Art vs. the State


Modern history is filled with examples of superbly competent men being instructed, lectured, and disciplined by second-rate politicians. Perhaps the most bizarre episode of this type occurred in 1948, when Joseph Stalin, who knew less about music than he did of morality, told several of this century's finest composers to change their composing style.

"Decadent and bourgeois" were the words used by Stalinist henchman Zhdanov to describe the then-recent music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Miakovsky, and several others. Summoned to a "meeting," these "criminals" were accused of adopting Western ideas, and of neglecting the musical needs of "the Soviet people." Those with important teaching positions, such as Shostakovich, were dismissed from them, and a public apology was demanded of all. At first there was some resistance from the victims: Prokofiev sat with his back to Zhdanov for the entire duration of the lecture, and Miakovsky refused to come at all. But slowly, and out of necessity, the apologies came, accompanied by a change of style. The over-all effect of this artistic purge can be observed by listening first to Shostakovich's brilliantly irreverent Ninth Symphony, written in 1945, and then to his dreadfully boring Tenth Symphony, written in 1950. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat had achieved its true purpose: music was now bland enough for everyone.[1]

For centuries, art has crossed swords with the State as in the above example. Yet there is a widespread feeling, among artists and audiences alike, that government aid to the arts is acceptable, even desirable, as long as the interests of "artistic freedom" are looked after, i.e.—as long as government subsidies do not involve government control. But is it possible for aid to exist without control, or are the two inseparably linked, and together crush true artistic freedom?

There are two ways in which government money to the arts can be directed: (a) recipients of aid can be decided by the tastes of the majority ("the people"), or (b) the government can establish some sort of criteria for what is "good art" and grant money to those who display such criteria. The first method has been adopted (at least in terms of rhetoric) by the Soviet Union, the second by the United States. What follows is a short examination of both systems.

We have already seen, in the previous example concerning Soviet composers, an instance of the first method at work. Composers, authors, and painters who do not fulfill the needs of the majority are simply not sanctioned by the State, and therefore have no "right" to compose, write, or paint. The situation is one of artistic enslavement: either work for the majority, or starve.

In actuality, the artist is not even working for the majority, but for some politician's vague idea of what the majority wants, tainted by political desires (e.g. "patriotic art.") After the 1948 purge, for example, there was a hint of public outrage (as much as is possible in a totalitarian country)—the people had liked the music so severely criticized by Stalin![2]

Artistic freedom in such an environment suffers on two levels: (1) the artist is not free to create as he wishes, and (2) the audience is not free to choose as it desires. As to the claim of "serving the majority," such tampering with freedom of choice serves only the whims of despots. Because it is unhampered by political middle-men, the free market is a much better gauge of majority tastes.

The American system does not claim the support of the majority, in fact, to the contrary. In 1962, Arthur Goldberg wrote, "To free our art forms from destructive financial tests is to protect them from the tyranny of the majority.…If the arts are to flourish, they must be relieved of total dependence upon the market place, and upon majority opinion and taste."[3] And who is to support, through tax money, this "flourishing" of the arts? The majority, of course. What was that he said about tyranny?

Following Goldberg's lead, a Senate subcommittee on the Arts was formed. Then, in 1964, President Johnson and company created the National Arts Council. In 1965 came the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, and its financial strongarm, the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1965, with the help of both Presidents Johnson and Nixon, the "token" $10 million per annum then allotted has expanded to $80 million. President Nixon has expressed his desire to "develop" the arts even further in his second term. (During the widely-publicized 1971 Red China visit, Nixon lauded the merits of the communally-composed opera TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN BY STRATEGY, an asinine piece of eclectic trash. Perhaps he has plans to commission an opera called TAKING WASHINGTON BY MANDATE.)

Where has this money gone? What artistic miracles has all this stolen money wrought? Below is an example.


No, that's not a misprint, nor are you seeing double. It's the word "light" misspelled, and it constitutes the entirety of a "poem" by Aram Saroyan, for which $750 in tax money was paid.[4] The poem was published in a government-sponsored anthology called the AMERICAN LITERARY ANTHOLOGY. Edited by George "Mr. Amateur" Plimpson, this book also contained nine selections from the PARIS REVIEW, a magazine that Plimpton edits. Under the provisions for the anthology, money was paid to the magazines from which the selections came, as well as to the authors. Corruption, anyone?

How effective has the National Endowment been in relieving the financial worries of Symphony orchestras across the United States? In 1964, before government money was available, ninety American Symphony orchestras ran up a total debt of 170,000 dollars. In 1971, six years after the establishment of the National Endowment, the same orchestras incurred debts of thirteen million dollars![5] Apparently, the availability of "free" money had encouraged fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the orchestras. This drove them further into debt, which in turn got them more "free" money, which in turn encouraged fiscal irresponsibility, which in turn.…It is an endless Statist circle.

"So there is some corruption, and some of the subsidized artists are kind of weird, but don't we still have a condition of government aid without government control?" Such is hardly the case. When government takes tens of millions of dollars annually and gives it to some artists in preference to others, that alone is an act of control. That money, in the hands of its original owners, would have seen its way to other artists, artists appreciated by the public, and voluntarily supported by them. Instead, it is given to a choice few in the name of "good art." Government subsidies and government controls are one and the same.

The free market is not a cultural cure-all. An enormous amount of trash makes its way to the marketplace, and often enjoys a great deal of success. This is not the fault of any political system, however, but rather the fault of the public themselves. It is they who should decide, and they who should take the responsibility for deciding. A free artistic market does insure the following: freedom to create and to seek a market for one's creations, freedom to choose what art and which artists one wishes to support, and the right to choose not to support others. A government subsidy program insures: corruption, coercion, and control. The choice is obvious.

Kenneth LaFave received his Bachelor's Degree in Theory and Composition from the University of Arizona's School of Music. He has composed a one-act science-fiction opera, as well as many smaller works, and has published articles in FICTION and the INDIVIDUALIST.


[1] Lawrence Hanson & Elisabeth Hanson, PROKOFIEV, A BIOGRAPHY IN THREE MOVEMENTS (New York: Random House 1964), pp. 319-23.
[2] Id. at p. 324.
[3] Quoted by Joan Blumenthal in THE OBJECTIVIST, November 1968, p. 9.
[4] HUMAN EVENTS, 25 April 1970, p. 15.
[5] Associated Press Release, 18 February 1970, by Peggy Simpson.