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October 27, 2006

Federal Aid for the Arts?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In his 1990 report on government aid for the arts, Bill Kauffman makes numerous points that, to my mind, are seldom sufficiently stressed. A few of them:

1) America's pre-NEA cultural life was dynamic and awe-inspiring. Somehow, despite the lack of federal funds, the U.S. managed to come up with Louis Jordan and Patsy Cline; Bessie Smith and Herman Melville; William Faulkner and Louisa May Alcott; the Lindy Hop and the Charleston; Frank Furness and Julia Morgan; Little Egypt and the Nicholas Brothers; Sister Rosetta Tharpe (again) and the Mediterranean Revival; Margaret Mitchell and James Thurber; Krazy Kat and hot rods; Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby; soul food and hardboiled fiction; the Wild West show and the Cord car; the Bakersfield Sound and Fanny Brice; the Chrysler Building and the shotgun shack; Mae West and W.C. Fields; "Trouble in Paradise" and the Harlem Globetrotters; and -- oh yeah -- jazz, "Mildred Pierce," Hollywood, Fats Waller, and Mad magazine. Can anyone reasonably ask for a richer, more kick-ass culture than that? And how well have we done since? Hmmmm: Conceptual art ... Post-modernism ... Deconstruction ...

2) Even at the time that government support for the arts was being debated, many artists and intellectuals -- including some of a progressive persuasion -- were opposed. Kauffman cites Paul Goodman, John Sloan, Larry Rivers, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Why did they look on federal handouts askance? Because they didn't want the arts to be co-opted by those in power. In fact, the people most in favor of handing out dough to artists were the politicians, not the artists. An example was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote to JFK: Federal subsidy of the arts "can strengthen the connections between the Administration and the intellectual and artistic community ... something not to be dismissed when victory or defeat next fall will probably depend on who carries New York, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois and Michigan." Schlesinger and JFK weren't interested in the good of the arts. They wanted the prestige the arts could confer for themselves.

A nice quote from Kauffman:

Elite museums in this country were founded and thrived on the patronage of well-heeled philanthropists. The rich, to use a biblical inversion, will always be with us; so will philanthropy. A populist museum, by definition, will attract an audience large enough to make subsidy unnecessary. Museums celebrating regional or particularistic culture are, properly, the concern of local communities and governments. Where, pray tell, does the NEA fit in?

A fast one that's often pulled in day to day arts/political firefights is to argue that anyone in favor of the arts must, simply must, favor government aid to the arts. It's assumed to follow automatically. Baloney to that, of course. What do you say we pull a faster one right back at 'em? Let's argue that anyone who truly cheers for the arts should root for the arts to cut themselves entirely free from federal handouts.

I wrote about something I called "the arts litany" here; Friedrich von Blowhard recalls some of his art teachers here. 2Blowhards recently did an interview with Bill Kauffman: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five. Given that we seem stuck with the NEA, thank heavens it's currently chaired by the wonderful poet/businessman Dana Gioia. Bill Kauffman interviewed Dana Gioia here. Lynne Munson offers a lot of perspective in this interview. I riffed here about what a wild and wonderful cultural life the U.S. had circa 1900, and here about some of what makes American art distinctive.



posted by Michael at October 27, 2006


That paragraph 1 is the most convincing anti-arts-funding argument I've seen.

Posted by: ptm on October 27, 2006 4:50 PM

Sadly, even the Republicans who once threatened to kill the NEA didn't do it.


My first reaction is that it was an informal arts lobby with many sympathizers in the Press. But there's probably a lot more to it than that.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 27, 2006 5:19 PM

I remember a discussion group I was in some number of years ago, not overtly political but at some point mention of government arts funding came up, and someone innocently suggested the arts should sink or swim based on ticket sales, period. That got an utterly outraged response from another member of the group, a woman who was professionally involved in community theater in Toronto and who actually did spend much of her working day writing government grant proposals. As I recall her argument, 1). Letting theater groups die because too few wanted to see their productions enough to buy tickets for them was philistine barbarism, and maybe Americans thought that way but not us enlightened Canadians, thank God/Dieu, and 2). Was she instead supposed to go crawling to "merchant princes" instead and beg for their favour? (As I recall, she used the term "merchant princes" at least twice, in a tone of withering scorn and contempt -- why that particular and oddly quaint term stuck in her craw is a mystery to me.)

