A Case For Government Funding of the Arts, Part 2

By Jonathan Abarbane
Via WBEZ 91.5
actors WBEZ91.5 photo
(Flickr/University of Minnesota Theatre Arts & Dance)

In response to my blog last week, “A Case for Government Funding of the Arts, Part 1,” several readers posted comments which decried any connection between the arts and government, even calling for the disestablishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

These comments — which I expected — were posted by individuals who claimed to be ardent arts supporters, if not artists themselves. They were passionate yet intelligent statements that completely missed the point.

Here is the point: Whether artists like it or not, there ALWAYS has been interaction and interface between government and the arts, and there always will be. As a class of the governed, artists can choose to be part of the dialogue with those who govern, or artists can turn their backs and suffer the consequences of not representing their own interests in places of power. At present in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts is the best seat at the table that artists have.

Since the arts emerged in prehistoric primitive cultures, they’ve always had a social obligation to interpret the spiritual and secular worlds in which they exist. The plays of ancient Greece, especially the comedies, were expected to comment on political policies and governance. The history plays of Shakespeare legitimized the Tudor monarchy. The triumphs of Renaissance religious art glorified the business (Christianity) of the boss (the Pope). The music of Mozart or Hadyn added sophistication and status to the courts of the monarchs who paid for it. In the modern era, Communist governments have poured tons of money into the arts in order to earn international prestige and provide a facade of humanism for often-repressive regimes.

The arts represent national prestige and national culture and usually prove to be more powerful as a legacy to the world than vast armed forces and territorial conquest. Virtually alone among developed nations, the United States mostly ignored the arts in any national or Federal sense until the NEA was established in 1965.

Now, artists always have been suspicious or fearful of government and rightly so. Where politics and the arts meet, there often has been censorship or attempted censorship. But the NEA was designed to minimize that possibility and largely has succeeded for two reasons: our Federal government cannot censor the arts, nor does it throw enough money at the arts to control them.

Thanks to the First Amendment, no elected or appointed official can tell an artist what he can or cannot express (short of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater). If Congress or an administration is unhappy with the arts, all it can do is withdraw or reduce what little funding it provides, and this step has been taken several times.

The real magic, of course, is that it’s not enough money to make a difference. A well-managed non-profit theater company, dance troupe, museum or arts academy will never depend on government funding for more than 5% of its total budget. But that 5% loosens the purse strings of far more generous foundation, corporate and individual donors who want to see that little statement: “Supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.” An NEA grant has become an imprimatur. It signals other potential funders that arts organization A or B or C meets certain standards of quality, innovation and business-like operation. Read story at WBEZ91.5

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