Illiberal Arts

by Jonathan Chait | September 29, 1997

President Clinton is a paragon of bipartisanship and cooperation, at least when it comes to negotiating with Congress over hundreds of billions of dollars worth of taxes and expenditures. But when the topic is the National Endowment for the Arts, which faces another Republican assassination attempt this month, Clinton turns into a determined, almost Churchillian figure. Though House Republicans have repeatedly voted to abolish the agency, Clinton has refused to meet them halfway. Instead, he boldly demanded a large increase in funding, and issued a rare veto threat.

Clinton's steadfastness is not a personal idiosyncrasy. It reflects a broad sense among right-thinking people that the question of federal funding for the arts is a Kulturkampf pitting reasonableness and toleration against narrow-minded Philistinism. And since most NEA opponents are narrow-minded Philistines, advocates of the Endowment have successfully stigmatized opposition to it as "an intolerant social revolution that will soon engulf us all" (Frank Rich, The New York Times).

But you don't have to be Jesse Helms to question the need for the NEA. Despite what Rush Limbaugh says, we liberals don't want to let the government do just anything. We definitely don't want to use the government to fund certain activities just because we like them. We only want the state to intervene when necessary to correct clear cases of market failure. What distinguishes liberals from conservatives is a capacity for recognizing where the market has failed and the government must intervene.

The problem is that art is not like most of the public goods that liberals want government to subsidize. Art is not a giant project like a highway or a national park, something so big that individuals have neither the incentive nor the means to build it on their own. Nor is art a good that ought to be universally enjoyed as a matter of entitlement, like education or health care. (Even if your goal is universal access to art, you don't want the NEA, you want art vouchers for the needy. But that would put the government in the cruelly paternalistic position of requiring the poor to spend money on a symphony instead of food.) Rather, art bears a strong resemblance to the sort of goods that liberals are content to leave to the market, like clothing and entertainment. Art can be produced and consumed by small groups or individuals who are willing to pay for it. People are also willing to subsidize it through their own charitable donations. (Yes, the donations are tax-deductible, so there is an implicit government subsidy to art. But the mechanism--a tax deduction enjoyed equally by all other worthy causes--preserves people's right, and duty, to exercise choice over how much, and what kind of, art they want.)

NEA advocates offer three replies. The first is that the agency brings art to remote areas. There is a certain logic here, since the arts outside of large cities have a more difficult time winning philanthropic support. But acting as a kind of arts charity for the geographically deprived is not what the NEA does. A disproportionate share of its grants goes to the East Coast, which needs help the least. Last year, Washington, D.C., got more NEA money than Michigan and Ohio combined.

Furthermore, if spreading art beyond its natural constituents is your rationale for federal arts funding, you don't need the NEA. You could replace it with block grants to the states, with perhaps a disproportionate share of the money going to states lacking strong markets for art. (I know, I know, block grants sound conservative. But that's only because conservatives apply them wantonly to programs that should be nationally uniform, like welfare and health care. Art, by contrast, is legitimately a matter of local and regional taste.) In any case, the block grant idea runs into the same conceptual snag as art vouchers: small, remote towns suffer from a number of deprivations--along with corresponding advantages--vis-a-vis big cities. If we're going to help regionally disadvantaged areas, why dictate that they spend the money on ballet rather than something like schools?

Arts advocates have a second argument: the NEA supports, or should support, the great art that fails to win appreciation in its time. But why is government more capable than the marketplace of spotting great art? Government is accountable to the majority, and, even though the NEA's appointed board is not directly answerable to voters, its survival depends on elected officials, and so its taste in art naturally gravitates toward the middle-brow. Avant-garde works would fare best under decentralized sponsorship.

Another widely held justification for the NEA is that art subsidies are a profitable public investment. The New York Times dedicated over 900 words to an article on a study purporting to prove that tax revenues from the arts exceeded public expenditures on the arts. The article briefly noted, before returning to a fawning recapitulation of the study's findings, that "much of the taxes would have been collected even if government had spent nothing on the arts." But that's the whole point. Suppose the government started giving billions to the movie industry. Would that be a good "investment" as long as the subsidy was smaller than the tax revenues generated by box-office sales? Of course not. The issue is not whether the resultant tax revenues are greater than the subsidy. The issue is whether those tax revenues are greater than what the government would have taken in if the money spent on the subsidy had been spent some other way.