To me, there wouldn't be much practical difference between appealing to private industry and applying to government agencies for financial support, but I'd guess that to her, in practice, applying for government grants was something she understood, was familiar with, and did everyday. Cut that out, and applying for private foundation grants and subventions would be a whole new territory to learn, with nothing as certain as it had been. And, it also occurs to me, the government agencies might be freer with the pursestrings and more likely to support off-beat, experimental, and otherwise hopelessly non-commercial productions and performing groups than private donors. But that thing about "merchant princes"... there was an underlying loathing for the whole capitalist insistence on paying for the show by selling tickets to paying customers, I suspect.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 27, 2006 7:45 PM

Okay. I'm girding my loins for the inevitable attack, but I have to disagree.

NOT with the inherent magnificance of those pre-funding artistic contributions. (They're amazing.) NOT with the idea that good art must needs be funded. To build on the thoughts of Ferlinghetti et al (although he may not be the most compelling poster child for free market art), I believe art will out, and my general commie-pinko tendencies recede somewhat in the face of self-indulgent poopoo that would wither and die (shrivel and harden?) under the hot glare of the open market.

And yet...

The world is a far, far more brutal and inhospitable place *economically* than it was pre-funding. Even when I lived in NYC, way way back in the early 1980s, it was getting hard for artists to live in Manhattan. My L.A. art friends and I have our nut pretty low, and it's a constant struggle. Little theater is never going to be cush, but when the grants go away and you have one bad show, bam!, you're out. (And we all scramble for all the grant money, public and private. *And* we work day jobs. *And* we live w/o health insurance and savings and suchlike, many of us.)

It's a sticky wicket, b/c I completely see the argument for freemarket art and 'merchant princes'. It's just that I've lived the other side, with its financial vicissitudes, and that whole starving artist myth is just that.

So ultimately, I feel about subsidized art the way I do about subsidized public recreation spaces and public education and public-everything-else that makes us a civilization. Will there always be pork and bad art? Hell, yeah. But once you start paring away at goverment-supported-x, where does it stop?

Posted by: communicatrix on October 27, 2006 9:00 PM

I might as well give another nod to this great MP3 audiocourse, which is shot through with issues of patronage, government funding, etc. (Especially part one.) Give it a listen!

The three ways of paying for art are patronage, the free market, and government funding. Patronage and the free market are both feedback systems; the artist must make the customer happy, and will hear about it if he does not. The systems differ only in that patronage serves one customer and the free market serves many.

Government funding differs in kind from the other two because it is expressly designed to sever the feedback loop. It deliberately cuts out the valuing customer. It assumes that the artists know best, and they shouldn't be held back by the riff-raff - the typical modernist idea of shutting up and letting the experts get on with it.

But of course this feedback-free state doesn't last. We still have to deal with scarcity. There will always be more artists than there is money available to pay them, and some kind of selection must be made. But now the selection feedback comes not from connoisseurs or fans, but from bureaucrats and the special interests which inevitably capture them.

Personally I'd rather leave it up to the merchant princes.

Posted by: Brian on October 27, 2006 9:16 PM

Right now, government funding seems good at preserving and archiving established (even dying) artforms, terrible at creating something new and original. The history of music and art is better documented and preserved, and performances of now unpopular traditional forms made more possible, thanks to government funding. But that seems to me about it. One possible counterexample, though, is the Federal WPA support of the arts in the 30s, which produced some very good stuff.

Also, why doesn't court patronage of the arts during many centuries in Europe count as "government funding"? What about the Acropolis, a government building constructed with public funds? The Pyramids? There's something strange about generalizing about "public support of the arts" based on our current artistically feeble era.

Anyway, I can't get very exercised about contemporary public funding of the arts. It's such a miniscule portion of government budgets, it hardly matters from the broader fiscal perspective.

Posted by: MQ on October 27, 2006 10:22 PM

Actually, should have read Brian's comment above first...yes, one could argue that traditional "government patronage" of the arts involved a discerning customer who was willing to make real judgements about artistic quality, and we no longer have that. But is the loss of our ability to do that for public art a problem with government itself, or with a general loss of cultural self-confidence?

