In this long season of bailouts and federally administered stimuli, with seemingly every starving investment banker pleading to Congress that capitalism is just too hard, America’s artists had a golden opportunity to pull off the greatest piece of conceptual art since Marcel Duchamp realized that urinal-factory craftsmen in Trenton, New Jersey, were turning out far more graceful sculpture than he ever could. Instead, they sold themselves out at the ridiculously low price of $50 million. Andy Warhol must be spinning in his grave.
That comparatively paltry sum was all the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was able to wangle from the massive $787 billion stimulus package President Obama signed into law in February. Since there are roughly 2 million dancers, sculptors, painters, and other professional aesthetes in the U.S. (according to the 2008 NEA report Artists in the Workplace), that means they are in line for an extra $25 each. Or about enough to buy a new black beret.
Wouldn’t it have been more provocative, inspiring, and educational if they’d simply said, “No, thanks”? If, say, they’d commissioned Karen Finley to storm the Capitol, her naked body decorated with a portrait of Milton Friedman fashioned from smeared Godiva chocolate? “We don’t want your money!” she could have exclaimed. “Not the $50 million mandated by the stimulus act, nor the $145 million in annual funding the NEA was already scheduled to get this year! Keep your soft-core socialism for Citigroup and the manufacturers of wooden arrows! We’re artists! Fiercely autonomous! Proudly independent! Unlike our cowardly, un-American counterparts in the world of big business, we’re committed to free enterprise and self-determination!”
Instead, arts advocates responded like every other underachieving opportunist peddling its troubled assets to federal sugar daddies: They argued that our chamber music societies and tap dancing foundations are too economically significant to fail. The arts’ “role in generating billions of dollars in ancillary economic activity for stores, restaurants and the travel business has been proven in bucketloads of surveys and analyses,” exclaimed Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones. “Even the smallest [arts] organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning,” Kate D. Levin, New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner, told The New York Times. An NEA press release announced, “Nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year, support 5.7 million jobs, and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue every year,” with “every $1 billion in spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences result[ing] in almost 70,000 full time jobs.”
Do the math on that one and the results are undeniably impressive: If we applied all $787 billion of Bailout: The Sequel to the arts, we’d create approximately 55 million new jobs! But are we really willing to watch several million performances of Viva Zarzuela by the Anchorage Opera Company as the price for retaining our status as the world’s greatest economic power? If the virtue of the arts is their capacity to inspire economic activity, it’s not clear why they deserve special consideration over, say, restaurants or fashion designers. Isn’t it possible, after all, that we’re going to the symphony mostly as an excuse to wear that new Oscar de la Renta silk faille kimono gown, or as an afterword to a meal at Jardiniere? Even if we don’t axe the NEA in favor of the National Endowment for Snooty Designer Labels and Fancy San Francisco Restaurants, shouldn’t we at least be urging it to expand its support of the kinds of live theater—comedy clubs, strip clubs, WWE wrestling—that are likely to draw bigger, more economically exploitable crowds than a bilingual puppetry adaptation of Don Quixote?
In the early 1960s, when our highest elected officials began evangelizing for the creation of state-sponsored arts programs, there was little talk of ancillary economic activity or job creation. At the dedication of a new library at Amherst College in 1963, President Kennedy said he looked forward to an America “which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.” At a groundbreaking ceremony for the Kennedy Center in 1964, President Johnson expressed his desire to “enlarge the access of all our people to artistic creation.” A year later, he approved the legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts. Its first grant, for $100,000, went to the American Ballet Theater, a bequest which, according to the New York Herald Tribune, saved that institution from extinction.
Today, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would no doubt be pleased to see how enlarged—swollen, in fact—our access to artistic creation has become. We produce more novels, more slasher flicks, and more neo-classical lawn sculpture than any other civilization in the history of the world. According to the League of American Orchestras, there are 1,800 symphony, chamber, collegiate, and youth orchestras in the United States. Theater Facts, an annual overview of the not-for-profit theater world, reports that the 1,910 nonprofit theaters it received data from in 2007 gave 197,000 performances of 17,000 productions that year. The American Ballet Theater is still going strong, and tickets can be had for as little as $26 a piece if you’re willing to go to Wednesday matinees, sit in the cheap seats, and commit to at least three performances. Also, there’s this thing called the Internet.
In such a competitive, oversupplied environment, is a lack of funding really the primary reason that not every Midwestern dance troupe is thriving? Will throwing money at highbrow entities suddenly make people less interested in American Idol and YouTube and more interested in Alvin Ailey? At this point, it might be more beneficial for the kinds of arts the NEA has traditionally funded to create a federal agency that spends $150 million a year snipping cable hook-ups, sabotaging iPods, and paying modestly talented environmental sculptors not to create. That way, we might actually have some spare attention to give new orchestral works and accordion festivals.
In the early 1990s, when the NEA was helping underwrite artists who baptized Jesus Christ in urine or gave live tours of their cervixes, its value to our culture was clear: For less than a dollar a year per taxpayer, the organization served as a vivid symbol of our commitment to free expression. In other countries, the government might behead you for blaspheming sacred figures; in America, it was paying you to do so! Granted, the NEA did a far better job offending conservative sensibilities than liberal ones, but anyone with a taste for unfettered discourse could appreciate it on an abstract level at least. The arts bureaucracy was itself a work of conceptual art.
Today the agency is careful to fund nothing more controversial than bilingual puppetry epics. And given the glut of cultural opportunities that now bedevil us, its status as a nurturer of the arts is less pronounced than its status as an agent of state-sponsored moral engineering. Now, it exists largely to reinforce the notion that musicals are somehow more inherently suited to nourishing the roots of our culture than sitcom pilots. That ballet is a greater part of our national heritage than burlesque. That mediocre opera singers deserve more support than our best gangsta rappers.
If you’d be disturbed by an institution called the National Endowment for Faith that not only funded explicit religious expression but also favored a few specific creeds and religions while ignoring all others, you should be equally wary of the NEA. It’s a superfluous organization with a message that belies America’s foundational themes of pluralism and democracy. The wrangling over bailout scraps offered artists an opportunity to exit a bad alliance with an elegant, ironic flourish. Instead, they acted like investment bankers—really meek investment bankers—and simply asked for more money. No wonder so few people go to performance art happenings these days.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in San Francisco.