The broader and more fundamental case for the NEA is that art enriches the nation's culture; since market pressure both limits the amount of art produced and forces it to conform to commercial values, federal subsidies can spawn more and better art. But private sector charity accounts for 99 percent of all fine arts funding. If the NEA were abolished, wealthy art lovers would probably rush to make up the 1 percent gap.

Even granting that the NEA improves the quantity and the quality of art does not necessarily mean that doing so falls within government's necessary role. Journals of opinion enrich the nation's intellectual life by providing a forum for the debate of issues. They can even be said to perform the vital public functions of voter education and policy innovation. Market pressure affects opinion magazines even more adversely than it affects art. Almost all such journals operate at a loss.

If the government directly funded opinion magazines, there would no doubt be more of them. Insulation from market pressures would diminish threats to their intellectual integrity and broaden the numbers of both publishers and readers. Yet the government does not do so, and most people would object to such an arrangement, because government money would bring with it influence over the marketplace of ideas. Inevitably, government would exert an even more venal influence than the market.

That's exactly what happened to art in the late 1980s, when right-wingers began attacking the NEA for funding high-profile avant-garde displays, such as Serrano's Piss Christ, that offended large segments of the public. The campaign against funding offensive art legitimized the exploitation of raw bigotry. By ostensibly criticizing a government agency, conservatives like Jesse Helms and Dick Armey were able to exploit cultural prejudices in a way that, if done openly, would be politically unacceptable.

Piss Christ epitomizes the NEA's fundamental conceptual dilemma. Either the NEA funds offensive art or it doesn't. The first alternative, funding art without regard to political content, forces taxpayers to support the promulgation of ideas that mock their values. This is not a free speech issue: for a believing Christian, enduring the existence of a crucifix submerged in urine is an entirely different thing from having to pay for it. (Nor is such coercion tantamount to forcing a pacifist to help pay for nuclear bombs; building a bomb may promote the idea that weapons are okay, but that isn't its primary function. Piss Christ, on the other hand, has no function besides the promotion of ideas.) NEA advocates counter that the Endowment only accounts for a minuscule portion of the budget. But when principle is at stake, quantity doesn't matter. As Thomas Jefferson said: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."

Why can't the NEA just avoid the really controversial stuff? It could, but that would put the government in the business of deciding that some ideas are good and others are bad, that public funds can be used to violate some political or religious beliefs but not others. As a government intrusion into the marketplace of ideas, this is even worse. Far better that the government passively approve of controversial notions than actively disapprove of them.

One way out of this bind would be to fund only art that doesn't advance a point of view, or at least only a point of view with which everybody can agree. Such a "lowest common denominator" approach might work for things like national monuments. But art is supposed to challenge boundaries and assumptions. Stripping it of content would defeat the purpose of having an NEA.

The inescapable dilemma of the NEA is that money buys control. Ideally, the NEA would try to devise a system that divorced money from control--or, at the very least, enabled the government to provide as much money and wield as little control as possible. Instead the NEA does the opposite. It leverages its small amount of money into disproportionate power over what private donors support. "Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts are a matter of national prestige, a stamp of excellence," boasts an NEA fact sheet. "This `Good Housekeeping' seal of approval testifies to the artistic quality of the recipient organization." Instead of lots of money and little control, which would be the best arrangement, the NEA gives out little money and wields lots of control. This is the worst of all possible worlds.

Of course, this isn't the NEA's fault. Republican budget cuts have forced the Endowment to scale back its largess and more closely scrutinize its beneficiaries. But the causes of this mess are here to stay. The NEA cannot escape political entanglements because it cannot escape the Constitution, which gives voters a say in how the government spends their money. And that means that the NEA will always be hostage to the whims of people like Jesse Helms.


Jonathan Chait is a senior editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the September 29, 1997, issue of the magazine.

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