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March 25, 2009

Bill Kauffman on Arts Subsidies

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Radical reactionary Bill Kauffman is against governmental arts subsidies -- for the good of the arts.

I'm with him on that. Look at it this way: If you support the NEA, don't you need to convince us that American culture has been better since the NEA began than it was in the pre-NEA era? In other words, don't you need to argue that the NEA has actually accomplished something worthwhile?

Quick reminder: Without any help from the NEA, the U.S. somehow came up with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Julia Morgan, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, James Thurber, Dashiell Hammett, Mad magazine, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Howard Hawks, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Teagarden, John Philip Sousa, Chuck Berry, Bugs Bunny, Ma Rainey, Stephen Foster, Jackie Wilson, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Henry Miller, Cass Gilbert, Bessie Smith, Ruth Draper, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Thanks to the NEA's efforts, we can brag of ... Any takers?

Start reading our week-long interview with Bill Kauffman here and here. Bill and some fellow class-act cranks (Caleb Stegall, Russell Arben Fox, others) are now blogging here.

Bonus links:

  • Bill Kauffman writes a beautiful short appreciation of the eco-anarchist, novelist, essayist, and legend Edward Abbey. I'm a huge Edward Abbey fan myself. Start with "Desert Solitaire."
  • I enjoyed Stewart Lundy's musings about art, conservatism, and grace.
  • Allan Carlson, one of Kauffman's conspirators at Front Porch Republic, has written a solid essay about Wilhelm Ropke, my favorite economist. Read it here.
  • Back here I wrote about what a glorious mess American culture is.



posted by Michael at March 25, 2009


In 1990 Bill wrote "Subsidies to the Arts: Cultivating Mediocrity":

Posted by: Dave Lull on March 26, 2009 12:33 AM

Writer who received NEA grant: Jonathan Franzen

(read the whole thing; it's a hilarious show of jackassery on Franzen's part)

Posted by: James on March 26, 2009 1:32 AM

Someone inevitably counters with a list of great works funded with state sponsorship. When that happens, look closely at that list. In most of those cases, the "state" was a monarchy.

A monarchy is always two things: the state, and a rich family. I submit that the latter is responsible for encouraging any greatness in the arts. Indeed, our own Rockefellers built their handsome Center privately, while the next generation used the state to spawn the World Trade Center as well as the World's Ugliest Skyline in Albany.

So for great art, cut taxes on the rich-- at least, the rich with taste!

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 26, 2009 3:08 AM

"Look at it this way: If you support the NEA, don't you need to convince us that American culture has been better since the NEA began than it was in the pre-NEA era?"

Isn't that a rhetorical question?

The NEA is to the politically-connected arts elite what NASA is to sci-fi fanboys with Phds in astrophysics at JPL.

Because both have budgets that are miniscule compared to the ever exploding overall budget, they linger along, impossible to kill.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 26, 2009 3:33 AM

Another snarky-but-solid piece from the eloquent Elban. But the parallel of Chuck Berry and Tin Pan Alley is a weak point.

TPA and its Hollywood offshoot produced lots of classic tunes by one- (or two-) hit wonders like Ben Oakland, Einar Swan, Bernice Petkere, Allie Wrubel, Leigh Harline and Bart Howard. (Not to mention Daniel Decatur Emmett!) Berry was also a one-hit wonder. But he wrote that hit over and over and sold millions to tin-eared war babies. (Now, Roger Miller...)

I looked into the origins of our Golden Age pop composers. After New York City, the most productive places were Indiana, and BK's (and Michael's and my) own upstate New York. Indiana gave us Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry and Albert von Tilzer, James F Hanley and Theodore Dreiser's brother Paul Dresser. Upstate-bred were Harold Arlen, Ray Henderson, Jimmy van Heusen and (for some of his youth) Sammy Fain. Oh, and another one-hit wonder, Alec Wilder, who wrote the definitive book on 20th-century songwriting.

Sinatra sang a lot of Arlen, and befriended van Heusen and Wilder, so he had a penchant for appleknockers that Kauffman should appreciate.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 26, 2009 3:58 AM

The amount for the NEA in the stimulus package is $50M; its total annual budget is $145M. Bailout tax dollars going into A.I.G. bonus packages are $165M. Many have already noted that the A.I.G. bonus flap diverts attention from the big picture to a symbolic sideshow over a veritable "drop-in-the-bucket" in the bailout package.

It used to be a clear sign that Jesse Helms was attempting to boost his campaign war chest when there was a flurry of anti-NEA publicity. Some NEA dollars would be tied to a work of art deemed unworthy, or unpatriotic, or irreligious and Jesse would spring into action as a fiscal conservative and defender of morality and patriotism ... if only folks would contribute to keep him and his allies in office. So my first question when I see this topic raised is; what is the REAL reason behind THIS attack on the NEA?

If it is going to be debated here perhaps it would be useful to look at a broad cross section of the grants actually conferred rather than tossing out an anecdotal grant or two meant to serve a particular and negative view of the NEA.


The primary role of the NEA is to enable access to the arts for citizens, not to pay artists to create.

Posted by: Chris White on March 26, 2009 8:28 AM

If there's one art that can't possibly "need" subsidy, it's writing. People who must write do write. Like diarrhoea it flows, unstopably.

Posted by: dearieme on March 26, 2009 8:52 AM

It's a bit silly to judge the efficacy of the NEA on whether it's cherrypicked any geniuses of the Scott Fitzgerald ilk. That's not its remit.

You're something of a French film buff, aren't you? Well, the French film industry owes its very existence to subsidy. If it weren't for massive tax-generated support, it would have collapsed years ago, just like in Italy and Germany, which only make a handful of films a year.

Posted by: Susan on March 26, 2009 9:26 AM

If you had told me that a post about the NEA, good or bad, would have been turned into a "Wasn't Jesse Helms and all of those other Mouth Breathers that supported him bad Americans" comment, I would not have believed you. But, Chris pulled it off.


Posted by: Usually Lurking on March 26, 2009 9:34 AM

Susan, that is a specious argument. For instance, if the NEA had its budget massively increased during the 60s and 70s and then invested in movies and we got to see The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde, etc., then, we could point to those movies as evidence. But, we would never have known that those movies would have been made anyway.

Or, to put it another way: which places have done the best in the past? Those that had the most government involvement like those Communist and Socialist nations or the ones that had the least involvement like many places in the West?

Lastly, I believe that the most common answer to "what has the NEA produced?" is: Woody Guthrie.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on March 26, 2009 9:42 AM

Something went wrong with my link. Here is the URL:

Hopefully a few will check the listing of actual NEA grants rather than simply cherry picking the most controversial &/or silly grants from partisan sources and using them to condemn the entire enterprise. A few clicks and you should be able to see what NEA grant monies reached your own state or aesthetic areas of interest.

To the amazed Usually Lurking - To ignore the partisan political aspect in any National Endowment for the Arts: Good or Bad? discussion is to ignore the very point behind the discussion.

The primary mission of the NEA is to make the arts more widely available to a greater portion of the public, not to fund works of artistic genius per se. To offer that as a metric for judging the NEA is already suspect. And someone living in Manhattan (Michael Blowhard for instance) may well see little need or logic behind the NEA since he can find art of all types and genres within a few blocks, but things look a little different in the hinterlands.

