For Separation of Art and State


The Democratic Muse, by Edward Banfield, New York: Basic Books, 256 pp., $15.95

The federal government should subsidize the arts, it is said, in order to improve the quality of citizens' lives. Much of Edward Banfield's new book, The Democratic Muse, is devoted to the thesis that government subsidy of the arts has not succeeded in doing this. Even if it did succeed, argues Banfield, furthering the arts is not the function of government.

Should the government try to "improve our minds and our aesthetic sensibilities" by subsidizing the arts, spending taxpayers' money for things to which many or most of them are indifferent? Is the moral and aesthetic improvement of citizens a task of the state?

"The drafters of the federal Constitution," writes Banfield, "did not make provisions for the improvement of men. James Madison and others believed that in constitution-making it was necessary to take men as they were rather than as they should be." Moreover, Madison noted in Federalist 45, the powers of the federal government set out in the constitution are "few and defined." As Banfield points out, "Support of art and culture is not among the enumerated powers. To find any warrant for it one must interpret the 'general welfare' clause in a way that Madison called absurd."

Nevertheless, this "absurd interpretation" is the one that has prevailed since 1936, when the Supreme Court declared that "the power of Congress to authorize appropriations of public moneys for public purposes is not limited by direct grants of legislative power found in the Constitution." And thus, writes Banfield, "It is clear that a fundamental principle of the American regime has been abandoned.…The functions of government are not unlimited; they are to protect the individual in the exercise of certain inalienable rights and to establish preconditions for the development of a competent citizenry." The same considerations that would prohibit a "national endowment for religion" should also have prohibited a National Endowment for the Arts.

The early chapters of The Democratic Muse trace the history of the gradual and increasing involvement of the federal government in subsidies for the arts. Among the issues necessarily raised by that involvement is what sorts of things are to count as art.

Banfield recounts the tribulations of Michael Straight, an official of the National Endowment for the Arts, when he was presented with a number of applications for federal subsidy. One artist proposed "a series of paintings, ten to fifteen layers of paint deep, consisting entirely of extremely subtle gradations of grey." Another wanted "to introduce taxidermy as a sculpture media by using painted plywood construction, dirt, sand, gravel, and animals to create different environmental situations." After reflecting on these proposals, Straight accepted them.

Two other proposals, on Straight's view, were not "art," and accordingly he rejected them. One was for "a loop tour of Western U.S.…dripping ink from Hayley, Idaho, to Cody, Wyoming—commemorating the birthplaces of Ezra Pound and Jackson Pollock." The other was to rent "a studio with high ceilings and a cement floor, adjacent to a lush meadow." Banfield quotes from the artist's proposal:

To this place I will bring Pigme, a full-grown sow, two female rabbits, a buck, two ring-necked doves, a woolly monkey…we will all move in together. I will also bring those things necessary for a comfortable survival, including food and materials to use for building and maintaining nests. All of us will contribute to the creation, maintenance, and change of such an environment.…The educational value for all of us will be extraordinary.

Straight's veto of these two projects caused such indignation that his refusal to sign was circumvented by his superiors: the rules were changed, so that thereafter applicants were not to say what they intended to do with the money. Proposals were simply accepted and the money spent. Thereafter, projects that were admired by the art world could no longer be turned down—not even, as Banfield reveals, "the work of a well-known Italian painter, Piero Manzoni, who had bottled his own excrement and sold it as 'Artist's Shit.'"

When Sen. Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.) inquired of the Arts Advisory Council what provisions of the Constitution authorize legislation for federal support of the arts, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D–R.I.) was taken aback by the question. He answered by referring to patent and copyright laws, whose purpose is "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts." The inanity of this response did not prevent the late Sen. Lee Metcalf (D–Mont.) from congratulating Pell on his "fine constitutional analysis."

Interesting chapters in The Democratic Muse bear in various ways on the issue of federal support of the arts. The chapter entitled "What Is Art?" describes a variety of conflicting historical theories about what constitutes art. Another chapter describes the failure of subsidized art programs in elementary school to achieve any effect other than inducing hostility to the works shown.

