Selected Skirmishes: Artistic License to Kill

Finally, a case for funding the arts


For years I have been daydreaming about concocting a brilliant, market-oriented, democratically sensible, intellectually honest, morally credible case for subsidizing the arts. The vicious rap, which I aim to defeat, is that the National Endowment for the Arts is just a plaything of the Hollywood elite, with their big-budget extravagances and their low-budget morals. That sounds like a party I'd like to go to. If only I could negotiate some subtle defense for the transfer of public funds to High Culture, I would be feted as a hero of the Rich & Famous. Leggy supermodels, back off.

Now, thanks to one Frank Rich, my fantasy may fizzle into just so many champagne wishes. The dramatic editorialist for the esteemed New York Times has angrily denounced what is surely the most popular whipping boy since Michael Fay: movie moguls. Railing against the "entertainment industry's shameful refusal to make good on its debt to the National Endowment for the Arts at its time of greatest need," Rich waxes poetic about the tragedy of budget cuts. What was recently an annual allowance of $162 million has been scaled back to $99.5 million.

The Hollywood credits which Rich finds missing are these: "For years movie studios and TV networks have used N.E.A.-supported institutions…the way they once used Schwab's drugstore: as pickup spots for new talent." While the drugstore might have been the cheaper solution for U.S. taxpayers, there is no doubt something nobler about federal funding. Yet Hollywood, which owes the NEA for inputs into its multibillion-dollar profit stream, is not willing to lift a political pinky to defend it. Where, oh where, asks Mr. Rich, are the Hollywood pressure groups to speak out on federal aid to show biz?

This is the most straightforward defense of corporate welfare yet to surface in this great land we call America; if only Frank Capra were here to turn an NEA grant into a box office extravaganza: Mr. Spielberg Goes To Washington.

In fact, notes Rich, an interesting solution to the death of this federal incubator of artistry was broached by the NEA's leading lady, Jane Alexander. "She has proposed that a [pending] bill extending the copyright period–and thus the potential royalties–for authors turn back some of this new income to the Arts Endowment." This introduces the dangerously unbalanced notion that those who reap NEA benefits (and, of course, everyone else who writes) should foot NEA costs.

Alas, the Hollywood interests sprang to life, producing boffo special effects in the halls of legislative process. And the proposal that they pay the freight has already met with a smashing fate, one that will soon be coming to a theater near you: Friday the 13th: Jason's Roll Call.

Of course, the NEA subsidy is a pittance. The annual budget won't likely cover Madonna's next wardrobe allowance–which, when you think about it, typically doesn't cover much itself. A hundred million dollars is a joke when compared to the billions spent on television and motion pictures; the fledgling cable TV industry alone hauls in $25 billion annually. Parks, high schools, symphony orchestras, and civic organizations spend many multiples of this paltry federal sum in organizing local plays, concerts, and other positive alternatives to the target-practice and sword-tossing crafts which so many of America's outstanding public education establishments increasingly specialize in.

But the magnitude rationale is a coward's way out: The principle question is principal. Should the poor bastard have to pay? Rich, descending to the level at which opponents of NEA funding are routinely sprayed and dispersed, quotes a fellow traveler as denouncing "the demonization of the N.E.A. by the religious right and its congressional patrons [with] 'the most vicious onslaught on the arts since the McCarthy years.'"

Certainly the working stiff has tastes which are excited more by, say, NFL football or the Fox fall lineup than the Mapplethorpe exhibit. But does one have to be Jesse Helms to blanch at the tableau of tax-and-spend? Won't the view from High Ethical Ground focus like a laser on the morality of taxing Bubba to pay Meryl Streep? On imposing the state's preferences for expression by funding some projects and defunding others? On whether we punish God by steadfastly opposing government subsidies for religion, or honor him by protecting the freedom to worship?

In the end, the battle is over cash–not art. Dollars for divas is not about the stimulus provided culture, whose health or demise will proceed with nary a federally funded aspirin. But performance art being where you find it, "here, here" to the culturato who has plopped before us an elegant mega-truth: "The conspicuous gap between the entertainment industry's huge debt to the nonprofit arts world," writes Rich, "and its dilettantish efforts on that endangered world's behalf is the sort of ideological disconnect that gives Hollywood liberalism a bad name."

At long last–my profound and compelling argument for government subsidization of the arts.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (, an economist at the University of California at Davis, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.