It is much like attacking earmark legislation. Earmarks in the abstract are easily seen as terrible ... unless the funds target something worthwhile in your state or community. Pulled out of context and simplified most earmarks can be made to seem like more "Bridges to Nowhere" than positive investments in infrastructure or community building or job retention. And yet, every legislator is in part judged by voters by how well they succeed at bringing home a share of tax dollars to their district, in short, by whether they've successfully earmarked local projects for federal funding support.

The NEA is a similar situation. Given a high profile "Piss Christ" it is easy to toss out lots of babies along with a bit of urine tainted bathwater.

Posted by: Chris White on March 26, 2009 10:23 AM

Chris -- I notice that you declined to take up the central challenge here: Has the NEA been, on balance, good for the American culture scene or bad? Forgive me for suspecting that the reason is that you can't make that case. Not your fault: I've never seen anyone convincingly argue that the American culture scene since the mid-'60s has been better/livelier/etc than it was prior to the mid-'60s. (Neoconceptualism? Degrees in "public art"?) As for the size of the NEA's budget ... It doesn't take much arsenic to have an impact on a person's health.

Susan -- France is an interesting place that goes about its business in interesting ways. The applicability of any of this to the U.S., though, seems to me to be minor. Our scene isn't like theirs; our culture isn't like theirs; our people have different preferences and tastes than theirs do. For example: French culture is massively topdown and centralized; most French people expect government to take care of a lot of life for them. (There are loads of interesting rumblings beneath the surface, but ignoring those ...) Many Americans have a different take on what government should be up to, and America is, in any case, a much much bigger, more zanily looped-together, and messier organism than France is. You may also be underestimating how much resentment there is in France of those who get special privileges. So far as film goes, for instance: Why did person X become a member of the official French-government-sponsored filmmaking inner circle and person Y didn't? You can trust me when I say that person Y has some gripes about this state of affairs. Anyway, in the U.S., the general effect of government sponsorship of the arts hasn't been to lead to a livelier arts scene, it has been to hand loads of control over the arts to administrators, bureaucrats, academics, and panelists. Chris I guess might argue that money spent on "accessibility to the arts" has been a good thing. I'd wonder whether it was really such a pain in the past for people to access the arts. Pulp magazines were a nickle, movies a quarter, and even high-end art galleries were free. How on earth would a tax-supported bureaucrat inserting himself between me and that movie, that pulp magazine, and that art gallery ever make art more "accessible" than it was before he put himself there?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 26, 2009 10:26 AM

Lastly, I believe that the most common answer to "what has the NEA produced?" is: Woody Guthrie.

Could you explain that comment? The NEA was created in 1965. Guthrie died in 1967, having spent the final 11 years of his life in a series of hospitals due to severe neurological problems.

Is there a witticism or some sarcasm there that I'm missing?

Posted by: Bill on March 26, 2009 10:54 AM

To ignore the partisan political aspect in any National Endowment for the Arts discussion is an honest attempt at answering the actual question that was asked.

Do we need to the NEA? No.

The primary mission of the NEA is to serve the wants and needs of those most interested in it. Just as School Boards are there not to serve the interests of those most interested in controlling the School Boards, and not those of the students and parents.

The NEA is a similar situation. Given a high profile "Piss Christ" it is easy to toss out lots of babies along with a bit of urine tainted bathwater.

Except that there have not been that many cute babies. And we still have not discerned that we would not have gotten those babies otherwise.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on March 26, 2009 11:15 AM


My bad. I was thinking of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on March 26, 2009 11:19 AM

Is there a reason why my link to the NEA report on grants keeps ending up missing? Here it is for a third time.

And I argue that yes, the NEA has on whole been good for the US and good for art. Where it pays off is by enabling many local and regional arts providers and institutions the ability to make art and culture more readily and inexpensively available to a broader public. The counter argument boils down to, "Let the elite have art, they're the ones that can afford it." I've seen hundreds of people of all ages, ethnicities, and economic strata enjoy Shakespeare in the park due to arts funding. As I've seen many kids able to take workshops and classes in dance, then perform for thousands due to arts funding. These may be difficult to quantify goods, but they are goods nonetheless. Were all the museums, theaters, symphonies, ballet companies, etc. in the country suddenly required to cover all their expenses with admission fees what do you think those fees would be? $75-100 might work, assuming admissions would not drop. As the number of visitors drop, in order to maintain par the admission prices would keep climbing. Forget school matinees, forget free admission nights.

As is always the case with funding sources, public or private, those who do not get a share are quick to dismiss the entire enterprise as flawed. The painter who doesn't get a grant will fault everyone involved as being a batch of self-serving administrators, bureaucrats, academics, and panelists.

This isn't about the arts, it is about a perception that arts funding somehow favors the political left. Just as improperly supervised defense contracts favor the right.

Posted by: Chris White on March 26, 2009 11:51 AM

I'd say on balance the NEA has been quite good for the American cultural scene, at least in regions that never had much of a cultural scene--particularly given how small its budget is. I remember several impressive visits by the Omaha Symphony and "big city" theater troupes to the wilds of rural Nebraska in my youth that were at least partially funded by the NEA through the Nebraska Arts Council. Not many high-end art galleries out there, as I recall. Sure, there were impressive local artists, but the visiting groups did give us a sense of larger possibilities. Chris White and Susan are right to say that programs like that are the NEA's real mission.

As I grew older, I came to know a few of those "tax-supported bureaucrats" on the Nebraska Arts Council. Man, they were livin' large on the public dime, I can tell you! Well, no, most were retired or had day jobs, and all their government funding went into yes, making art more accessible, like paying for transportation costs to haul instruments or renting space for performances or installations. Pretty humdrum--but it wouldn't have happened without at least some government dollars supplementing the limited private funding available. And it's still that way today in a lot of places.

Posted by: Steve W on March 26, 2009 11:58 AM

To look at this from a different angle, approaching this topic from a strong libertarian perspective, then support for the arts makes no sense. So, too, government support for science, agriculture, space exploration, and nearly all of the many diverse areas our tax dollars support today would also no longer make sense. If you put the specific case of arts funding into a broad discussion of the proper limits of what endeavors tax dollars should support, I might be convinced.

But if we are just limiting this discussion to whether or not the NEA has operated successfully to fulfill its mission then I would argue that it has done a great job, especially given the modest amount of dollars that pass through it. Tossing out lists of great pre-NEA era artists or examples of fatuous artspeak like Neoconceptualism don't offer a serious case against supporting the arts.

Posted by: Chris White on March 26, 2009 1:00 PM

My top three reasons to hate government aid to the arts: 1) it is theft, 2) it is regressively redistributive (from relatively poor to relatively rich) and 3) it distorts the history of the arts by supporting artists who for one reason or another suit representatives of the state.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on March 26, 2009 1:28 PM

Well, Chris, government funding for science got us the atom bomb, the internet, and transonic flight. Goverment funding for agriculture has created a mess, so I'm rather surprised that you mention that, but at any rate the U.S. certainly does produce a lot of food. And Government funding for space exploration got us to the moon.

Care to name any accomplishments of the NEA that are remotely comparable?

And actually, "Tossing out lists of great pre-NEA era artists" IS a valid criticism of the NEA, because it proves that government funding is not necessary for great art, and that puts the onus of proving that it is necessary in the court of those who advocate it. If this isn't a valid criticism of the NEA, would you please give us an example of what a valid criticism would consist of?

I'm certainly no libertarian, and I don't usually have a lot of use for Bill Kauffman, but he's right on here...

