a heavy burden on those it supports. The government uses the money it distributes to universities and institutes as a club to induce behavior that our academies would otherwise not permit and which would otherwise be illegal. For example, the School of Music can be forced to modify its behavior at the behest of the government because the Medical School has federal grants. The government says to the University, do as you wish, but if you don’t comply with our regulations (even if they apply only to a part of the university not receiving federal money), you are not eligible for federal support at any of your components. The School of Music, of course, is forced to capitulate. The obverse of this is that a recalcitrant group of musicians can cost the chemists their research money. Despite all the social engineering layered on federal support for the sciences, most would conclude that the good outweighs the bad.

But government support for science and the public’s abysmal understanding of science presents politicians with endless opportunities for grandstanding before the voters. President Clinton’s ban on federally supported research into human cloning is a fine example of mindless opportunism at the expense of science. There was no discussion of the issues involved, no definition of the science included in such a ban, just a blanket interdict on any kind of scientific research that some bureaucrat might think was related to whatever the president had in mind. The ban would have stopped work on some of the most important problems in medical research. Most scientists don’t want to clone Adolf Hitler, but they might like to clone Mr. Gonzalez’ kidney so he can get a transplant he can’t reject and thus get off dialysis, or better yet repair his own diseased kidney. Clinton’s ban would apply to this work as well as that by the boys from Brazil.

Scientists have been bought by the government and have to put up with intrusions like this. On balance, the public good prevails over the nonsense, but the unseemliness of the business is disturbing. Every year, each disease group (e.g., the American Heart Association, the National Kidney Foundation, etc.) lobbies Congress for more money for their favorite projects the same way that every other special interest group petitions Congress for more pork, ultimately at the expense of someone else. Artists who go on the federal dole will also be subject to this kind of intervention and pork barreling; there is no way to avoid it. One can picture the poets descending on Congress, arguing that the playwrights are getting too much money. I can also see a sympathetic senator from an enlightened state promising the poets more money if only they will be a little more comprehensible.

The arts in this country are in remarkably good shape. They are well-supported by our unique combination of private and indirect public funding. The N.E.A.’s budget-never large- has been diminished for all the wrong reasons by the Congress which, in the main, is incapable of understanding art and which in any case, has a function unrelated and inherently adversarial to art. Even if they do so for the wrong reasons, Congress would do well to abolish the agency and the arts would accordingly be better off.

Originally published:

Kurtzman NA: Funding For The Arts. Lubbock Magazine (June):26-27, 1996