Should Taxpayers Subsidize the Arts?

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Should the federal government subsidize the arts? I have pondered the question ever since 1989, when, with many other residents of Washington, D.C., I went to see an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s obscene photographs which had been cancelled by the Corcoran Exhibit for fear of having federal funds cut off by enraged congressional conservatives. At the entrance to the exhibit, which was hosted instead by the Washington Project for the Arts, a group was collecting signatures for a petition saying that all American artists had the right to taxpayer subsidies, with no strings attached. I offered my signature, but only on condition that the petition organizers in turn provide me with another petition, attesting that I was an American artist and thus entitled to taxpayer money. My offer was not taken up.

Controversies over public funding of controversial art like the Mapplethorpe exhibit have long been out of proportion to the actual amounts of money that are involved. According to Daniel Reid in a 2013 Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities essay entitled “An American Vision of Federal Arts Subsidies: Why and How the U.S. Government Should Support Artistic Expression,” the role of the federal government in art funding is quite limited:

Total federal arts spending is itself a relatively small source of arts funding: it accounts for only 9% of financing for nonprofit arts organizations in the United States, with state and local funding making up an additional 4%. (Private donations account for 43% of all such financing, and earned income makes up the remaining 44%).

Civic art — war memorials and other monuments, decorative sculptures and fountains in public parks, public buildings like state capitols and county courthouses — has always been accepted as legitimate by Americans. What controversies there have been have involved matters of style.

From the 18th until the mid-20th century, the favorite style for civic art and architecture was one or another version of classicism. Classical styles appealed more to members of the elite with a few years of Latin education than to the less-educated majority. Horatio Greenough’s 1841 statute of George Washington, intended for the U.S. Capitol rotunda, appalled or amused citizens who did not understand the neoclassical convention of heroic nudity and saw merely a half-naked old man. The statue, lampooned as “Washington Reaching For His Clothes,” was exiled from its intended place of honor and now can be found in the National Museum of American History.

In the 20th century, avant-garde modernism in the form of glass-box architecture and abstract painting and sculpture replaced Greco-Roman classicism as the preferred style of the American elite, though most members of the public retain more traditional tastes. In the 1980s, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, in the form of a low black wall sunk into the ground, was acclaimed by the cognoscenti but despised by many veterans and much of the public, including the populist billionaire and later presidential candidate Ross Perot. As a compromise, a realistic bronze sculpture by Frederick Hart, entitled The Three Soldiers, was added to the memorial compound, creating a permanent symbol of the clash of egghead and middlebrow tastes in art.

These controversies about the style of civic art and architecture have been minor in comparison to the debate about whether the federal government should provide artists with money for work that is not traditionally civic in nature. The Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration was created in 1935 to subsidize unemployed artists during the Great Depression. While much of the funding went to civic purposes, like murals in county courthouses and other buildings, the federal government also supported artists who created easel paintings, crafts, theater costumes, and other items. Congress abolished the controversial program in 1943 after less than a decade.

A generation passed before Congress revived federal arts funding with the establishment in 1965 of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In “An American Vision of Federal Arts Subsidies,” Reid provides evidence that two presidents who were social and geographic outsiders — Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — sought to win over at least some patrician Northeastern establishment allies by supporting federal arts programs. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. told LBJ that support for the creation of the National Endowment for 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.”

Reid also quotes a memo from Leonard Garment to President Nixon:

By providing substantially increased support for cultural activities, you will gain support from groups which have hitherto not been favorable to this administration. … We are talking about the vast majority of theatre board members, symphony trustees, museum benefactors, and the like. … It is well for us to remember that these boards are made up, very largely, of business, corporate and community interests.

From their inception, the NEA and the NEH have been plagued by ambiguity about their missions. Is their main purpose curatorial, supporting museums, symphonies, libraries, and other cultural institutions? Or is it to support individual artists?

A case in favor of government financial support for individual artists and writers, for projects other than civic architecture or decoration, is difficult to make and vulnerable to objections by libertarians and egalitarians alike.

The NEA Literature Fellowships program, for example, offers $25,000 grants in poetry and prose (fiction and creative nonfiction) to “published creative writers” in order to “enable the recipients to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement.”

Why should America’s hard-pressed tax-payers pay for this? Certain kinds of writing are favored above others — poetry, prose fiction, and creative nonfiction, but not screenplays or country music song lyrics or uncreative nonfiction (whatever that is — perhaps this essay is an example). The grants are limited to already-published authors, so no new talent is being discovered and publicized. “Them that has, gets,” as the saying goes.

And the NEA grants to writers are implicitly “classist,” as well. Why should writers get $25,000 for “travel, and general career advancement” but not janitors, or home health aides, or car mechanics, all of whom could use the money more than “creative writers,” a group drawn mostly from the upper middle class and the rich? And $25,000 is well above the annual income of a full-time worker in the U.S. who earns the minimum wage, an annual income around only $14,000. A single NEA literature fellowship, divided in two, could support two poor Americans for most of a year.

I should make it clear that I do not oppose nonprofit funding of poets, novelists, and writers of creative nonfiction. If institutions or rich individuals want to play Maecenas to talented writers, more power to them. But in America’s traditional division of labor among the public sector, the private sector and the nonprofit sector, patronizing the next Horace or Vergil or Sappho seems like something that the nonprofit sector can do quite well without aid from the public sector, other than indirect subsidies in the form of tax breaks for philanthropic giving.

It might seem that direct federal financial support of cultural institutions like museums is more defensible than giving money to already-published novelists and poets. But if those cultural institutions are chiefly patronized by the social elite — the Metropolitan Opera or Kennedy Center, say, as opposed to the mall cineplex movie theater or the Grand Ole Opry — then it is reasonable to ask why the tax-payers are being billed for the recreational and cultural activities of the elite. Why not let the disproportionately-wealthy people who enjoy those institutions pay for them?

Here is a hypothetical example. Imagine that a young tech entrepreneur, Nerdly Nebbish, sells an app for generating comic insults and becomes a billionaire at 28. Nebbish buys a palatial compound in Aspen and devotes some of the rooms of his mansion to his ever-growing hoard of Burning Man art and memorabilia, which he shows off to his rich Aspen neighbors to impress them with how cool he is.

Running out of room, young Nebbish builds a Burning Man Art Museum on a strip of property adjacent to his estate. The visitors who go to see the collection in the museum are, by and large, the same rich Aspen neighbors.

Question for the class: Should Nerdly Nebbish’s Burning Man art collection, now that it is housed in a separate museum instead of his mansion, be defined as a cultural institution worthy of taxpayer subsidies? For that matter, should Nerdly Nebbish qualify for personal tax benefits by donating his Burning Man collection to the museum he created?

Discuss among yourselves. •

Feature image courtesy of StreetsofWashington via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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