Posted by: Tschafer on March 26, 2009 1:31 PM

So, too, government support for science, agriculture, space exploration, and nearly all of the many diverse areas our tax dollars support today would also no longer make sense.

Chris, many people agree with that statement. Many feel that NASA, at least today, is an almost complete waste of money.

More specifically, on agriculture and food, the gov'ts effect on our land and health has been a really mixed bag. Personally, I think that the FDA and USDA have had a real negative effect.

The WSJ a few years ago had a great article on the process of getting NIH research grants. The conclusion was that the Universities (and other organizations) that got the grants got them because they were the best at understand how to get NIH grants.

IOW, don't worry about what you learn, just give the teacher what she is looking for.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on March 26, 2009 1:31 PM

A friend of mine who has a degree in sculpture knows some of the local arts administrators; he went to school with them. He had challenged one of them to defend the local public art (which could keep Eyesore of the Month stocked indefinitely). Her response was incredibly revealing: "If we don't have public art in Phoenix, back east they'll think we're barbarins!"

One of the comments above referred to monarchs funding art. I think the purpose of the NEA and similar organizations is the same: to glorify the current regime and give it a gloss of culture, class and legitimacy. How they intend to accomplish this by producing heaps of laughable dreck is beyond me.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on March 26, 2009 1:37 PM

Chris -- I admire your willingness to stop by this blog and play village leftie. Round of applause from everyone for this, please. But if you want to have a chat about the worthiness or non-worthiness of the NEA, can I suggest you volunteer just a wee bit of evidence or substantiation for your claims? Just offering "I am the authority" assertions ("I would argue that it has done a great job" -- thank you Harold Bloom) and labeling your opponent's points as "fatuous" isn't much of a contribution.

Steve -- I'm not sure who you're arguing with, but it isn't Bill Kauffman or me. Bill makes the point in his piece that the NEA people he served with were nice; I've known people who've been on NEA boards and they were OK too. Anyway, I assume you're aware that even people in the wilds of deepest Nebraska can buy, for a reasonable price, classical CDs from Amazon and other places? That anyone with broadband can access thousands of videos of historic classical-music performances on YouTube? And that such world-recognized American art forms as the movies, hardboiled fiction, jazz, and rock and roll came about without so much as a dime of help from the NEA? The NEA has been around for over 40 years. In what ways is our cultural life better off for it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 26, 2009 1:39 PM

Yeah, Nebraskans can buy CDs, and YouTube is great and all--but surely you've attended a live performance or two in your life Michael, and realize that there's a difference between that and streaming video? One of the things the NEA funds is for artists to come to schools and communities and perform and interact with the audience. Fairly worthwhile, I'd say. Maybe even changed a few lives. Is "Has it birthed a new art form?" really the only standard by which we should judge it?

Posted by: Steve on March 26, 2009 2:16 PM

Michael - Go ahead, don't spare my feelings; if you want to call me the Blowhard village idiot go right ahead. However, I've got my own list of possible candidates for that post as well.

So, having twice seen my link to the full list of NEA grants dropped before finally having one appear that works, it is obvious that you don't consider the full listing of actual grants awarded, many of which I would argue in favor of, a "wee bit of evidence". Why not?

Did you or anyone bother to actually use the link or explore some of the grants if you did? You should. I'm sure you'll find some listed there that will sound sufficiently ludicrous that you can use them to make your point that the NEA grants some lame-brained stuff.

And please review my use of the adjective "fatuous". It describes artspeak neologisms (e.g. Neoconceptualism) not "my opponent's points" ... unless my opponent's point is that the NEA cannot be defended because individuals in the arts who have in some way benefited from its funding come up with preposterous neologisms. That would indeed be a fatuous argument.

Is a CD the same thing as a live symphony performance? Haven't NEA funds helped support music and film festivals in areas not blessed with numerous music venues and art house theaters like Manhattan, thus seeing that NEA dime fall into the pockets of jazz and rock musicians and indie movie makers?

Of course, if you're living in a town of 12,000 somewhere outside a major metro area, say between Utica and Buffalo, aren't a DSL connection and YouTube all you need in the way of access to art and culture?

Posted by: Chris White on March 26, 2009 2:39 PM

Steve, I remember reading somewhere that during the Frontier days of the 1800s, traveling Shakespeare groups, and others, would travel to places like Montana and North Dakota.

And, lets not forget, that with the absence of "traditional" culture that might have been going in places like NYC and Boston, the people in the hinterlands starting creating some art of their own, like Country and Western music. Had they had a truly benevolent gov't cramming Mozart down it's throat, who knows what "organic" creations we would have missed.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on March 26, 2009 3:00 PM

"Of course, if you're living in a town of 12,000 somewhere outside a major metro area, say between Utica and Buffalo, aren't a DSL connection and YouTube all you need in the way of access to art and culture?"

Why not? It may not be "all you need" but it sure as hell can bring you lots and lots of art and culture. But if that isn't enough, and if you live between Utica and Buffalo, maybe say in Rochester or Syracuse, there are actually some places where there is quite a bit of culture/ art and even people studying said art and culture. These places are called colleges or universities. One school is called Syracuse University, located in Syracuse, NY. They have an art museum. Wow! Free art!

Another school called the University of Rochester, located in you guessed it, Rochester, NY has concerts. Many are free! Free music!

Now I can't speak for the rest of the country, but I'm willing to bet that at least a few other states, even in hick places like Ohio, Nebraska or even Texas and Oklahoma have some colleges and universities. Some of these schools may even have art galleries and give concerts. You should check it out, but leave your wallet and DSL connection at home!

Posted by: Free Art/Culture on March 26, 2009 4:02 PM

Free Art/Culture – In pointing to public institutions enabling people in these areas to have a rich and vibrant arts and cultural life, you make my point for me. I used your link to the Univ. of Rochester music programs and hit the first event link I saw. At the end of the press release was the "supported in part by a grant from Meet the Composer" tag.

Now, I might complain that NYC takes an excessive share of the NY total due to the politics and in-group biases inherent in any system. That said, I continue to believe the NEA is a net good rather than a waste of tax dollars.

Here is a quick cut & paste of 2008 NEA grants for Syracuse, NY. I only copied the full capsule description of the specific program funded for the first one as an example. Use the link to the NEA grants I gave above to find more details or check out your own state or region.

Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, Inc.
Syracuse, NY
CATEGORY: Access to Artistic Excellence FIELD/DISCIPLINE: Music
To support a concert tour to New York's North Country. The orchestra, under the direction of Music Director Daniel Hege, will perform concerts in rural and underserved communities.

More Syracuse grants:

Light Work Visual Studies, Inc. $35,000: Visual Arts

Society for New Music $10,000: Music

Syracuse Stage $10,000: Theater

Syracuse Children's Chorus $7,500: Music

Syracuse Opera Company, Inc. $10,000: Opera

Hey, where are the feces and urine, the PoMo hipsters laughing all the way to the bank?

Posted by: Chris White on March 26, 2009 7:00 PM

The last thing I want is for the government to run the arts. This isn't the Soviet Union or Communist China--yet. The idea that the state should somehow run the show and determine what is good or bad art is appalling. Leave the people alone and stop stealing their money.

Posted by: BTM on March 26, 2009 7:13 PM

A lot of NEA money goes towards arts and music education for kids, bringing artists and musicians into schools to perform and teach. I think that is highly valuable, and I would think many here who often trumpet about tradition and civilization would think it important as well.

