Propaganda Art Gets Boost in Biden Budget

What else is government-funded art but propaganda for the rulers?


The astonishing $6 trillion budget proposed by President Joe Biden includes a 20 percent increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). While that $201 million sounds like real money, it's admittedly a pretty small slice, just 0.003 percent of the whole. And it is surely one of the most innocent of federal expenditures: supporting mega-museums and community orchestras is about the least dangerous piece of government spending I can think of. (It beats a new weapons system or internment facility.) 

Proponents of more funding for the arts often point out that many "developed" countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, spend much more government money supporting the arts than the U.S. does. But leaving aside the question of whether the U.S. should emulate Germany's history of state support for the arts, one might worry that arts expenditures do not seem practically to do much in the way of securing the common defense or ensuring the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. There's no sign that the founders of the Republic regarded support of the arts as the business of the federal government whatsoever.

And yet, it is often said, the arts are central to any culture, to the unity and character of any people. The NEA is constantly hinting with an anodyne wave that it is telling the story of who we are as Americans: "The arts are a powerful and important part of what unites us as Americans. The arts celebrate our differences while connecting us through a communal experience….[NEA grants seek to] enrich our humanity by broadening our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as a society." Well, it's hard to argue with that, I suppose, and who would endorse disenriching humanity? Giving some federal support, I have heard it said, expresses that we, as Americans, are concerned not just with guns and butter but with meaning.

But if arts funding is to show "who we are as Americans," or to narrate our alleged communal experience, it is going to have to respond to the tastes of the American people, which at the moment run to autotuned hip hop and bro country. Perhaps the tastes of we, the American people, should be somewhat reshaped through arts education, or through the intervention of the New York Philharmonic. But you may, after a bit of reflection, agree with me that the government is an implausible agent of our refinement, maybe not who we ought to appoint as our critic-in-chief. The bureaucracy as tastemaker: Well, it just does not appear plausible, and it has an unwholesome history.

In 1989, Sen. Jesse Helms (R–N.C.) and others of what was then known as "the moral majority" held up NEA funding over a series of grants to avant-garde artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley. They were offended by the sexual or supposedly blasphemous content of works like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artists' urine.

The whole controversy almost ended the NEA, and emblematized the culture wars of that moment, pitting southern evangelical Christians against New York curators. Ever since, the NEA's grantmaking has been much safer; it's basically turned from funding individual artists to funding community arts organizations. It has largely avoided controversy over the last 20 years.

But if the arts are part of the federal budget, they are subject in a democracy to political processes, and ought to be. And as federal spending increases (and increases), keep in mind that it is liable to be supervised, after the next election or the one after that, by people whose tastes you deplore. Less than two years ago, the Trump administration promulgated the executive order "Promoting Beautiful Federal Architecture," condemning modernism and instructing that all new federal buildings be designed in a classical style. A later administration might drive a revival of brutalism.

Government-funded art, that is, descends into propaganda almost no matter what its content: It expresses all sorts of things about what the ruling party wants you to be and what it wants you to see. It expresses, at best, an elaborate set of political negotiations about what sorts of creative expression are appropriate. That is very unlikely to contribute to the intensity or sincerity, the diversity and the funk, that we should associate with creativity.

Every form of arts funding (foundation grants, private sales, crowdsourcing) brings with it certain pressures and distortions, and I know artists and organizations who have done good work with NEA grants. But government funding, in which state coercive power (taxation, to begin with) underlies the grant-making, makes for art that directly serves political power and raises particularly excruciating problems with regard to the possibilities of creative expression, seen in authoritarian regimes but also in democracies. The will of the voters is only a marginally more reliable aesthetic guide than the will of the ruler, but the will of the voters should guide federal expenditures.

Almost any other way of funding the arts is preferable.

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  1. "Almost any other way of funding the arts is preferable."

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  2. It beats a new weapons system or internment facility.

    Does it? In most cases a new weapons system can be both morally and constitutionally justified. I can do neither for the latest indigenous mural or paean to the American union member, regardless of how small the percentage of spending it represents.

    1. Same thought here. I'm one of those nuts who thinks the US does not need any military, that the militia is enough, and that no one is crazy enough to try to invade the US. But that's not the society I live in, and to blanket sneer at weapons systems like that shows a typical peacenik attitude that has no more reality than teh chicken hawks.

      1. I think you do need a defense force but not nearly what we have now. While nobody could occupy the whole country they potentially could take pieces of it say, Alaska, Florida, or Hawaii. A militia would do no good in the days of modern air war, navy, or ICBMs. Plus there is cyber war and defense to think about.

