Donald Trump

Finally, the WORST Argument for Public Funding of the Arts

No country can be great if it doesn't force taxpayers to buy shit they don't want, says AEI scholar Norm Ornstein.


Deadliest Secret

There are many, many bad arguments for taxpayer financing of the arts (Reason TV addressed some of them in this short, fast-paced video). Now that the vulgarian Donald Trump has called for ending the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) we've been treated to a new round of tired briefs in favor of why the government should of course fund the arts. Don't you know that these cost just pennies per person, the cost of a couple postage stamps, really, if anyone still remembers what the hell those are? Those stupid drones that Barack Obama—who loved the arts!—used to help drop over 26,000 bombs last year cost way more! It's a peculiar thing: Arts funding is so small—the NEA and NEH cost about $300 million annually—that it makes no sense to cut it but it looms so large that even reducing it by a penny will end culture as we know it.

Many of the arguments to maintain arts funding revolve around the impact on individual starving artists who might not go on to create this or that supposed masterpiece. While the Works Project Administration's Federal Arts Project might not have directly paid for that much in the way of memorable art (some of it is pretty damn fine, though), its handouts to unemployed artists to write guides, take pictures, put on plays, and paint murals meant they could survive without, you know, looking for work like everyone else. I don't find most of those arguments particularly interesting or convincing, if only because they ignore all the masterworks that might have been created if, say, the mediocre Archibald MacLeish had been forced to dig ditches by hand and my maternal grandfather had instead been employed as librarian of Congress (at the very least, I'm pretty sure my Italian pops wouldn't have lobbied as hard or effectively as MacLeish to save Ezra Pound from the firing squad for making propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini).

Then there's this: The NEA and the NEH only date back to the mid-1960s and were midwifed into life by Lyndon Johnson, arguably the least-cultured president since Andrew Jackson. LBJ, bless his lying-cheating-corrupt little heart, might have thought that the Spartans were a college football team and preferred kicking Hubert Humphrey in the shins to the opera, but goddammit he created two arty fiefdoms in honor of John F. Kennedy to show he wasn't a total hick! We may never understand how America and Americans got along for nearly 200 years without such orgs, but we goddam know for sure that we can't ever get rid of them.

Which leads me to the very worst argument I've encountered to date for public funding of the arts in general and the NEA and NEH in specific. This comes courtesy of Norman Ornstein, the token liberal at the American Enterprise Institute,

Ornstein's a political scientist by training, so we might properly ask him whether nations as we know them have in fact been around "for millenia" or are actually a creation of the early modern period. We can grant him more latitude for knowing less about art. Kings, emperors, popes, and other rulers have all sponsored cultural production of course, some of it good and some of it godawful; the real difference-maker came during the Renaissance and later, when private patrons of the arts, a rising class of merchants, and workaday people with money burning a hole in their pocket for the first time in human history created markets in cultural production (by the 18th century, for chrissakes, Samuel Johnson was mocking writers who didn't write for money). The idea that that a "key measure of a nation's greatness has been appreciation for culture" (Ornstein implicitly means only high culture) is a totally different question and an irrelevant one. Was 19th century America not a "great" country? Tocqueville, that tackling dummy to which lazy political scientists and journalists on deadline reach out for like a crack whore for a pipe, thought it a plenty great country despite our lack of cultivation:

Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in the periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science, and art; its form, on the contrary, will ordinarily be slighted, sometimes despised. Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, over- burdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.

Americans have always appreciated culture in various ways, though not in ways that Europeans and native-born snobs would always agree with. Twenty years ago (!), Reason magazine published a symposium on "Creating Culture," and former senior editor Charles Paul Freund's entry is directly on point here:

"Culture is a process, not a fixed condition," writes Lawrence W. Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988). Exactly. Control of that process is what America's "culture wars" have always been about. Levine's anti-canonical book describes the 19th-century cultural struggle, in which a moneyed and educated class took control of such once-popular forms as Shakespeare and opera, embalming them and arrogating to itself the arbitration of Taste.