Posted by: JV on March 26, 2009 8:05 PM

"He who takes the King's shilling does the King's bidding."

Reason enough to oppose government funding of the arts, I believe.

Posted by: Kudzu Bob on March 26, 2009 8:24 PM

Sorry, OT, but is Friedrich von Blowhard going to comment on Timonthy Geithner's PPIP?

Posted by: as on March 26, 2009 10:36 PM

"government funding for science got us the atom bomb, the internet, and transonic flight": I don't know much about the history of the internet, but that staement is true for the other two. Of course the early crucial expenditure was by the German and British governments, not the American.

Anyhow - most current art is just such crap that we're mad to subsidise it; indeed, the subsidies may partly explain the crappiness.

Posted by: dearieme on March 27, 2009 9:40 AM

Thanks Chris, for that list, and bringing some welcome reality to this discussion.

Posted by: Steve on March 27, 2009 12:39 PM

Isn't everyone straying a bit from the point? Whether or not good "art" has come from people sponsored by the NEA is irrelevant. The fact that the U.S. government subsidizes any art is reprehensible. The taxpayers are forced to subsidize something we might not like or agree with. The fact that some Shakespeare in the park gets to perform in some small town or that a Mozart symphony is heard in a civic center in the middle of Texas somewhere is not a valid argument. You are implicitly stating that that is a worthwhile endeavor. What if I think Shakespeare sucks or that Mozart is overrated? What is wrong with thinking that Andres Serrano is a moron or that Robert Mapplethorpe is offensive and obscene? I am not stating that those are my opinions, merely that they are some people's opinions and are valid. But they are effectively told that they are wrong for thinking that and/or called philistines, narrow-minded, etc., etc., and get money taken from them anyway to support something they don't like.

It is creepy to think that Americans would debate the worthiness of one type of thinking over another and state that one type of thinking should be subsidised over all others. That somehow doesn't seem very American, does it? To people who state that these artists wouldn't have income if it weren't for government money, I say, "Too bad! Get a job!" I don't think it's my job to support some painter or writer or film director unless I choose to, not because I'm forced to do it.

Posted by: Daniel on March 27, 2009 3:15 PM

The list is irrelevant. The topic was not "does the NEA do any good at all?", but "show us the great work that's come out of it".

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on March 27, 2009 4:55 PM


Local schools an parents used to fund the arts and arts education for schoolkids. What, exactly, is the wisdom of taxing these parents and giving them back 30 cents on the dollar to do the same through a central authority?

Posted by: BTM on March 27, 2009 5:31 PM

So far none of the defenders of the NEA have defended the 'N' part.

Even if state support for the arts were necessary or desirable, in this country you still have the onus to explain why it has to come from the Feds. It seems like the arts, like education, and unlike space travel, would be in the sphere of the states and even more so their subdivisions. "National" arts agencies are better suited in unitary monarchies, not federal republics.

As far as state art sponsorship goes, absolute monarchies have a hell of a lot better track record than any other form of government.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 28, 2009 3:13 AM

Daniel - Funny thing about large countries and democracy; you will find that there are people who don’t like, want, or believe in virtually anything the government (i.e. our elected representatives and the staff of various agencies set up and funded by same) does. You could not find unanimity about space exploration, wilderness protection, or driliing for oil on public lands. To state that if some people don’t like some of the art that the NEA funds is a reason not to fund it fundamentally misunderstands the entire nature of our form of government.

And since no one has said anything even remotely like ” these artists wouldn't have income if it weren't for government money” I really wonder whether you understand what the NEA does.

Todd Fletcher - Setting up the question in a way that misrepresents the very nature of the NEA and its mission in order to argue against the NEA may be a nifty debating slight of hand but failure to take the bait isn’t irrelevant.

Posted by: Chris White on March 28, 2009 7:58 AM

"Local schools an parents used to fund the arts and arts education for schoolkids. "

We still do that, in the form of music and arts classes in the curriculum, many of which are being cut left and right recently. Local and state taxes pay for that. NEA funds come from the Fed, so you're against federal funds paying for that?

Posted by: JV on March 28, 2009 2:42 PM

Well, I was getting ready to comment, but I see that C. White has already made all the points I would have.

Michael B., you're misunderstanding the NEA's purview if you think its purpose is to nurture 'great art'.

Posted by: David Fleck on March 28, 2009 3:10 PM

David -- Actually, what I was asking was, "Can anyone argue that American culture since the establishment of the NEA has been better than it was prior to the establishment of the NEA?"

I think the "it's better now than it was before" case is a really hard one to make, and I note that none of the NEA defenders in this commentsthread took me up on it. Given that the NEA is meant to foster, preserve, and cultivate the arts in our country, it seems to me like it has failed in its main mission, which is to aid America's artslife.

Look at it this way: What if, in 1965, you put in place an anti-poverty program ... then 40 years later looked around you to check out the results and said, "Whoa, poverty is actually worse now than it was before we started our anti-poverty program!"

Certainly one conclusion you might at least entertain is that the program has failed. Another is that perhaps the program itself contributed to the rising poverty numbers. Another is that things would have gotten even worse without the program's efforts, of course. But on what basis can anyone argue that the American arts were in crisis in 1965, let alone needed rescuing?

If the arts aren't better-off now than they were before the NEA was created, how exactly to defend its existence?

Now, the NEA has been very good for the arts-administrator class, admittedly. We've got 'way more in the way of arts bureaucracies than we used to have ...

Related: Has the General Services Administration's sponsorship of edgy architecture really left the country aesthetically better off?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 28, 2009 11:19 PM

"Can anyone argue that American culture since the establishment of the NEA has been better than it was prior to the establishment of the NEA"

I think the reason people aren't defending it is because "making the culture better", whatever that means, isn't and never has been the NEA's specific purpose. That's sort of like saying the CDC is useless because people still get sick.

The NEA thinks its purpose is "supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education." I think the place where your criticism hits the mark is #1; I'm not going to argue that there's been a whole lot of new creative excellence fostered. But that's only one out of three goals. I know a lot of the performing arts out here in the sticks would have unaffordably high ticket prices without NEA subsidy, and that art and cultural education programs in our schools are, indeed, partly funded by NEA grants.

Taking the NEA at its own word, then, I'd argue that it is successfully performing at least 2 of its three main goals. It is also funneling lots of money into a bi-coastal arts administrative class, as you and Kauffman note.

If you think the goal of the NEA should be to "make culture better", then no, it has not noticeably done that. If you think the federal government shouldn't be in the business of handing out art grants at all, then the only legitimate goal for the NEA is to cease operations.

Posted by: David Fleck on March 29, 2009 8:58 AM

Michael – Continually ignoring those points that do not jibe with your own (Manhattan-centric) view hardly mean you've convinced me of your thesis. You ask, If the arts aren't better-off now than they were before the NEA was created, how exactly to defend its existence?

And the answer is we have a far more robust and diverse cultural life beyond the major urban arts centers. It seems obvious you don't want to deal with the information about the actual programs funded by the NEA provided in the link. If you speak with anyone in the "arts-administrator class" (whom you malign in off the cuff fashion) you would know that it is exceedingly rare to find an NEA grant where the funds can be used for operating expenses rather than programming.

In fact, given that the ratio of programming costs to administrative costs in the vast majority of arts organizations remains both admirable and relatively constant, if we truly do have 'way more in the way of arts bureaucracies than we used to have ... that would indicate we have 'way more in the way of arts organizations presenting art for the public than we used to as well. It may be the pitcher we come to see play the ballgame, but without the administrative team making the stadium function there would be no game to see. It is the same with the arts. Without arts administrators and their ilk the dancers would be moving gracefully about their living rooms.

