Welfare for Art?

NPR’S FIRING OF JUAN WILLIAMS has reignited examination of the larger issue of taxpaper funding for the arts. It was John Sloan, I believe, who welcomed public money, official award committees and the whole apparatus of state largess on the grounds that, by following the money, artists would know who their enemies are. With the country over $13 trillion—trillion—in debt, suddenly talk of defunding the arts does not seem like the mean-spirited, philistine, conservative plot it has traditionally been considered. Both the artists’ listserve to which I belong and AICA, the critic’s association to which I belong, howl at the thought. And, of course, the Collage Art Association, another special interest, is a perennial lobbyist for all those wonderful things underwritten by captive taxpayers. Think of them: the ambiance of individual liberty, the blessings of cultural diversity, a prism of changing norms through which to view the human condition, an arena for waging guerrilla war against stodgey values, authorities and institutions, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

Stephen Weil, former deputy director of the Hirshhorn, phrased the pieties this way in 1991: “Society needs artists, and it needs art. The art that it needs, though, is not merely yea-saying art.
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It does need that, but it also needs an art that is free to say “no,” to be taken to whatever lengths or whatever new places it must go in order to do its job—to tell society the truths, sometimes painful, that it needs to know if it is ever to grow and become mature.”


Does this installation say yes or no?


Okay, will artists try saying “no” to public grants?
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Will the Whitney host an installation interrogating justifications for public support? Will art institutions dare to redefine their product and just say no to extra-aesthetic agendas?

It is hard to say which is more breathtaking in Weil’s comment, the self-admiring sentimentality of an arts administrator, his self-serving presumption, or the sheer humbug of his words. What, precisely, is yea-saying art? How do we know yea-saying when we see it? Or, like that Other Thing, is it in the eye of the beholder? Can you name a single painful truth, delivered to you by a gallery or museum, that has dispelled the darkness of your cocooned, immature, shallow existence? No? Good. It would be worrisome if you could. These, after all, are the words of a bureaucrat whose living depends on the public dime. He needs to keep the cash coming to pay his own bills. And he is first in line for a bailout if he messes up. How you pay your bills is your business. Art alone is your rock and your redeemer.

That brings me to this morning’s argument against public funding of the arts by filmmaker Leigh Scott on BigHollywood.com. The title states the theme: “Taxpayer Funding for the Arts Corrupts the Arts.” He sets out the arguments in favor of government subsidy and examines each one. In fairness, he acknowledges the theoretical value of taxpayer cash spent in the public interest:

There is a real and tangible value to news and media that is free from a personal or corporate bias. A news organization or television network whose motto was a Jack Webb quote would actually serve the public. Unfortunately, the CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] has failed their mission.

The money quote is this:

The money we spend on arts and media at the federal level is never too small to ignore. . . . It is the height of arrogance to imply that waste and questionable costs at any level are acceptable or insignificant. To make this argument reveals that the person making it has a grotesque understanding of the relationship between government and tax payer.

His larger point is that the concept of “public interest” is undermined by the very people charged with protecting it:

This whole debate and kurfuffle exposes a much larger truth. The bone of contention isn’t so much whether or not this type of funding, in it’s stated form, has value to our society. The problem is the human factor. On paper, we can say that these public institutions are above the fray of the free market and bias, but they aren’t. The mission of an NPR is a noble one. It is the execution that is flawed. The CPB gives us government versions of MSNBC and Air America that don’t have to worry about crappy ratings. Our tax dollars immunize partisans and people of questionable on-air talent from the grim realities of cancellation.

Read the whole thing. When you are done, look up a copy of Edward Banfield’s The Democratic Muse: Visual Arts and the Public Interest. Written in 1984, it is still the best—most thorough and thoughtful—argument against public spending for culture and the arts. Even if you disagree with certain of his proposals, his questions about cultural policy are substantial and merit attention.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. In the late ’90s, the NEA published a book-long report on the arts that sounded almost evangelical. The arts were given credit for everything from sharpening the study of every aspect of school curriculums to enhancing
    family life. It more than half sounded like a religious pitch.

  2. Hmmm. Reminds me that the era of great French films PRECEDED the protections and co-production maneuvers of the government. Jean Renoir, Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, Chabrol—none of them required government support. How are the other arts any different?

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