Artistic Licenses

Culture yes, government no


These days, it seems that supporters of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting cannot finish a sentence without telling you what great "bargains" and sound "investments" those organizations represent.

NEA Chairwoman Jane Alexander never tires of pointing out that her agency's draw of $167 million breaks down to "64 cents" per taxpayer—"the price of two postage stamps." "Our small investment reaps enormous returns," she says. And CPB's allowance of $285 million works out to only "$1.09 per person, per year, 80 cents of it for television, [29 for radio]" says Ervin Duggan, the chief executive officer of the Public Broadcasting Service. "If you bought just about any Sunday newspaper in the country,…you paid more for that newspaper than you paid for public broadcasting in an entire year."

But even as they try to dazzle you with bargain-basement budgeting, NEA boosters and PBS fans also feel an urgent need to inform you that much more is on the line than the infinitesimal amount of money these programs soak up: Civilization itself hangs in the balance. The barbarians are howling at the gates once again, and this time they're registered Republicans. If we fail to maintain—or, better yet, increase—current spending levels on the arts and public radio and TV, imply the aesthetes, we will usher in the new Dark Ages.

"[Newt] Gingrich is the Second Coming of Attila the Hun," proclaims minimalist artist Sol LeWitt to The Village Voice. Painter Chuck Close asks the rhetorical question, "Are we destined to become a nation of boobs, rubes, and philistines?" "We must not let this new crop of petty-minded, misguided destroyers of culture dismantle [the NEA], one of the few things that is still good and beautiful in this country," fumes an angry letter writer to The Buffalo News.

"PBS remains the only channel in front of which it is entirely safe to park your child," claims The New Republic's Michael Lewis. PBS's Duggan, who likens the elimination of federal funds to "assisted suicide," tells us that public broadcasting is a counterweight against "steadily coarsening, ever more tawdry popular culture."

"All great civilizations have supported the arts," Barbra Streisand lectures an audience at Harvard. "There's [something] Gingrich, [Majority Leader Dick] Armey and company don't like to stress," opines the San Diego Union-Tribune's theater critic, Michael Phillips. "Among all First World nations, America spends the least on federal arts support per citizen. If we say no to culture, America will be alone in saying so."

Given today's budget-conscious mood, shifting the debate away from issues of funding to questions of cultural survival is a clever strategy. After all, the argument that some subsidies—such as those for the arts or public broadcasting—are so small they don't matter doesn't hold much water these days.

Rhetorically, it makes more sense to lay claim to a higher purpose worthy of sacrifice, such as educating brutish Americans in the finer things of life. And there's little question that GOP leaders such as Gingrich, Armey, and long-time NEA foe Jesse Helms seem to relish their roles as philistines in this tedious morality play. Indeed, it's difficult to shake the sneaking suspicion that their idea of fine art begins and ends with portraits of poker-playing dogs.

Unfortunately for the aesthetes, the cultural-survival argument founders just as badly as its too-small-to-matter counterpart. For starters, there's no question that "the arts" would survive the demise of the NEA. In 1989, when the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., declined to mount a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective because it might have endangered NEA funding, the Washington Project for the Arts picked it up. More recently, when a theater in Cobb County, Georgia—Gingrich territory—lost $40,000 in county-level grants, it more than made up the difference through donations.

It's also tough to swallow the idea that the "best" PBS offerings (The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Barney, Sesame Street) wouldn't be picked up by broadcast or cable TV. And it's a stretch to suggest that National Public Radio programs such as Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion are landmarks of a superior civilization.

But NEA and CPB advocates make an even more fundamental error than claiming art's fate is hostage to Beltway politics. They ignore the very basic, very obvious, and very relevant fact that the American people have exceedingly deep pockets when it comes to funding the arts. Regardless of spending by the federal government, we are already vigorously supporting the arts.

In 1993, for instance, this proud race of philistines shelled out $340 billion on entertainment, according to Business Week. There's no doubt that a fair chunk of that money went toward "tawdry popular culture," such as the Hollywood movies Ms. Streisand produces, directs, and stars in. But it also reflects trips to art-house cinemas, "legitimate" theater, concerts, spoken-word performances, and art museums, not to mention the purchase of edifying books, video/audio tapes, and compact discs.

And, also in 1993, individuals, foundations, and corporations donated a total of $9.57 billion for arts, cultural, and humanities programs, says the AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy. PBS's Duggan boasts that "PBS has between 5 to 6 million contributing members nationwide…very few of them rich, who give generously for something they could get for free." He's right: In 1993, they gave $391 million to the CPB. Businesses and foundations kicked in another $302 million and $100 million, respectively.

Given that gargantuan level of voluntary arts gift-giving, the question isn't whether the United States will just say no to culture. The question is, Why, in an age of self-consciously subversive art and adversarial journalism, do artists and critics feel a hypocritical need to pursue government funding as a seal of approval?