Listing a group of great American artists who created their works before the NEA implies that you want a list of NEA funded artists to "prove" the efficacy of the program. This is a fallacious argument that both distorts the purpose of the NEA and asks for facts not in evidence. How do we quantify or even determine which artists discovered their calling via visits to a local museum (made possible by NEA grant money) as an impressionable high school student? How do you measure the difference in the quality of life in the community of 50,000 that has a symphony orchestra or professional theater supported in part by NEA funds? What is the multiplier effect in terms of NEA dollars leveraging private donations for arts organizations? What about the other multiplier effect, that of the dollars museum & theatergoers spend in local restaurants, lodging establishments, etc.?

Really, you should get out of Manhattan more often.

Posted by: Chris White on March 29, 2009 9:01 AM

David -- So you're judging the NEA by whether it has fulfilled its mission statement? That reminds me of the old doctor joke, "The operation was successful but the patient died." In other words, some important larger point is being missed.

Look, the NEA was born amidst blasts of '60s optimism. If we could win WWII, then we could also eradicate poverty, go to the moon, banish prejudice -- and we could also will ourselves a better arts life. (As Kauffman notes, what was really meant by this was a more Northeast -- ie., Euro-style -- arts life.) In other words, the intent at the NEA's founding was to use government to make our artslife better.

So it makes total sense, 40 years later, to ask whether we in fact *have* a better arts life. (Funny, the way that the NEA defenders keep dodging that question ...) In fact, asking this specific question cuts through a lot of chaff, obfuscation, and rhetoric. So, by the way, does the question "Where in the Constitution is it written that the Federal government should be taking an active role in promoting the arts?" But ignoring that particular one ...

By the way, since movies, tv, and video *are* performing arts, no one in the U.S. has been starved for performing arts in a looonnnng while. Hard to drag the kids away from the tube, after all. Oh, you mean *live* performing arts. Well, rock bands at college parties, pop shows at arenas and football fields, and high school musicals are live performing arts, and last I checked they aren't exactly rare outside Manhattan.

So I assume that what you're thinking about are live high-class (as in "classical") type performances?

Numerous questions occur to me about that ... The main one that puzzles me: Why on earth do so many people feel that it's necessary to use govt money to bring such performances to small cities and small towns?

For one thing: These days, some of the best opera and classical performances of all time can be bought for 20 bucks on CD and/or DVD, or found at the library, and thousands of them can be watched/listened-to for free on YouTube.

For another: What's so weird about the fact that, if you want to see live pro-caliber performances of "classical" type material, you might need to go to a big city? Which fundamental human right is being violated?

After all, we "find it necessary to go elsewhere" for lots of reasons. Let's suppose I live in a hick town in the midwest. If I want warmth and sun in the winter, I have to go south. If I want a job in aerospace, I'd better move to LA or Seattle. Even if I want to see the Cubs play in person, well, they ain't coming to Podunk, so I'll probably have to go to Chicago.

Given that live classical music, live ballet, and live opera aren't exactly mass tastes, it isn't a surprise that (like warmth, or aerospace jobs, or major-league baseball games) they tend to cluster geographically, and not be spread out equally. Why is it considered by anyone in any way strange -- let alone in need of addressing by our federal government -- that the inhabitant of a hick burg might need to get off his duff in order to go enjoy them? Why don't we use federal money to, say, ensure that live major-league baseball games can be watched in hick towns all over the country?

Chris -- You were saying? Oh, sorry, just got back from three months out of town ...

Anyway, you might want to learn a little econ. The hundreds of millions that the NEA has distributed and (since many grants and mucho prestige follow NEA recognition) the hundreds of mills that stack on top of NEA money would have been spent on something else instead. Perhaps it would have been invested, perhaps frittered away, perhaps spent on the art that NEA-ers like, or maybe spent on art-and-culturestuff that people prefer to what the NEA sponsors.

In other words, to make your point you can't just point to what the NEA has done, you have to argue that it's better than what might have been done otherwise.

You're also making the basic mistake of assigning credit to the NEA for a lot that might well have been taken care of otherwise.

For example, let's take a small city's symphony orchestra. (And dodging the whole question of why we should think of it as something worthy of intense concern that this particular small city should have a symphony orchestra of its own ... I mean, let's take it as a given that it's a good and desirable thing that this small city have its own professional symphony orchestra.) You really need to investigate the concrete specifics of that small city. Perhaps the NEA-dependent arrangements that it currently has in place are simply how it's dealing with the contemporary world. It's quite possible that, if the NEA weren't around, it would have managed to make other arrangements. Somehow we had a wealth of classical music performances in this country before the NEA's founding ... How on earth was this possible?

In other words, you aren't proving anything other than the fact that 1) the NEA has distributed some money (duh), and 2) some worthy cultural things have been done with some of that money (double duh).

And the answer is we have a far more robust and diverse cultural life beyond the major urban arts centers.

Really? Oh, you must be thinking in terms of something not including movies, photography, design, books, or music, because a wild abundance of those are available in unmanageable numbers no matter where you live in the U.S. So you're thinking of ... Multicultural live mime shows? Displays of installation art?

In fact, given that the ratio of programming costs to administrative costs in the vast majority of arts organizations remains both admirable and relatively constant

Not true, at least not where the NEA is concerned. It had a few good -- as in efficient and open-minded -- years at its outset. At its outset it was distributing 16 bucks of aid for every buck it spent on administration, and it was spreading the dough around a lot of different kinds and styles of art. By the '90s though (I haven't researched the 00's) it was distributing only four bucks of aid for every bucks spent on administration. It also, in the course of that same time stretch, became much more dogmatic and narrowly-focused in terms of what kind of aid and to what kinds of organizations and individuals it gave that aid. That's one reason for the "culture wars" of the '90s.

if we truly do have 'way more in the way of arts bureaucracies than we used to have ...

Yes, Chris, it's true.

that would indicate we have 'way more in the way of arts organizations presenting art for the public than we used to as well

Double fallacy. 1) You're assuming that the whole "presenting and distributing art" thing wouldn't be occurring at all in the absence of the NEA and other govt-funded arts bureaucracies. Given the ease of access nearly all Americans have to the arts these days (magazines, books, music, performing-arts on CD and DVD, etc) you're wrong and/or blind. So I suppose that you're thinking about other kinds of arts than what someone might order up from Amazon.

Which leads to fallacy 2) You aren't considering the possibility that the kinds of art these bureaucracies are bringing to Podunk may not be the art that people either want or are interested in.

All this raises a point I'll get around to in a future posting: In what ways does the presence and behavior of these bureaucracies affect the art that's produced?

For now, let me suggest that y'all click on the link I provided in my comment above. Money sources and administrative arrangements color the water that art grows in. And Tom Mayne-ish gray, jagged deconstructivism (or Richard Meier pristine white abstraction) is the kind of architecture that our government bureaucracies are currently sponsoring and encouraging. Are we happy about that?

Let me venture the thought that the kind of art that the arts administration class sponsors may well often be "art that pleases arts bureaucracies" rather than "art that pleases real people."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 29, 2009 10:11 AM

" So you're judging the NEA by whether it has fulfilled its mission statement?"

