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,
For millenia, a key measure of a nation's greatness has been appreciation for culture– music, art, dance, theater. Ax NEA, NEH,we lose that
— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) March 29, 2017
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.
— Barry Rome (@BarryRome) March 29, 2017
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.