Posted by: MQ on October 27, 2006 10:24 PM

Why are artists entitled to my money any more than ADM is? Everyone thinks his pet project is special and deserving of subsidy. It isn't. Most arts projects are crap, like most of anything else, and to expect any socialistic funding scheme to help winnow the quality work from the crap is delusional. Like all industrial subsidies, govt arts funding serves mainly to expand the supply of mediocre and derivative work. The truly creative get ignored unless they are already established, in which case the subsidies discourage further innovation (and why should established, successful enterprises receive subsidies anyway?).

If you want funds for your scheme get off your lazy ass and promote it to people who are spending their own money and are as passionate about what you are doing as you are. Most business entrepreneurs already understand this concept, but for some reason a lot of artists are corrupt enough to believe themselves entitled to live on the dole and foolish enough to think that they can do their own thing productively while they are under the thumb of a risk averse, badly managed bureaucracy (is there another kind?) that is supervised by risk averse, sensitive-to-complaints politicians.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 28, 2006 7:53 AM

We've had the emergence of Rap/Hip-Hop, Electronic music, Video Games and the explosion of non-studio film (and the emerging You-Tube films) making in the nineties and OO's. Not to mention that the NFL is currently peaking in quality and popularity and the last couple of decades has seen the emergence of skateboarding, motor-cross, and snowboarding (as well as other X-Games types). Culturally America is still kicking ass and in twenty to thirty years us 20-somethings will look back on this time period as a golden era of culture.

The NEA will continue to fund artists who can't find commercial success and the public will continue to ignore them because they are crap (which is why they aren't popular).

Posted by: James Dudek on October 28, 2006 10:05 AM

An underlying antipathy toward both art and artists is expressed here, at least toward living artists, along, seemingly, with erroneous presumptions that government arts subsidies amount to a simple transference of tax dollars into the pockets of post-modernist artistic poseurs.

Take most smaller theater companies, the ones in small to mid-sized cities rather than places like New York or Chicago, they cobble together support from private donors, sponsors and (yes) the occasional grant in order to supplement ticket sales because otherwise they'd be forced to charge exorbitant prices for tickets. Much of the idea behind arts subsidies comes from the populist notion that "average" citizens should be able to afford a night at the theater or a trip to the museum. That takes some kind of support.

It is interesting to note the reference to ADM and the notion (holy to free market true believers) that anything good will, due to the beautiful efficiency of the market, rise to the top and be amply rewarded while the "crap" will be ignored. Yeah, that's the way it works ... that's why Shakespeare dominates the television airwaves while Wife Swap struggles to find a sponsor. Or perhaps the point is that Shakespeare is no better than soap opera and should disappear if it can't compete.

Back in the day, when I worked for a contemptible ... uh, contemporary ... art museum I was under orders not to even apply for government grants because the founder/board chair thought the oversight reporting was so extensive that he wasn't interested in "wasting' staff time. It's not like the NEA was sending blank checks around because their coffers were so fat and full. I will say, however, that we always knew when Jesse Helms was fund raising because there was bound to be a very public outcry about "your tax dollars supporting blasphemous pornography" or whatever. The actual details of the grant cash flow never mattered; Jesse thumping his Bible and asking for YOUR financial support meant the $400 that actually got into the hands of some feminist performance artist equaled hundreds of thousands in Jesse's campaign war chest. Now THAT was post-modern theater.

We pay farmers to not grow crops to assure that the consumer price remains high enough for the likes of ADM to make their quarterly profit projections. We subsidize the highway infrastructure to supports the automotive and petroleum industries. We pay for bridges to nowhere to reward politicians who skillfully broker votes. We give huge no bid contracts to private companies because ... well, better ask Dick Cheney why we do that. In short, if we spend billions in ways that are at best questionable in terms of the overall "public good" why is the pittance we expend on the arts so suspect? Is it because an overwhelming majority of citizens can't agree that a specific piece of art is sufficiently worthy of whatever support it got? If we apply that logic toward all governmental expenditures we'd be out of Iraq, in fact, we'd not be spending a dime on anything.

Sorry for the testy tone, but my past experiences commenting on the arts here at 2blowhards leads me to take the "best defense is a good offense" approach this time. I know most of those who regularly comment on the arts here would be content if 99% of the art produced since 1880 were burned in public squares all around the country ... saved would be such objects of timeless of beauty as the faux "limited edition" prints of scanned Thomas Kincaid paintings and the brilliant literature of our age as exemplified by novels of Tom Clancy. Now, there is a legacy for the ages.