        Even with less than half the budget nobody would even think of doing that.

        The Nazis actually didn’t need many troops to occupy. Once they toppled the government they just installed a puppet government in its place. Same with the Soviets.

        1. Same with the Democrats.

          Or was that redundant?

        2. The problem with modern air war, navy, or ICBMs is as was pointed out in previous posts the US is a sea of red with small islands of blue filled with dems and those islands of blue would be the targets, not the sea of red. Truth be told already a lot of peeps in the sea of red think the blue islands are puppet governments.

  3. Like everything else, why should government get to decide what is art? Art is cultural, and government does even less to define culture than it does morals and ethics.

    Worked with someone who wanted the government to pay artists what today would be called a living wage. I asked how you choose which artists? "All of them." Who picks them? "The artists. Anyone who says they are an artist is an artist." Great, I'm going to go around painting giant circles all over. I'm an artists. Pay up. "Circles aren't art!" I'm the artist, I say I'm the artist, so I am. Pay up.

    Absolutely no recognition of what I was getting at. Kept saying it wasn't art.

    1. "I’m the artist, I say I’m the artist, so I am. Pay up."

      Somebody just paid nearly $20,000 for an 'invisible sculpture' that doesn't actually exist. Once the government starts handing out money to artists, I'll just declare myself an invisible sculptor.

      1. It reminds me of the Kafka short story "the starving artist" where the art was the artist literally starving himself to death

    2. "Great, I’m going to go around painting giant circles all over. I’m an artists. "

      Already been done. I knew an artist who did precisely this. It was conceptual art. He traveled the world and visited iconic locations in the various capital cities and painted a circle in a conspicuous place with a can of spray paint. He's been all over and had successfully painted in places like Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.

  4. SF is 'funding artists to save our culture'.
    Well, no. If you're not making a living with your art, you're not an artist, you're a hobbyist.
    And get your hand out of my pocket.

    1. Can’t make a living at art unless the government pays you. See how it works?

    2. The only culture that SF has comes in little containers with "Yoplait" written on them.

  5. "We should get rid of the NEA. It is not true, as is so often assumed in American politics, that everything good—or everything permitted—must be subsidized. Art, like religion or the press, depends on freedom of thought and expression. Government cannot subsidize art without favoring some works over others and occasionally punishing unpopular expressions. Only separation of art and state can foster artistic freedom." -Postrel, 10/89

  6. How many libertarian or republican conceptual artists has the NEA funded since its inception ?

    1. I hear crickets; how about you?

    2. Plenty of libertarian and Republican entrepreneurs got research grants, small-business loans, limited liability, and public infrastructure, and all they did was bitch about how unfair it was to them.

  7. You know who else liked art and collected large stockpiles of it?

    1. I met a former German soldier from WW2 a number of years ago who was an actual propaganda artist. Had phots of himself in Wehrmacht uniform painting away at stylistic murals depicting the Nazi army, etc.

      He originally served in the artillery on the Eastern Front but his talent got him reassigned. Probably the only reason he lived till the end of the century.

      1. One of my favorite artists of the previous century was ex-Luftwaffe pilot Joseph Beuys who was shot down over Siberia in WWII and cared for by nomadic tribespersons. At least that's how the story goes. He made his name in the states during his 1974 "I like America and America likes me" performance in NYC:

        "Beuys flew to New York and was taken by ambulance to the site of the performance, a room in the René Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway. Beuys lay on the ambulance stretcher swathed in felt. He shared this room with a coyote for eight hours over three days. At times he stood, wrapped in a thick, grey blanket of felt, leaning on a large shepherd's staff. At times he lay on the straw, at times he watched the coyote as the coyote watched him and cautiously circled the man or shredded the blanket to pieces, and at times he engaged in symbolic gestures, such as striking a large triangle or tossing his leather gloves to the animal; the performance continuously shifted between elements that were required by the realities of the situation and elements that had a purely symbolic character. At the end of the three days, Beuys hugged the coyote that had grown quite tolerant of him and was taken to the airport. Again he rode in a veiled ambulance, leaving America without having set foot on its ground. As Beuys later explained: 'I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.'"

