Last December, I published a post that seemed somewhat hyperbolic at the time (six down on this list), arguing that Obama’s cultural policy was a hallmark of horrible Socialist experiments like Communism and Fascism (they called it “National Socialism” for a reason, folks). The issue of government involvement with the arts has been a sore spot for me for some time, as shown in my “Unintended Consequences of Regulations in Art” series going back to 2007 on this blog.

Recently, finally, an article by Patrick Courrielche about the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) involvement in supporting President Obama on a very, very partisan basis turned some heads. The NEA, for those who do not know, is a government agency whose mission is to support excellence in the arts, bring art to all Americans, and provide leadership in arts education. They primarily accomplish this by giving grants to artists and launching campaigns for literarcy and art on a budget of over $140m. As a portion of federal spending, this budget is trivial, especially in light of President Obama’s $787b stimulus, which costs more than both the entire wars of Afghanistan and Iraq have (sans assessment of the terrible, unquantifiable infinities lost in human terms), or the proposed healthcare reforms conservatively estimated at costing $1.2t but surely costing much, much more than that. Yet, this $140m+ represents the largest single sum of money spent on directly funding arts creation in the country each year.

I have argued that this is a very bad policy for the United States government for many reasons:

  • It is a transfer of money from tax-payers, usually rich persons, to artists. This creates a constituency amongst artists for politicians who support the NEA. In other words, politicians get to use the NEA to buy votes.
  • The NEA does not promote the general welfare. Although these grants support a few artists, this money would be more efficiently used by citizens with it in their pockets to create and generate sustainable growth in wealth.
  • Most importantly: the government decides what is good art and what is bad art. Although undertaken on a radically larger scale by Nazi Germany and the USSR, it is certainly the hallmark of a government that seeks to impose values that support those governments in citizens. In the US context, it suggests GOP administrators will try to restrain the artist constituency from directly political arts, while Democratic administrators will be more amenable to unleashing it. You may love President Obama and want to support him, but what happens when the corporation with a monopoly on violence (government) starts using the NEA for conservative purposes?

Many conservative commentators join my call to abolish the NEA, and some of them share my reasoning. However, some want it abolished simply because it funds art that is repulsive to them in taste or is “morally degenerate” or just plain disagrees with their political sensibilities. I do not wish to make the case of my allies — only my own. Judging by Courrielche’s article, I’m quickly being vindicated by the anxious, hapless liberal merrymakers of the NEA:

Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans. […]

We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these “focus areas” as we had brought to Obama’s presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to “shape the lives” of those around us. The now famous Obama “Hope” poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey and promoted by many of those on the phone call, and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” song and music video were presented as shining examples of our group’s clear role in the election. […]

Throughout the conversation my inner dialogue was firing away questions so fast that the NRA would’ve been envious. Is this truly the role of the NEA? Is building a message distribution network, for matters other than increasing access to the arts and arts education, the role of the National Endowment for the Arts? Is providing the art community issues to address, especially those that are currently being vehemently debated nationally, a legitimate role for the NEA? I found it highly unlikely that this was in their original charter, so I checked.

I’m sure you can guess: this is definitely not in its charter. Nor, of course, is there anything in the Constitution suggesting Congress’ ability to create an NEA. Some people believe this is a pedantic point, that the Constitution merely serves to say whatever we want it to say nowadays. If you submit to this argument, you surrender your one last bulwark against the reality of dictatorial, legislative, and/or judicial fiat. If we surrender everything else, we cannot lose the Constitution, which remains the most brilliant blueprint for a government that harnesses human nature in a way that propels improvements in the general welfare.

Perhaps more to the point, there isn’t a void of art in our lives. Without the government determining high-prestige art, the market (that is, millions of buyers and sellers like you and me) get to decide. Institutions such as the Bank of America and Deutsche Bank have realized there is demand for art they can profit from, creating outstanding shows for middle-ranking museums on moderate budgets that may someday rival the NEA’s.

More realistically, the NEA is here to stay. That is too bad. In a letter to the editor in today’s Wall Street Journal, I noticed this regarding the NEA Courrielche’s revelations:

While this kind of activity really cheapens (or exposes) the NEA, it surely is a deeply cynical exploitation by this administration of citizens’ talents, dreams of success, innate longing to do good, and their egos. Now, where else in history has art been thus co-opted to advance ideology and power?

You already know where. But consider, if you do not believe me, reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, which chronicles the stunning descent of the intelligentsia into lackeys for violence by the state. The NEA can and will become an organ of such a state in the USA if we ever let it.

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