Posted by: Chris White on October 28, 2006 10:43 AM

The WPA writers project funded a lot of interesting stuff, including the hardboiled crime novelist Jim Thompson. Others pasted from Wikipedia include
* Conrad Aiken
* Nelson Algren
* Saul Bellow
* Max Bodenheim
* John Cheever
* Loren Eiseley
* Ralph Ellison
* Vardis Fisher
* Zora Neale Hurston
* Weldon Kees
* Claude McKay
* May Swenson
* Richard Wright
* Frank Yerby

It's fine with me to keep opera, classical music, and theatre going too, though I'd shift a lot of that money to jazz. I generally agree that the idea of giving government money to cuttinbg-edge, transgressive art is crap, especially because a profession of grantwriters and foundation pros has taken control of the process.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 28, 2006 11:35 AM


You've never wondered how arrogant this litany sounds, have you?

It is amazing how, after you've been to all the right universities and you've spent enough decades glued to the Church of NPR, the "everyone else is doing it" line, which two thousand years of foolish dead-white-male philosophers made the idiotic mistake of considering just another self-centered excuse for criminality, can emerge in its proper light as a precious jewel of wisdom.

I love your "populist" notion that "average citizens" should be able to enjoy a night at the theater. I am very familiar with what a theater audience, at both small and large spaces, in San Francisco looks like. I'm not sure precisely what you mean by "average citizens," though I suspect it's your usual paternalist stereotype of swarthy-hued subhuman worker bees whom your warm-hearted creativity will lift into the sunlight of the future. In any case, whatever your definition of this word is, I have not seen this curious theoretical construct in the audience. Perhaps it's different in New York.

Of course, I'm sure you have an explanation: ticket prices are too high! If only we had more government grants. Perhaps Don Corleone, Tony Soprano, or Pablo Escobar could be persuaded to fill in a little. After all, who cares where the money comes from, as long as it has a picture of Ben Franklin and not Abbie Hoffman.

I also have an explanation. My explanation is that most theater these days is really, really, bad. Dinosaurs like Edward Albee and Richard Foreman, who were considered experimental innovators thirty or forty years ago, are still considered... experimental innovators. Indeed, the word "experimental" is perhaps the most revolting Orwellian inanity to plague the arts since the Mauve Decade. In practice it refers to a tightly formalized genre of sterile conceptual maunderings, which inspires in the naive audience member nothing more than an irresistible twitching in the gluteus maximus, and a perhaps deep sense of melancholy regret that he did not, at least, have the wisdom to select a seat closer to the aisle.

As far as I can determine, the audience for contemporary theater consists essentially of two groups. One is people whose taste buds have been sanded to the root by extensive indoctrination, old age, or both. Two is people whose friends are in the production. Civilians sometimes do blunder in, but they tend to realize their mistake and blunder out pretty quickly again.

In fact, there is a level of grant support that would allow theater to attract the "average citizens" whose attention you crave. But it would not be sufficient to reduce ticket prices to zero. You would have to actually pay people. I have no doubt that in the future this will be implemented.

So you are absolutely right that if subsidies disappeared, most or all of the theater world would disappear with it. The same could once be said of the Bulgarian auto industry, and for exactly the same reasons. The difference is that Bulgarian autoworkers are not so quick with your elegant explanations and probably wouldn't really fit in, however much you'd like them to, at your dinner parties.

But the common thread is that this has nothing to do, as you assert, with the proposition that cars should not be made in Bulgaria. I am sure Bulgaria is a wonderful place to build a car. It's just that it should be done in an entirely different way and by entirely different people. I can understand how you might have a bit of trouble with this conclusion.

I am not even going to respond to your "argument ad Hitlerum." It is unworthy of your expensive education, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Posted by: Mencius on October 28, 2006 2:25 PM

Why do I find this conversation so sadly familiar?

In corrupt Soviet mentality a theft from government is not considered a theft. It's "we", usually good, talanted, deserving people versus "them", a stupid entity without a face, who sits on money and distribute handouts.
And if you prove that recipients are criminal/corrupt/unworthy, you think it somehow puts you in the position to demand this piece of pie for yourself.
It's the ethics of a marauder: everyone and his uncle were looting the unattended store, what am I, a chopped liver? I deserve it more!

But what is somewhat understandable to see in a petty street criminal, is revolting in our supposedly intellectual elite, people who have the tenacity to "give moral lessons" from the stage or art installations or their books.