In a later chapter, Banfield describes how federal subsidy of the arts gradually wormed its way into the legislative process, after being rejected by various presidents, including Kennedy. (Nixon accepted the idea—not because he had a fondness for the arts but because he wanted to be popular and show the public that he was no philistine.) Another chapter describes in desolating detail how the law, once on the books, has been administered—first by Nancy Hanks, who "ran it like a mom and pop store," and more recently by Joan Mondale (the presidential candidate's wife), dispensing taxpayers' money to various persons and groups who curried her favor.

The National Council on the Arts passed a resolution stating that "the arts are a right, not a privilege." But the author details how, even if this absurd premise is assumed to be true, government involvement has totally failed in its purpose. If its aim is to present "fine art"—that which provokes aesthetic reaction or, preferably, one in which the viewer is caused to stand "in rapt attention"—then, says Banfield, the program has failed totally. Few of the subsidized works have this effect; but in addition, most people are fairly immune to these effects and prefer "popular art" to Bach's masses or Rembrandt's self-portraits. When the aim of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts gradually changed in the direction of supporting the "popular arts," there was no limit to the foolishness that was palmed off on the public in the name of art, most of it unrecognizable by any criterion other than that it was made by human beings or, in the case of natural objects like stones, exhibited by human beings.

A particularly interesting aside in Banfield's discussion concerns originals as opposed to good copies. In many cases it takes an expert with a microscope to tell them apart, so the aesthetic effect of the two on the viewer would be exactly the same. Yet museums (and the federal government, insofar as it subsidizes museums) insist on acquiring and exhibiting originals only, even when they cost several million dollars each. This elitism is inconsistent with the federal government's professed aim of bringing as much art as possible to the majority of the people.

Museums make certain that prints are of inferior quality, although superior-quality copies would be neither difficult nor expensive to make. If the market value of a certain painting is $3 million, and a copy of it that gives the viewer exactly the same aesthetic satisfaction could be made for $900, then $2,999,100 of the value of the original has nothing to do with the promotion of aesthetic experience. Yet current government policy aims to prohibit the making of high-quality copies. Indeed, the Art Dealers Association has long agitated for a legal requirement that reproductions of paintings and prints must be at least 20 percent larger or smaller than the originals. The same people who make such demands appear to have no objections to hearing (often inferior) recorded versions of great symphonies rather than listening to them in the concert hall.

In a concluding chapter, Banfield makes a powerful case for taking art entirely out of the public (subsidized-by-taxes) domain, and leaving all such activities to the unregulated free market. Not only would more art actually be available to "the people" that way, but people would not be forced to pay against their will for projects they care nothing about and indeed often find immoral or repellent. The position is well-summarized in a letter to the New York Times, commenting on an earlier letter castigating President Reagan (1981) for proposing cuts in the National Endowment for the Humanities budget:

I am sorry that Martha Wilson [the previous correspondent] is "shocked" by the President's recommended cuts in funding for "the arts," which she believes would be "dealt a heavy blow" affecting "the quality of life in America." The worst blow—the unkindest cut—is inflicted when officials and those with a stake in approved high culture decide what "arts" my tax dollar is to support. I am tired of having people confiscate my movie money to buy what they consider aesthetically preferable. I welcome the Reagan move toward restoring my right to define what constitutes quality in my arts. No matching funds needed, thanks.

Yet while many Americans continue to express embarrassment at "the failure of their government to support the arts," many foreigners view the consequences of the traditional American separation of art from the state with admiration. British economist Lionel Robbins, for example, long a trustee of the Tate and National galleries, wrote,

In the United States you see great galleries and museums, splendid libraries and research centers, all springing from private donations induced by the tax incentives. Here [in Britain] you see the springs of private benefactions virtually dried up by the incidence of penal taxation, and all cultural institutions more or less dependent on state initiatives which more often than not are too little and too late.…Can there be any serious doubt as to which system is preferable?

Many Americans are apparently still not convinced, believing that in the absence of government support the arts would wither and die. It is to be hoped that Banfield's book will be an important influence in unconvincing them.

John Hospers teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California and is the author of Understanding the Arts.