President Trump has proposed de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other budget items conservatives have been dying to get rid off for decades. Liberals are understandably upset and the debate has centered around the controversial and offensive artworks that the NEA has sponsored in the past, as well as the weird art they still promote sometimes.
Jazz Shaw at Hot Air says this is precisely the wrong argument to have. He argues that the NEA should be done away not because they supported weird or offensive art, but because the federal government shouldn’t be supporting art at all.
The arts, like everything else in society, can rise and fall on their own merit. The reason that we don’t have tremendous federal funding supporting the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies is that such offerings tend to be popular and the business of making them is profitable. Creating paintings, sculpture, poetry or theatrical performances may not be as profitable, but if it has value to sufficient people, patrons may be found to support the work. If no such patronage is forthcoming then perhaps the “art” is better left to the lonely artist toiling away in their studio.
Unfortunately, Shaw is wrong because this is precisely why we should have public support of the arts, especially those less commercially viable forms. Look, I think NEA funding can be reduced or even eliminated, because I think having a federal bureaucracy as gatekeeper for the arts has been disastrous (cf. Mapplethrope and Serrano as Shaw references them).
But do we want all our art to be based on its commercial profit? Do we want the art of our age to be represented by Transformers movies and cinematic universes and the music of Beyonce? Hey, it’s fine if those are things you like. Heck, given their financial success lots of people agree with you. But commercial success is not a reliable indicator of good art. This is capitalism taken too far.
I’ll be honest that I much prefer art to be sponsored through patronage, like it was in centuries past. We see some of that now with corporate sponsorships and foundation grants and individual commissions. We’ve even entered into a newer in which average Joes like me can sponsor art through Kickstarter campaigns and Patreon. But there may also be a role for taxpayer funded support of art, too, just maybe not through a big bureaucracy. Maybe a poetry festival or public art installations or other ways of bringing art to the people.
Life is about more than commercial success and entertainment It needs to include beauty too, and not just for those who can afford it.
So, yes, I’m opposed to funding the NEA, but not for the reasons Jazz Shaw is opposed, but for the reasons he rejected in the first place: Because it lost its way and begun funding art that is ugly and offensive.