Posted by: Tat on October 28, 2006 4:14 PM

Curious, I hunted up a capsule description of Menicius, the Chinese follower of Confucius, who is thought to have lived from 371 to 289 BC. Just taking a stab in the dark but I suspect the primary, if not only, bit of wisdom from this ancient philosopher that interests his namesake here is his injunctions against taxation. Of course Menicius the Elder advised this in terms of his belief that the State should devote itself to the welfare of its people, not to profit. The passages I read would seem to indicate Menicius also advised strict environmental protection, regulation of industries, robust public education, redistribution of wealth to assure the well being of all and the elevation of wisdom and compassion over force to achieve the best results. Here's a nice Menicius epigram... "Goodness brings honor, but cruelty disgrace."

Without dwelling on the list of insulting and erroneous assumptions sprinkled through Menicius the Younger's posting, let me tackle a specific point or two. As to the makeup of theater audiences I can only speak for the ones I find in my New England backwater, not New York or San Francisco. We're going out to a local theater production tonight, in fact. [Full disclosure The Wife is a company member and the sound designer for this production.] I suspect there will be the usual mix of middle class, middle aged, white collar types, retirees, college students, and twenty or thirty something hipsters along with us family and friends. Maybe Steve will be there tonight. He's our auto body shop guy and a regular supporter of the theater company. Now, if all the "unearned income" from contributions and donations (they haven't applied for or received any grants so far this season) were removed from the equation the tickets would run about $100 - $150. Would our little city be better off if all subsidies ... including non-profit status and the ability to solicit charitable donations ... were withdrawn and only those willing and able to pay the full price were in tonight's audience? Not to say one couldn't orient a theater season toward satisfying the tastes of a handful of wealthy patrons, but is that desirable?

All systems have flaws. All bureaucracies have inefficiencies. We accept that there will be some waste in the procurement processes for the military but ask that those $700 toilet seats be investigated and corrected or justified in some way. Of course, we don't say let's close down the DOD because there is waste ...even graft and corruption ... in the system. Why then suggest eliminating the NEA because the odd grant gets in the hand of an artist deemed by some to be unworthy?

Posted by: Chris White on October 28, 2006 5:36 PM


A 5.7, from the Romanian judge, for intellectual curiosity. You're right - my views on law and government are actually more in line with Lao-tze and the Taoists. (Although they are still closer to Mencius and Confucius than our present regime, which does a pretty nice impression of Mohism.) I just don't want anyone to get the impression that I'm a butterfly dreaming about myself, or something.

Although your haughty tone misled me into assuming you were involved with the theater world proper, which considers anything that smacks of such amateurism a degradation of their essential artistic mission of epater les bourgeois, I think community theater is a perfectly fine and even wonderful thing. I have no idea where you got the idea that the "ability to solicit charitable donations" is some kind of Federally bestowed privilege. Nor does it sound like you'd have any distributions to tax regardless of status. You are just a bunch of people getting together to participate in a mutually enjoyable activity, it sure sounds to me like your books are balanced, and I wish you only the best.

I do hope Steve knows he's contributing to your proletarian credibility, however. Perhaps he should get free admission for the warm Christian fuzzies his presence seems to inspire.

In fact, there is nothing I would love more than to close down the Defense Department. Secretary Rumsfeld, are you listening? Despite the great effort involved, which so far appears to have dissuaded you from this onerous task, I would gladly sacrifice a few weeks of my life to be the man who gets to lock all 51,423 of the doors and turn off each of the 102,478 lights. But I fear I digress...

The point is that there are different kinds of bureaucracies. Sony, for example, is probably about as big as DoD. Its entertainment division has made some movies that I'd find almost as unpleasant to sit through as a Richard Foreman production. And I'm sure there are plenty of people at Sony whom one could only describe as bureaucrats.

But Sony does not represent itself as having a immortal mission to provide for the well-being of all mankind. It does not extract money or labor from its customers through corvee, tithe, or seignorage. It is not, in other words, a thinly-disguised church masquerading as a monopoly provider of essential services. It makes things that people want, or it disappears.

Its parasitic but small effect on the Federal budget is not, in fact, my primary beef with the NEA. My beef is that when the Church funds art, what you get is religious art. And religious art sucks.