Well, yeah. If somebody came up to me and said, "I charge you to do A!" and I go off and do A, and they come back and say, "Idiot! Why haven't you done B, C, and D?!" I would be a bit nonplussed. If they told me "Idiot! You have fubared A!" I'd at least be able to make more sense of their criticism.

You (M. Blowhard) appear to be making two simultaneous arguments: (a) "tax monies shouldn't be used to fund the NEA", and (b) "the NEA is doing a crappy job, as I define its job", and using argument (b) as evidence for (a). I think that (b) is pretty much independent of (a), in that the NEA works about as well as any government program could be expected to work.

If you don't think the government should be in the business of promulgating art or art education to us hicks, that right there is all the argument that you really need, period, regardless of how well or poorly the thing actually runs.

If you think having any Federal-level body supporting arts and art education is bad for the arts themselves, that – by itself – is a separate argument from the tax monies argument, it seems to me.

Personally, I am largely indifferent. I'm outside of the 'arts world', so I have no opinion on whether or not 'the arts' would be better off without the NEA. I assume the non-existence of the NEA would make the 'arts world' become less like PBS and more like the Discovery Channel. I think that that's a bad thing, but I'm not sure it's the business of the government either.

I'd like to see the Federal deficit reduced, but right now the NEA's portion of that is akin to a pimple on the ass of a flea on the butt of an elephant. We're springing so many leaks that this one is relatively inconsequential.

Posted by: David Fleck on March 29, 2009 11:35 AM

You say potatoes, I say potatoes,
You say tomatoes, I say tomatoes ....

Say, these lyrics make no sense, let's call the whole thing off.

Anyone who argues that CDs and DVDs are equivalent to live performances is already on shaky ground in my book.

One can speculate endlessly about what would or wouldn't have happened absent some agent or other. If the NEA were never created we might (or might not) have greater (or fewer) arts available in more (or fewer) places ... Where does this end? I don't know what the national art scene would look like today absent the NEA any more than you do. It is as nonsensical an argument to say that without the NEA we'd have a more robust art scene, as it would be for me to claim that the robust arts scene we do have can be primarily attributed to the NEA. We can only look at the art and culture scene that exists and make suggestions as to whether we find it healthy and robust or not and what we might do to improve it.

Some of the narrowing in focus and other ills that can be found in the NEA stems from a dynamic similar to that affecting medical malpractice. Constant attack from partisans who demand greater accountability and oversight on the NEA and what it funds demands more administrative costs and thinking defensively.

As in nearly all the art and culture threads here the real underlying theme remains this notion that painting or music or architecture would be better if only it pleased "real people" instead of the people it does please. The latter are always depicted as elitists or dupes of corrupt and self-serving elitists. Real people don't like abstraction, real people prefer country music to classical music, real people would rather see an action adventure movie than live drama on stage.

We create various categories and subcategories as we organize our public life. There are different rules and regulations we apply to those various categories. In art and culture there are not-for-profit organizations and for-profit business concerns. How and where these different entities can find the funding to support their activities varies.

There is a good chance that local symphony existed prior to the NEA and began life as an ad hoc, grass roots, expression of local wants and needs. As it matured it recognized that it was never going to be a profitable business. There are many other admirable, desirable, and even necessary entities that will never be profitable businesses. We fund those entities through various subsidies and tax policies that encourage private philanthropy to support them. The private donors want to see the "seal of approval" that the NEA and state agencies confer, so the organizations apply for them.

Ultimately you are right about the basics. A portion of the electorate significant enough to merit attention from their elected representatives supports some of their tax dollars flowing toward the arts. The NEA was created to accomplish that goal, which it has. What more do I need to prove?

Posted by: Chris White on March 29, 2009 12:29 PM

We still do that, in the form of music and arts classes in the curriculum, many of which are being cut left and right recently. Local and state taxes pay for that. NEA funds come from the Fed, so you're against federal funds paying for that?

Cut by whom? Why? So you then pay a dollar to the government to get 30 cents back for arts education from the Central Authority? I guess you missed my point--you would get more if you were taxed less and spent the money yourself. More freedom to do what you want too.

I didn't learn about music or art in grade school--my parents paid for music lessons and I paid for my own art education. Rely on the govt. and you'll be eating crap for life, I guarantee it.

Posted by: BTM on March 29, 2009 4:40 PM

I don't know what its like in the ol' USA but our equivalent body the Australian Council of the Arts has a great tradition of subsidising whatever is currently fashionable in the "Arts Scene". Greatness? No way. But then again how do you cultivate Genius? Despite all the best efforts, picking winners is still a matter of chance.

In principle I'm not opposed to government funding of the arts, however I wish it were more audience focused instead of being focused so much on the artist and his preferred audience. One of the great things about classical art is that it was "accessible" to the common man in a way that most modern abstract art isn't. Its no point having a dance troupe come out to some God forsaken town only to put on something that is "challenging" and typically repulsive. The locals experience of the arts is likely to be viewed negatively from then on. The problem over here is that a lot of what is funded her is "alienating" to the common viewer. If the purpose of the the government arts bodies are to raise the general cultural awareness of the people, then the local body can be thought of as an abject failure, since the art subsidised repels rather than allures. I imagine that a lot of the stuff the NEA sponsors is in a similar vein, Joe Public just doesn't get it.

Joe Public want happy melodic tunes, pretty pictures and noble sculpture, abstract art is well.......stuff his three year old can do at home. Why pay to see that?

Recently we had a fantastic impressionist exhibition over here, lots of the great French works. Packed out exhibition, ques hundreds of yards long and all walks of life. No one thought the show shit or a waste of money. The artistic merit was apparent to all. Same thing with the Carravagio exhibition. Joe Public doesn't do Modernist shit. Michael you are right in that culture that appeals to the masses and can be made at a profit pays, culture which does not withers. Classical sculpture on the other hand is horribly expensive and therefore unlikely to be economically viable, do you have a problem with arts bodies funding classical sculptors?I have this great book on New York terracotta building ornament. A lot of those gargoyles, art deco women, etc were done by classically trained sculptors who had a choice of either starving as an artist or of working as commercial artesean.

If there is a critique then of arts funding bodies is that they seem more keen on funding stuff that the public doesn't like but is percieved positively in the Official Arts community than of giving Joe Public a cultural experience he can connect with. Most men don't like ballet, most people don't like abstract art or stuff that's repulsive or discourteous to others or stuff that looks like it could of been put together by an worker at the local sheltered workshop. Now there may be a place for these "challenging artistic works" but trying to justify them on the grounds that its arts for the masses is just bullshit. It government subsidy to a particular industry and like any other subsidy it has its pros and cons. What offends people with regard to public arts funding is that there seems to be strong political and preferred cultural overtones as to who gets the funding.

BTW, am I the only one who seems to think that a good CD recording is actually better than an actual performance? My recording of Handel's Messiah and others is far better than any performance I have ever attended.

Posted by: slumlord on March 30, 2009 7:18 AM

Michael, it seems to me that a NEA type program could be justified on paleo/Slow grounds.

It ain't doing harm--after all, it's not preventing the explosion of media by which everybody can experience art, which explosion you've described, Michael, in quite eloquent and approving terms. And if it ain't doin' harm, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Change for change's sake...that's not Slow. That's crazy.

