Whether one wants to be practical or philosophical, President George W. Bush’s plan to dramatically increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts is wrongheaded.
Practically speaking, U.S. taxpayers cannot afford a 15 percent hike in a federal agency that subsidizes artists. Perhaps in the world of Washington, where money is thrown around with abandon, $18 million doesn’t sound like a lot. But the federal budget deficit is projected to hit $477 billion for fiscal year 2004. If the feds can’t cut an agency that funds arts, then it won’t be able to cut anything.
From a philosophical perspective, there simply is no reason the federal government should be in the business of subsidizing individual artists and performance groups. This is not a constitutionally appropriate function. Furthermore, subsidizing art only leads to a banal, government-approved result. That which government subsidizes it often destroys, as artists become dependent on the authorities for funding and approval, rather than remaining independent of influence, or, developing a market for their wares.
In recent years, the NEA has been a hotbed of controversy. Often, subsidized artists act like spoiled children. Whether it’s because they are not accountable to patrons or buyers, or because the government just can’t seem to choose the most promising recipients, some government-funded artists have sought attention by submerging crucifixes in urine or photographing naked men with bullwhips.
Certainly, people should be free to submerge anything they choose in any form of liquid, or to photograph most anything they choose. But the right to do something does not mean the right to be subsidized by taxpayers to do it.
Conservative critics of the NEA are right that individuals should not have their money taken in order to fund exhibits that fly in the face of their deepest-held values. The artists are affronted and surprised to learn they have relinquished independence by accepting taxpayers’ funds. They shouldn’t be. Taxpayers have every right to make judgments and complain about how their money is spent.
That’s the best reason for keeping government money out of art.
That Bush believes this agency deserves additional funding says much about his political principles, even though the new money is earmarked for exhibitions of American masterpieces. It doesn’t make sense politically, either. Bush is giving his conservative base yet another reason to stay home on Election Day.