Especially in theater. There is a lot of good religious painting. There are no good morality plays. "Socially relevant" theater is shite. If you want to "create change," buy a candy bar with a ten-dollar bill.

Shakespeare didn't give a rat's ass about "social justice." Or about the actual religious pieties of his own age. He was not an "artist" but an entertainer, and he wrote plays people wanted to see. He certainly had his patrons, but none of them were bureaucrats. (They barely had any bureaucrats back then, and most of the ones they did have spent their time on more important matters, like keeping the Catholics in line.)

For it is not patronage that corrupts. It is official patronage. Personal patronage requires no pretense of objectivity, no hypocritical cant about improving the world. Funding is as much a creative decision as writing, acting, or sound design, and it cannot and should not be done by a committee.

I'm at a loss as to how anyone who knows anything about the theater world can imagine that it was born in the 1930s with the rise of official art. In my reality - as Michael points out - theater, and all the other subsidized arts, have been declining pretty much steadily since that time. Kind of makes you think.

But don't take it from me. Take it from Tatyana. My English may be better - but she knows whereof she speaks.

Posted by: Mencius on October 28, 2006 9:21 PM

Chris White wrote:
It is interesting to note the reference to ADM and the notion (holy to free market true believers) that anything good will, due to the beautiful efficiency of the market, rise to the top and be amply rewarded while the "crap" will be ignored.

It's not that good art will automatically be rewarded. It's that govt bureaucracies have no incentive to subsidize it or to stop subsidizing crap. The incentive they face are entirely political: to subsidize powerful constituencies and to avoid offending other powerful constituencies. In a democratic society that means wealthy, politically connected groups (ADM or its equivalent in the arts world) are going to get the subsidies and people who offend the constituents of Jesse Helms are going to have difficulty getting subsidies. Why do you expect it to be any different?

Fans of subsidized art are always complaining of being censored by yahoos but they still want the yahoos' money. But they can't have it both ways: if they want the money they are going to have to accept the control. The typical subsidy-fan's response to all this is to insist that the yahoos don't know what's good for them and should shut up and let their money be taken for purposes that they despise. That approach will never work in the long run, because if there were enough arts fans to outvote the yahoos there would be no call for govt subsidies in the first place (does NASCAR need govt subsidies?). The wise govt response to such issues is to stay out of the arts business. Why should the rest of us be forced to pay for your hobby?

BTW, the comparison between arts bureaucracies and the Defense Department is ridiculous. While they are both bureaucracies their purposes are entirely different. The DOD exists because national defense is a fundamental govt function that can't be privatized, due to free-rider issues. The arts are not a fundamental govt function and there are no free-rider or other incentive issues that prevent the arts from functioning as a private industry, as they have done in many societies throughout history.

Most arguments for govt arts subsidies come down to complaints that the subsidy proponents' favorite arts causes aren't as popular as the proponents wish they were.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 29, 2006 8:09 AM

Mencius, that was a wrong move, mentioning my name. Now they'll stop even answering you; I have no credibility here.

Sorry about my English. Normally I'm more attentive to grammar and construction; I blame it on cold. Better go to the drugstore, or I'll disentigrate to the point of Brughton Beach' English.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 29, 2006 10:04 AM

You've got mondo credibility with me, Tat!

Posted by: Brian on October 29, 2006 12:15 PM


Whoops, I'm new here. Oh well.

I don't mean to offend on the English - I actually love the sound of a dropped article now and then. First, it makes you realize what a useless linguistic tic the silly things are. And second, I have come to associate it, a la madeleine, with the sound of actual perspective.

The historical chauvinism (as historians say, "presentism") of the Western progressive-intellectual caste is appalling. For the first time ever they have discovered the final secret of enlightened government. They don't have religion, they have "ethics."

It is possible that someone in the past may have had some ideas on these subjects. If we examine these archaic thinkers by modern ethical standards, though, we always find that they harbored unclean thoughts. So we can study them, in a careful, scientific manner. But taking their ideas seriously, or restating them in modern language, would get you kicked out of any school.

For example, it would be obvious to William Graham Sumner that all the 20th-century egalitarianist regimes shared in far more than they differed. The idea that there is some deep moral and spiritual difference between Rooseveltism and Brezhnevism, besides the fact that the first managed to coordinate its intellectuals without resorting to beatings on the soles of the feet or continuing education centers in Alaska, would strike Sumner as ridiculous. But explaining this to the average educated American of 2006 is an almost impossible task.