The forces of business and technology are EVERYWHERE (for example, via flickering monitors and TV screens set up EVERYWHERE, see your post above). Business and tech together push push push stuff at people based on what they want, just as fast food is. Why not have as an alternative, a small-budget, small-scale, slow-paced, inherently conservative organization that disburses funds that keep the kind of things in existence that don't have any immediate economic justification? After all, it's only an alternative. The NEA is not some centralized massive bureaucracy crushing the efflorescing forms of pop art that you so rightly admire, Michael. Those art forms are doing fine. The NEA is really a kind of conserving, preserving almost antiquarian kinda thing. It has to be, by its nature.

The NEA is small, it's not breaking any budgets, it's not contributing to our financial meltdown. But it and other programs can contribute to the preservation of heritage, culture, the fuddy-duddy stuff that just gets chewed up and thrown out on the garbage heap of history if no-one takes steps to keep it alive. It's nice to have a Village Green Preservation Society because it's nice to have Village Greens. Maybe the disappearance of small orchestras visiting medium towns wouldn't be noticed by almost anybody in America, any more than would the disappearance of that one patch of green in that one little village...but the elimination of every single uneconomical outmoded antique anachronistic aspect of American life would surely be an impoverishment of some kind. These NEA-type programs collectively might add a only little depth, a little colour, a little (dare I say it?) Slowness to the frenzy of 21st century America, but even that little bit, just as an alternative, might be a kind of oasis whose final disappearance would be missed, and by more people than even know the NEA exists.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 30, 2009 11:19 AM

First question; how do recordings of great symphonic works come into existence absent great symphonies to record them? The profitability of CD sales are now questionable at best, save for a tiny fraction of the most popular acts, do we expect commercial record labels to fund the rehearsal and recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony out of their sense of civic responsibility?

Second question; is it realistic or desirable to expect that every art object or event that benefits in any way from public funds should appeal to everyone?

Third question; where is the evidence that public funding for the arts supports exclusively or even primarily "challenging" work that "repels" the public?

In an effort to examine that last question I went back to the link I provided above with details about all the actual projects and programs funded by the NEA (as opposed to vague, unverifiable, accusations about the elitist crap some think they fund.)

Here in Maine we received a bit less than a million dollars of NEA support in 2008. Roughly 75% of that was a block grant funneled through the Maine Arts Commission thus ensuring greater local community control of those dollars. Below is the list of funded activities in Maine that got direct NEA grants:

Bowdoin Summer Music Festival, Inc., Brunswick, ME
$10,000 - To support the EuroFest classical music concert series.
$5,000 - To support a residency by the Amernet String Quartet including performances of American chamber works.

Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockport, ME
$15,000 - To support a statewide educational outreach program.

Cultural Resources, Inc., Rockport, ME
$20,000 - To support Story Bank. The project will provide community members with training to document local stories and present them to a wider audience.

Figures of Speech Theatre, Freeport, ME
$10,000 - To support the Rural Maine Initiative. The project will include a tour of repertory works and teaching residencies in schools, with accompanying outreach activities

Greater Portland Landmarks, Inc., Portland, ME
$10,000 - To support a convening of historic preservationists, design professionals, and community leaders to discuss successful design principles. The participants will learn tools to aid in the rehabilitation of historic structures and in the creation of new buildings for cultural, educational, and residential purposes.

Maine Fiberarts, Topsham, ME
$10,000 - To support the production of Maine Fiberarts Tour Map: Studios & Farms.

Maine Humanities Council, Portland, ME
$15,000 - To support New Books, New Readers, a program that provides books and organizes discussion groups about the books across the state for adults with low literacy skills. Trained coordinators oversee the discussions and use broad themes to connect literature to the lives of the participants.

Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, Old Town, ME
$30,000 - To support the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and Maine Indian Basketmakers Gathering/Festival. The project will support basketmakers and apprentices in the traditional ash and sweetgrass basketry of Maine's Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Penobscot tribes.

Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME
$34,000 - To support the Summer Institute for Teachers: Winslow Homer and a Sense of Place. Through immersion in a week-long summer workshop on the Winslow Homer's painting, Weatherbeaten (1894), teachers will explore how the artistic, historic, and social significance of a single work of art can be the impetus for sequential, arts-integrated curriculum.

Portland Stage Company, Inc., Portland, ME
$20,000 -To support a production of Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen. The company will collaborate with Figures of Speech Theatre to create a new version of the work that will combine actors, puppets, shadows, music, and movement.

Seal Bay Festival, Vinalhaven, ME
$5,000 -To support a festival of American chamber music.

Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, Newcastle, ME
$23,000 -To support the MudMobile, a van comprising a mobile ceramics gallery and resource center. The traveling services will include visits to as many as 24 schools throughout Maine in support of ceramics workshops at elementary and middle schools and artist residencies in four rural high schools.

The vast majority of the funds went to such cutting edge, nose thumbing, wacky elitist garbage as preserving the traditional basketry of the indigenous tribes, architectural preservation, traditional story telling, and loads of educational outreach, especially to underserved rural communities. Now, it IS possible that a few dollars went toward the performance of a piece of music that "Joe Public" might not think was a toe tappin' hit or possibly to an educator presenting a slide of a work of art that doesn't have a recognizable barn or human figure in it.

Final question: where are all the PoMo Neoconceptualists sucking from the public teat in the list above?

Posted by: Chris White on March 30, 2009 11:39 AM

"Cut by whom? Why? So you then pay a dollar to the government to get 30 cents back for arts education from the Central Authority? I guess you missed my point--you would get more if you were taxed less and spent the money yourself. More freedom to do what you want too."

Cut from the state budget due to declining state revenue and the current economic crisis.

I disagree with your tax less/save more scenario. How much of my tax dollars goes towards art funding in schools? 1%? Less? Probably less. Private music classes cost 30 bucks an hour, minimum. I'd say I'm getting a far better bargain having my kids in school music classes, where they not only learn music but participate in a group setting, make friends, learn how to work within a group towards a common goal, and perform in front of audiences. It's a very similar learning experience that sports provides, and in my opinion, is an experience that keeps giving far longer than sports in that you can actively participate in music into your golden years.

As Chris as demonstrated, the idea behind the NEA is not to nurture geniuses, but to help provide a general arts experience to citizens of the US. If you don't believe the gov't should be involved in that endeavor, then OK.

Posted by: JV on March 30, 2009 7:25 PM

First question; how do recordings of great symphonic works come into existence absent great symphonies to record them?

Re read my original post. I said that Government funding of the arts is in principle OK. But Michael's assertion that CD's, internet, etc are worthwhile arts experiences is quite valid. Not all live performances are great performances, CD's are sometimes a damn good substitute and sometimes exceed the real thing.

is it realistic or desirable to expect that every art object or event that benefits in any way from public funds should appeal to everyone?

It's impossible to appeal to everyone, but the appeal should be pitched towards the mean. I mean looking through you list, who the hell wants to go see Peter Gynt performed by puppets? Joe Average. How many more outreach projects for contemporary art do we need?

Mack: He Joe, going to the game?
Joe: No Mack, Mudmobile is in town!

As I said not pitched to the average man.

Hey, in your grants list why didn't you include Joel Peter Witkin. Have a look at some of his pics NSFW. Proudly sponsored by NEA. This is the sort of shit that shouldn't be sponsored by taxpayers.

Oh and here is a comment from an insider. What would he know?

Posted by: slumlord on March 30, 2009 10:59 PM

slumlord, that picture is grotesque. The "Bodies" exhibit portrayed the human form with much more style and artistry than Witkin's squalid photo. Why would anyone consider that "higher" art than any random drawing of a headless character in a comic book? Not even a graphic novel, just a run of the mill comic book?