In 19th century America, as in contemporary America, plenty of us loved culture. Traveling shows would be filled with actors performing Shakespeare's greatest hits, a bunch of opera arias taken out of context, and some animal acts. Since before there was a United States, we've always been willing to shill out hard-earned coin for plays, books, music, you name it. And yet there's no reason to believe that, as Ornstein insists, that "appreciation for culture" is what made us great. What made—and makes—America great is precisely that we don't give a shit about "a nation's greatness" as much as we care about our own individual plans and hopes. Despite his liberal-Democratic bona fides, Ornstein works at AEI, so he probably believes in national greatness as a foundational category right up there with defense spending.

But if we're going to be honest, completely defunding the NEA and the NEH (which almost certainly won't happen anyway) will have less-than-no impact on American greatness or American shittiness. No, that depends on much more basic questions, including: Are we going to keep pursuing a foreign policy that does nothing other than create the next generation of American-hating terrorists?; will we beggar our children in the name of unsustainable and unwise middle-class entitlement programs?; will we disproportionately screw over minorities via the drug war, occupational licensing, and sub-par public schools?; and more. If we want to be a great country, maybe we should stop arresting hundreds of thousands of people a year for simple pot possession. Think of it as a performance piece titled "What If We Gave a Drug War and Nobody Came?" I rush to say that I write as someone who is big on art, music, writing, video, and other forms of creative expression, as someone who got a goddamned Ph.D. in literature because reading and understanding novels was just that important to me. I love art (however defined) and I love culture (whatever it means). And I know for sure that whether tax funds are used to continue the NEA and NEH, it will have no impact on whether America is good, great, or depraved. By one count, the "arts and cultural goods" add $704 billion to the U.S. economy, and you're telling me that cutting $300 million from the federal budget will kill that?

For the people who work there and the people who get money from the endowments, killing the two agencies would be at least a minor irritation, sure. But to the extent that their work mattered, folks would step in to keep it going or, same thing, they would reduce their asking price to keep them going. Donald Trump is widely and probably accurately described as a brute with no interest in art and culture. This is a guy who relaxes by watching Fox News, not listening to Philip Glass or probably even watching HBO. But however vulgar Trump may be, he doesn't come close to the primitivism embodied in the idea that a country can only be great when it forces taxpayers to pay for shit they don't want. That's not artistic, it's despotic. And it betrays no understanding of how the creative world works anyway.

Reason's Jim Epstein explains "Why Government Funding Hurts PBS and NPR." This is a different but vitally important argument than the one above. Epstein notes that publicly accountable networks necessarily place all sorts of limits on exactly the sort of mongrelization and mutation that lets creative expression flourish, resulting in a large number of creative people leaving the velvet coffins of NPR and PBS to strike out on their own. Watch by clicking below.

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  1. country’s live of art much less it’s “greatness”

    How does it feel not too have a edit button?

    1. AN edit button

  2. “Culture” is stuff you have to work at developing a taste for and the plebs are too lazy to work at it. This idea that the snobs think culture is supposed to be uplifting and ennobling and edifying and good for the soul is bullshit – the minute it starts doing its job and uplifting and enriching the souls of the masses to the point where the masses are enjoying it, it’s not going to be considered culture any more. How can you be an elite if you don’t appreciate stuff the masses are too vulgar to appreciate? How can it be culture if the vulgar masses can appreciate its qualities? That’s how you know if something is culture – if it’s something you can profitably sell to the masses it ain’t culture and all true culture has to be subsidized because it can’t be profitably sold to the masses.

    1. In other words its for the free shit brigade who drive Bentley’s instead of Camry’s

      1. That, and the culture snobs really get a giggle out of coming up with travelling exhibits that insult or outrage the Unwashed. They KNOW that a PISS CHRIST or an elephant dung Madonna is going to anger the Simple Peasants, and they fund the hem for thT very reason.

        Which is probably the best argument there is for telling the Arty to fund their goddamned nasty jokes themselves.

