Are Democrats Painted Into a Corner? Not Yet

The National Endowment for the Arts is a perfect target in the culture wars.

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

November 19, 2004

After discovering that 59 million Americans voted to reelect a demonstrably failed president largely because he related to their culture and values, Democrats spent about a week desperately casting about for some social issue to chuck overboard so they could get right with middle America. Alas, after running through the usual list, they decided that they weren't prepared to abandon abortion or gay rights and had all but given up on gun control anyway, so there wasn't much they could do.

Well, even though the search was called off early, I have a late entry: Abolish the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA is a major stick in the eye to the, um, culturally traditional. (I was going to write "guys named Jethro who own pickup trucks" but I'm trying not to inflame cultural sensitivities here.) In the past, the NEA has provoked enormous controversy by funding artists such as Andres Serrano, whose artworks include a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. Two years ago, the NEA helped support a group that put on "Broadway Bares XII," an AIDS fundraiser featuring nude performers. And even though the overwhelming majority of its projects aren't controversial, let's face it, the NEA is in large part a way of forcing the NASCAR set to subsidize the art house set.

None of that would matter if there was a strong, principled argument for the NEA. In fact, there isn't.

The basic rationale for the NEA is that art is good — advocates tend to use loftier terms, but they're all synonymous with "good" — and the NEA provides for more of it. But there are lots of good things that don't deserve government support.

Government is supposed to step in and provide things that the free market can't provide. We need the federal government to provide defense, interstate highways, healthcare for those who can't afford it (and soon). Art, on the other hand, is something that individuals can provide on their own. When projects aren't profitable, wealthy patrons can step in. If there's one cause that wealthy people have shown a willingness to support throughout history, it's art.

The mere fact that art has many salutary effects on our culture is not enough of a reason for Washington to subsidize it. Opinion magazines such as the New Republic or the National Review also have an important role to play in our national life. They provide a forum for political debate and ideas for policymakers. They're also almost inherently unprofitable. To suggest that the federal government write checks to such magazines, though, would be absurd. The solution is to find wealthy individuals who are willing to support them.

The other reason not to publicly subsidize magazines is that it would put Washington in the position of making tricky, subjective decisions about what to fund. And that's exactly the problem with the NEA. It puts the government in the business of deciding which ideas are worthy and which are not. I may not be offended by an AIDS nude-a-thon, but others are.

There's an unsolvable conundrum at the heart of the NEA's mission: Either it screens out politically offensive art, or it doesn't. If it's the former, then the government wields undue control over ideas and what gets produced. I don't see why government-approved art ought to have a financial leg up over art that makes Washington squeamish. On the other hand, if it's the latter and anything goes, then taxpayers are forced to fund art that offends their basic values. (And if mocking Christianity doesn't offend you, imagine the government supporting arguably racist or anti-Semitic art.)

NEA advocates like to boast that the dollars it provides matter less than what they call the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" conferred by NEA support. Once a project has that seal of government approval, they argue, private donors are more eager to jump on board. But that vetting role is exactly what government should not do.

It's amazing, in a way, that the NEA has survived as long as it has. It was created in 1965, probably the single year in American history when we paid the least attention to the dangers of government overreach. It faced budget cuts in the 1990s, but Republicans never killed it, and George W. Bush actually gave the NEA a healthy boost.

The latter fact surprised many liberals, but they shouldn't be surprised. NEA backers are disproportionately rich and powerful, and the single consistent rule of Bush's domestic policy is that on every issue he supports whichever side is richer and more powerful.

In that way, arts subsidies aren't much different than farm subsidies. The main difference, other than scale, is that arts subsidies go to a constituency that Democrats can afford to — no, make that desperately need to — offend.