Posted by: hello on March 30, 2009 11:40 PM

slumlord – In your "answers" to my questions (which were not directly pitched to you, by the way) you manage to weasel out of actually dealing with most of them and distort those you do.

The experience of hearing a symphony orchestra perform live is vastly different than slapping on the headphones at home. Now, granted, at home you can hear George Szell conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which might well be a superior performance to the version done live by the local symphony. But you ignore the rest of that question, where do those recording come from, absent orchestras actually performing the works? One might try to make the case that, since we have numerous recordings of the Fifth by great orchestras available on CDs and even on YouTube that it never needs to be performed live again. Is that the position you are taking? After all, Joe Average doesn't care much for Beethoven, why should he or we care if it no longer has any living musicians capable of performing it live because they can't survive in the marketplace, right?

Have you ever seen a production of Peer Gynt? Ibsen included loads of fantastical elements in the script (call it Nordic Magic Realism) and using the full script means a five to six hour performance. This means decisions need to be made about what to cut or adapt in the script and how to handle the more fantastical elements when mounting a production of it. The Portland Stage collaboration with Figures of Speech used set, lighting, and, yes, puppetry to create the requisite magic. Now, maybe you think of puppets only in a Punch and Judy or Howdy Doody way, but let me assure you, puppets aren't just for kids. The show was sold out for most performances, so obviously there was a significant audience.

Then you have a mobile pottery and ceramics workshop traveling to offer instruction to schools, mostly in rural areas, as competing with a ball game for Mr. Average's attention. This is hardly logical and certainly not an argument against giving kids the chance to learn a bit about the craft by actually doing some themselves.

Unable to find something to really sneer at from my list you hunted and found one grotesque image within an exhibition worth of photography that received NEA funding sometime, somewhere. I did not include it on my list because I was offering the entire 2008 list for Maine, not absolutely every grant ever awarded.

And then you offer a link to an eighteen year old article that appeared in the National Review (who've been gunning for the NEA for decades) rehashing the "Piss Christ" photo controversy. Is that the best you can do? Has anyone dissed Mappelthorpe yet? Now that was also almost twenty years ago, but, hey, it makes for good NSFW links.

You say "the appeal should be pitched towards the mean." Does that mean mean the latest winner from American Idol, or Thomas Kincade exhibitions? The role of the NEA is not to offer entertainment directed at the mean audience, it is to support the arts and arts education, especially through programs that increase the availability of the arts in underserved areas. The mean is where the market works just fine. I can choose from dozens of different rock bands to see most nights in most cities for the price of a beer and maybe a five dollar cover.

At a time when we're spending sums so huge that they defy Joe Average's ability to comprehend them to prop up the financial sector due to the way that sector so ran amok without adequate oversight that the global economy is in jeopardy, I find a debate about the worthiness of the NEA more than a little odd.

Posted by: Chris White on March 31, 2009 9:03 AM

Fun convo, as ever. Whaddya say we cool it on this thread, though. I've got another NEA-ish posting coming along nicely, so soon I'll be tossing some more red meat out in front of us all. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 31, 2009 10:03 AM

Whaddya say we cool it on this thread, though. I've got another NEA-ish posting coming along nicely, so soon I'll be tossing some more red meat out in front of us all. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Oh man, please do. I come in late, find myself agreeing with Chris White, and you put the kibosh on the thread? Get that chum in the water soon; this can't last.

Posted by: Moira Breen on March 31, 2009 11:24 AM

Getting a chance to put Moira on the same team as Chris definitely multiplies the incentives to get that new posting done, and pronto. Back to work on it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 31, 2009 12:15 PM

I sort of agree with Chris White too, although with one caveat. Here in Canada, our Canada Council is (if I've understood you and Chris) much more directly involved in supporting the arts than your NEA is. That is, the Council gives grants directly to artists in various media, in addition to subsidizing performances across the country.

I have to say that in many instances I don't think that the quality of the work they produce merits public support. My own view is that artists whose work is singled out by committees for praise and support are less likely to reach a high standard (than those supported by private patrons or commercial budgets) because gov't-sponsored committees tend to have reasons for reaching their decisions that may not include the quality of the work in question.

For example: Some committee members may favour populism in the arts; others may prefer the highbrow; still others want to support the avant-garde. After a long battle over who will receive this year's grant money, they finally reach an agreement based not on funding the best artists, but on funding those who least irritate the group as a whole.

All the same, I favour government support for the arts. In an enormous and sparsely populated country like Canada, in which travel is often limited by bad weather, institutions like the much reviled CBC - esp. CBC Radio - make it possible for people to access performances that would be otherwise unavailable to them.

As for the literary arts, I don't think they would have survived in Canada at all without some public support. Our stories and outlook are insufficiently American, in most cases, to appeal to American taste, so that American publishing houses are often closed to us, while our market is too small and scattered to allow writers to support themselves here.

Posted by: aliasclio on March 31, 2009 4:00 PM

Clio -- Yeah, I'd never make the case that government arts subsidies are wrong everywhere and always. Smaller, more centralized, or less powerful countries, for instance -- it might well make sense for them to promote their own culture with their own tax dollars. The U.S.'s NEA doesn't seem to me to have worked out well, but for reasons that in most cases have to do with local conditions.

Funny and apt point, btw, about how committees and panels tend to settle on decisions that no one's really happy with but that have the virtue of being something the panel can settle on. Same happens here -- that's one reason why lit awards often go to authors (for instance) whose work many people as individuals don't actually care that much for.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 31, 2009 4:15 PM

It is a little strange that the federal government has any interest at all in getting rednecks and exurbanites to care about high art, which stems from a highbrow culture that is otherwise almost completely alien to them.

Whether it's good for the artists themselves is certainly debatable... but who is more frustrated in life than an ambitious violinist stuck at a university in, say, Nebraska, surrounded by people who honestly couldn't tell the difference between Mozart and Tchaikovsky if their lives depended upon it?

(the intersection of the federal government and "art" isn't purely a lefty thing, either, though-- anyone ever see a military band? hoo boy, there's a mass of conflicting interests at play, there!)

It is complicated, for sure. Elitism versus populism, central versus local authority, unifying national identity versus diversity, the canon versus the outsiders, leftist versus rightist political angles.

So juicy you hardly know what to want more. But I'm sympathetic to M. Blowhard's vision of the freewheeling, half-deranged, barely classifiable junkyard dog called American Art. And I suspect no official governmental agency can do much with that sort of beast, other than sedate it or put it out of its misery.

(damn, wouldn't the internet SUCK if it were administered by the feds? In fifteen years, we'd be left with a sanitized and barely-readable Wikipedia, dusty forgotten archives of really wild discussions from years past, and

Posted by: omw on March 31, 2009 5:40 PM

Christ White:

I'll hold off my reply till Michael puts up his next NEA-related post.

Posted by: slumlord on March 31, 2009 6:24 PM

Bloody Hell, I'm double dyslexic this morning.

Sorry Chris, the Christ White was an honest mistake.

Posted by: slumlord on March 31, 2009 7:08 PM

Not as much of a mistake, slumlord, as when he talks as if he really is Christ White.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 1, 2009 10:06 AM

Easter is coming. I intend to rise to the occasion.

Posted by: Chris White on April 1, 2009 1:44 PM

That Christ guy! Always with the last word!

Posted by: PatrickH on April 1, 2009 8:17 PM

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