        Freedom of speech means you get to say anything you damn please. It doesn’t mean you get to make the rest of us PAY for it.

        1. Good take aways all; thanks.

  3. I think the private art, music, etc market is much larger and more influential than gov’t ever will be.

    remember though, this is the same line of thinking that refusing to pay for your birth control is ‘denying you access’

    1. Well, it’s not too much of a stretch to claim a “right” to art, is it? Just like we have a “right” to health care, which by extension includes birth control, or do you want to repress women? Must be a misogynist.

      Yeah, it’s all about access and the right to whatever.

  4. A big secret in the arts world is many artists are opposed to public funding.

    Government approval of an art means it can deny art that it disagrees with.

    1. So they all didn’t vote for Hillary?

  5. Wait… So, all this time, be should be calling him Dr. Nick?!

  6. Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in the periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science, and art; its form, on the contrary, will ordinarily be slighted, sometimes despised. Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, over- burdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.

    Whereas the idealistic NEA helps us rise above all that, with cowboy poetry and piss christ.

      1. That was great. Thanks.

  7. When is obama going to get his tax payer funded “art” monument? I can see it now him standing there fliping off the Jefferson memorial and the Washington monument.

    1. An honest Obama monument would have to depict him with his head crammed up his backside.

  8. the older bro was stocky
    and inconsistent, challenging
    and unyielding on the lines
    he demanded. Nights of booze
    and shouting of philosophy and
    fucking strenuous shit intertwined
    our goddamned complicated
    arrangement. I never understood
    his cartoonish fucking competition-
    always seeking to destroy my fucking
    ass when any common man understood the
    nature of games and their unrelenting chance…

  9. he strode into the yard
    firm strident and demanding
    while gently tipping off his
    glass of porter made in some
    strange state alongside
    the gently angled games of
    his mind
    I always questioned the behemoth
    and my long friend always
    became a killer. a murderer of sorts
    a brutal taker-down of late-nights
    crushing, smashing, and
    ultimately leaving in haste almost
    probably illegal
    while i sit here pondering the
    in the dark woods

  10. i wish the muscular man
    would retain his composure
    but I also wish the earth
    would rid itself of ghosts
    and mirrors made of time

  11. the niggling rivers of fish
    from that lost schizo i guess
    might be found in my gello
    yello and Mr. Angel Drunken
    on the god’s wines Sir fuckin
    Legends of lost fuckin bullshit
    rode a herd of turquoise elephant
    into a Socrates moon, Mr Gourd
    and Phalange.

    1. Mister Gourd and Phalange. I like that.

      Gourd, head = Brains. Phalanges, the original dice = Luck.

      Brains and Luck. Isn’t that the best man?

    2. We need an NEA grant over here, stat.

  12. art needs money
    like angels
    and angels need
    money like

  13. The NEA and the NEH only date back to the mid-1960s

    Which closely coincides with when art generally (and often literally) turned to shit. Coincidence?

    1. No, “fine art” was going down hill since the beginning of the 20th century – or early 2nd century – depending on how much of a pofter you are.

      Art in the broader and popular form – you know, the stuff people like, pay for out of their own pocket and consume on an hourly basis – is going great and producing shit and gold in an unending torrent.

      Weep for the out of work opera singers.

      1. That’s an interesting comment you added at the end, because opera today is more popular today as ever since Monteverdi. What has been going downhill is modern opera, mostly based on pedestrian themes which are not interesting or compelling and put to music that should be used only for slasher horror movies or as an alternative to water boarding.

        I mean, come on… A Harvey Milk opera???

      2. Music reached its Zenithin the first have of the 20th with Strauss, Mahler, Puccini, and Faure. Painting started going downhill around the turn of the century. Architecture has been declining since the baroque era. Sculpture, downhill for about 1500 years.

        At least video games as an art for are still on the upswing, right?