  8. This article reminded me of a graphic novel I bought last year called "A Shining Beacon"

    It's about an artist commissioned to make a propaganda piece by a dystopian totalitarian UK government while at the same time underground revolutionaries are trying to persuade her to make something with a more subversive message. Ultimately the moral of the book is: politics ruins art. It's not an idea you usually see in artistic spheres, so I appreciated it. Generally, artists try not to say anything about politics or they latch on to the most asinine feel-good proggy messages. They aren't known for critical thinking.
    I recommend it. Also, good artwork.

  9. Now do practically everything else the feds spend on.

  10. "Art" is the last three letters of "Fart".

  11. "The NEA is constantly hinting with an anodyne wave..."

    AKA "hand out;" guns and butter ARE my meaning so no government funded art, thank you.

  12. Artists are entitled to other people's money. Everybody knows that.

  13. "A government-supported artist is an incompetent prostitute."

  14. Can't wait for the Gov funded piss mohamad

    1. I had a similar thought, although aimed at the writer, and not the government.

  15. They were offended by the sexual or supposedly blasphemous content of works like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artists' urine."


    1. I mean, there are respected religions that involve drinking urine, so you never know.

  16. You're shouting into the wind, dude. It's progressives who like public art funding because art is nice and we like having it around vs. Trumpists who want government to erect statues of Confederate übermenschen in every town square. Trumpists love them some government-funded art. Just as long as every piece depicts one of their favorite dead politicians and nothing gay.

    1. If you like art wouldn't the proper way to support the artist be buying the art from them? Or, as they did in the olden days, be a patron to an artist so they can work, be supported and share their art with your friends, family and community.

      1. There's a good argument to be made that art requires patronage. Why it's better when it's the patronage of aristocratic eccentrics instead of the people is a mystery to me.

    2. And the last time government funded art made any sort of real impact on popular culture was.......?

      Your left wing nutjob friends say colleges shouldn't teach Shakespeare or Mozart because he's too white. And they won't recognize artistry if it's not inclusive or doesn't portray certain minorities in a positive lights. Philisitines and censors shouldn't accuse anyone of not appreciating art.

      Were you and your BLM buddies planning weekly trips to the museum or theater to see NEA productions? LOL. Bunch of uncultured jacobins who grew up listening to Cardi B suddenly cares about art.

      1. If you don't want radical race theorists from taking power, then you should tell your friends not to be even worse kinds of radicals. We have to choose one or the other. Why not try being moderate, sensible people so people have something to vote for?

  17. Which, I can't tell if it's especially frightening or especially pathetic that the Trumpist version of returning the the mythological pastoral German ideal is Mississippi circa 1850.

    Of course as everyone knows, Hitler greatly admired the US for the efficiency with which it dealt with racial inferiors. Got a lot of ideas from our various genocides.

    1. Trumpists don't want to go back to 1850. Leftists DO want to go back to Stalinist era where the "offensive" art is erased, taken out of circulation, and can only be acceptable if it meets the standard of th collective. And they're doing just that now.

      I wish you were capable of independent thought outside of the DNC propaganda leaflet.

      1. You being the one who wants to cut funding for the arts, right?

        You being on the team that gets its panties in a wad whenever government funds art you find offensive, right?

        "Oh but white Christian culture is the RIGHT type of culture to impose on everyone."

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  19. "What else is government-funded art but propaganda for the rulers?"

    I'll take 'grants for buddies' for $600.
    (the artist gets $60,000)

  20. The Progressive Left: Corporate money unduly influences artists to dilute their message by conforming to the desires of corporations!

    Also The Progressive Left: We need more government money for artists!

  21. WTF does Germany's funding of the arts "today" have to do with "But leaving aside the question of whether the U.S. should emulate Germany's history of state support for the arts"?

    The mere fact that you Conservatives have to engage in spewing desperate demagoguery like that, proves that you are peddling yet another Conservative Lie.

  22. Art is like any other product or service, it should be determined based on market demand not govt. What annoys me to no end is when the GOP gets the legislative branch and executive branch they don't end all this socialist welfare crap once and for all..NPR, so called "public radio, TV", "art" and so on..gut it all baby. Hell go after every federal "grifter" program created since 1932...all of it...all of it..would be nice to see the unemployment rate in DC over 90%.

  23. Government has no more business funding art than it has funding education - or medical care.

  24. Biden budget probably prove better as compared to Trump. Every industry starts grooming in his era.
    See the example at:

  25. Same Old Shiite goes on and on and on and on about everything government spends on. Frick, man. Go ahead and do all the friggin art you want. Art to your hearts content, and then some. You just can't force me to pay for it. WTF is so dang hard to understand?

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