To most of the Soviet emigres I've met, however, the comparison is just as obvious and unremarkable as it would have been to Sumner. So three cheers for dropped articles.

Posted by: Mencius on October 29, 2006 12:37 PM


"I think community theater is a perfectly fine and even wonderful thing. I have no idea where you got the idea that the "ability to solicit charitable donations" is some kind of Federally bestowed privilege."

While I also think community theater is a fine and wonderful thing, the actors I saw working their craft last night clearly note they are a professional theater company not a community theater, although in our modest theater scene the membrane separating professional from community theater is relatively porous. The IRS has plenty of rules, regulations, and accounting requirements pertaining to soliciting charitable donations. Absent a Federally bestowed 501 C-3 a failing hardware store might suddenly claim to be a museum with a giant assemblage art installation or a cash strapped coffee shop assert they're an intimate theater of the absurd and solicit charitable contributions. Hmmm, maybe that's what those tip jars are.

"I'm at a loss as to how anyone who knows anything about the theater world can imagine that it was born in the 1930s with the rise of official art. In my reality - as Michael points out - theater, and all the other subsidized arts, have been declining pretty much steadily since that time."

Where did anything I've posted even hint that I think only post WPA "official" art or theater is real or legitimate? This is most certainly not true. It does however appear that we can move the timeline fifty years forward in terms of the art that goes on the bonfire.


I went back and read your 2003 Art Litany and had a good chuckle. Stereotypes always contain enough truth to make them both seemingly true and yet problematic. As an artsy type you can count me as pro-organic food and anti-SUV ... although, three years later with Wal Mart increasing their organic offerings and high petroleum prices, these are now apparently more mainstream positions. I also trust NPR more than FOX, but don't deify Daniel Schorr.

I toyed with making some other Litanies ...

Republican Businessman Litany

Prime rib and potatoes are food, quiche is not
Golf is an extension of work
A big luxury car telegraphs intelligence, masculinity and success ... And I deserve it.
FOX is the voice of God
Commercial pressure is by its nature a good thing
Self-expression is by its nature a bad thing
All children are creative; all creativity is childlike therefore, as an adult I reject creativity as childish
Writers are writers because they are lazier than the rest of us
Nuclear power
Nuke Iran (or North Korea)
Capitalism and white men hold the answers to all the world's problems

The Art Litany thread made clear that the stereotypes being applied to artists and the arts begin with the equation artsy=lefty. This may be the heart of the issue. If artsy types are getting funded via the NEA, then leftists are being funded by MY TAX DOLLARS and that is something to protest.


I don't believe I ever indicated that I don't understand the way the grant system works in the real world of powerful constituencies. Nevertheless, I'd still rather see some of MY tax dollars funding art, even institutional, bureaucratic friendly, art rather than, say, no bid contracts to Haliburton as we begin to privatize the military or baling out Chrysler or ...

Oddly enough, I'm not overly interested in heavily subsidizing any of the arts. I have no problem with the hand of the free market in the arts. Still, I like that my local museum is open free of charge one evening each week due to charitable support (I'm not sure whether it's a corporate donor or a government grant program). I like knowing there is a subsidized theater program for "at risk" girls in town.

But certainly any NASCAR race is a truer, higher, expression of American Culture than a subsidized performance at the Eugene O'Neill Theater or by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Well, enough for now. I'm gonna go eat a bowl of brown rice and seaweed before putting on my beret, then (without shaving or bathing or changing out of my fouled, torn, jeans) I'm going to cash my grant check and head to the coffee shop to denigrate the President and otherwise bite the hand that feeds me. [Given the frequent inability of some posters here to recognize it as such, this is my perhaps feeble stab at humor. I prefer carrots and broccoli with my brown rice, never wore a beret, am clean-shaven, showered and deodorized and have never sought nor received any grants. I might, however, still go to the coffee shop and denigrate the President ... or NASCAR.]

Posted by: Chris White on October 29, 2006 1:39 PM

Awww, you've got credibility with me, Tat. ;^)

No government funding for you! Van Gogh!!

Posted by: ricpic on October 29, 2006 4:51 PM

Ah yes, a professional theater company. Wouldn't want anyone to lose caste here.