  14. Jean de Crevecoeur put anti-immegrant writer Ben Franklin to shame by writing that ” Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

    But culture is strange only in America does Ezra Pound remain a better long-term poetic bet thatHamilton.

  15. the alleys are
    dead oceans
    dropping tones
    lost and echoing
    whilst the emergent
    pause, undelivered
    and hesitant

  16. Who needs the NEA when you can get rich on Youtube!?

  17. And since nobody else is going to say it, that headline’s wrong about the worst. We still remember who’s the worst.

    * pours a little liqueur de malt for Nikki*

  18. The local PBS affiliate sponsored a concert I recently attended. The ticket cost $45. The event was on the Saturday following release of the proposed White House budget, in which funding for the NEA and NEH were cut.

    Part way into the show the host, a fellow from the PBS affiliate, while introducing the next performer took a moment to pitch us on making a donation/contribution, which was fine, but also to rail against the new budget proposal and the backward thinking moron that produced it. The crowd cheered (execpt me and a few others).

    A quick glance around the theater revealed that the place was full of an older, majority white, apparently affluent audience. Like me, I suspect they all could afford to pay more than $45 for a ticket. Note also, the concert was being given in the storied Sanders Theatre on the campus of Harvard University in lovely Cambridge, MA. I don’t know if Harvard charges for use of its facility, in this case, but do know it has an endowment of nearly $40b and pays no property tax.

    1. Hey, they might force some inner city grade schoolers to go to the matinee “for free”.

  19. However vulgar Trump may be, he doesn’t come close to the primitivism embodied in the idea that a country can only be great when it forces taxpayers to pay for shit they don’t want. That’s not artistic, it’s despotic.

    Hear, hear! So when will Trump the Vulgar be going after the truly expensive “shit” that “taxpayers” don’t want: Medicare, Social Security, redundant military hardware, War on Terra, War on Drugs…

    That’s right, never. Defunding the arts will please the yelping yokels while doing nothing to lower ruinous deficit spending. It’s window dressing for frustrated rubes seeking vengeance on “SJWs.”

    1. As my sainted mother would say, “Twenty nickels make a dollar.”. It all adds up and there is, for me, a very simple justification for cutting these funds: spending public monies on the arts is not a legitimate government activity.

      The problem with going after all those other programs you mention: too many people get some benefit from them and so Trump, and every other political office holder, will be under pressure not to reduce their constituent’s “free” stuff. Trump is, after all, a populist and cutting Medicare, SS, military, War on Whatevs, just ain’t popular.

    2. I never thought I would say this but I somewhat agree with you, with the understanding that I want Trump to cut both arts funding and the things you mention (I strongly suspect you would disagree).

      1. If your reply was to me I would like to clarify that I am completely on board with what you want and suggest.

  20. Why is “Piss Christ” always the goto example whenever teh NEA comes up? The NEA didn’t create or pay for it. It won a prize in a contest of which the NEA was one of the sponsors. Making the argument about the quality or content of the art is completely missing the point and probably actually hurts the position. Government shouldn’t be subsidizing the arts, whether it’s shit smeared on broken Barbie dolls or the Mona Lisa (to pick a lazy example of “high art”).

    Taste is taste and I won’t say you are wrong if you disagree, but I also think it’s a very striking and interesting image.

    1. The equivalence of yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater is yelling “PISS CHRIST” at a Libertarian convention.

  21. The idea that there is no art without the guiding hand of politicians is just plain nutty.

    And like all “free” things, there is a cost. I remember reading a social history of life behind the Iron Curtain. When the Communists took over Eastern Europe the artists were glad: they figured they would be liberated to make art without all that capitalistic crap of having to create art that people would pay for. They were vastly disappointed by the outcome: only “socialist realism” and other art which supported the State was acceptable.

    1. Yeah, Katchaturian and Shostakovich learned firsthand the wonderful ‘freedom’ that comes with state dominance in the arts.

  22. One of the centers of early 20th century Europe was Germany, eventually led by that misunderstood young artist Adolph Hitler- that worked out well.

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