Alhough since the word "professional" in the theater context obviously doesn't have its usual meaning, "of or pertaining to a commercial enterprise," I admit I've never really known exactly what the line is between community and "professional" theater. I suppose it's like the difference between off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. If you gotta ask...

But perhaps we could try the word "official" on for size. It fits a little oddly at first, but after a while, it's quite nice. In the future, we will all be part of the civil service. Haven't you read your Bellamy?

Whether you're at a nonprofit or NGO, an employee of a public company with a strong mission of corporate responsibility, or are simply an artist with a vision of social justice, it's all the same. Meet the new Industrial Army - not all that different from the old one.

And curiously enough, it seems to be popular with exactly the same regional and cultural caste. Ah, the Boston Brahmins. Our old Pilgrims just can't stop Progressing.

No - I am well aware that charity, like so much else, is subject to Washington's little rubber stamp. I'm glad you believe that this, too, is for the best, in this the best of all possible worlds.

The first line of your post implied that opposing subsidies for artists meant an "antipathy" toward them. Since such subsidies did not exist prior to the 1930s, therefore, it follows that people at large opposed them. Thus theater as well as so many other arts must have existed in this harsh climate of hate. You seem to wonder how they could have even survived.

I urge you to investigate this mysterious phenomenon. You might even turn up something that, unlike the deluge of turgid ideological crap that postwar progressivism has subjected us to, is actually fun to watch. Whether or not anyone you know is in the cast or crew.

Now excuse me. I have some books to go burn. Then I think I'll paint a landscape with some healthy peasants and heroes, and maybe a swastika-shaped eagle in the clouds. Now there's another nice parallel between the NPR Brahmins and the late Soviet nomenklatura - both excel at extracting every possible mile from having beaten the Nazis. "... and thrice he slew the slain."

Posted by: Mencius on October 29, 2006 5:47 PM

I hate to make a serious point lest I spoil my snarky tone, but it's worth noting a difference between Chris's pseudo-Republican litany and Michael's original arts litany.

This is that Chris doesn't make much of an effort to convince us that he doesn't follow Michael's litany. Whereas I would be really, really surprised if Michael believes any of Chris's points. I wonder if Chris thinks he does.

There actually was an actual world in which the State subsidized and glorified petit-bourgeois art. It was called Nazi Germany. It really did give us paintings of peasants and heroes and eagles. I am sure that anyone reading this would prefer an arbitrary selection of NEA-funded art to one of Nazi art.

The US art world is actually quite lucky that its rapidly evaporating petit-bourgeois culture is either Philistine, intellectually insecure, or both. It is a fun exercise for the reader both democratic and Democratic to muse on why, exactly, the NEA isn't funding Thomas Kinkade. Granted, he may not need it. But he could certainly find a use for it.

Andres Serrano (am I the only one here who actually liked "Piss Christ?") is nowhere near the worst possible outcome of this frightening marriage of bureaucrat and artist.

Posted by: Mencius on October 29, 2006 9:19 PM


The problem is that I don't want my tax dollars to fund arts projects OR Chrysler (I'm agnostic re Halliburton's contracts until I get more info). But we don't get to pick and choose which subsidies we will each individually pay for; if we're lucky, at best we get to vote up or down on which categories of subsidies all of us will be forced to underwrite: arts yes/NASCAR no, or vice versa, or both or whatever. How can you defend morally your favored arts subsidies when other voters oppose them? I think the best that we can do as citizens and voters is to reject all subsidies: artistic, corporate, agricultural, small business, everything.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 29, 2006 10:05 PM

Having lived in Canada for a couple of years and having pointed out to some of the more enthusiastic countercultural groups funded by the government there that if they really got to the point where they approached effectiveness, the government -- who naturally would know everything they were doing from reading their grant applications-- could simply end their funding, and having actually seen that happen... well, I believe the argument that dependence leads to censorship. He who pays the piper and all that. It's just as true for health care systems.

And I do think that trusting Big Box Store Aesthetics leads to Kinkade (who is currently answering to law enforcement for too enthusiastically making a profit).

But I think all this is quite irrelevant to the real question of what makes worthwhile art. Good art results from having something worth saying and when people start arguments about funding, it means that's what they're thinking about. Not "worth" in the sense of eternal verities, but "worth" as in being really tired of being broke. Focus, passion, dedication, eloquence, skill and so on can break through ALL these ways of funding.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 29, 2006 10:32 PM

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