Abolish the National Endowment for the Arts
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorThe art exhibit called "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City displays some works many find offensive. Among the pieces are dead animals, live insects, and the Virgin Mary with elephant dung and cut-outs of buttocks. The mayor of New York City seeks to cut off funding for the museum, while museum officials are responding with a federal lawsuit.
The U.S. Senate voiced its opinion that the museum should not be granted federal funds unless it cancels the exhibit. The museum has received $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) during the past three years. The NEA obtains $100 million per year from the federal government.
The NEA was created in 1965 to grant funds and subsidies to artists and exhibits. The fuss about the Brooklyn exhibit offers an occasion to reflect on using federal government tax money to subsidize artists, performances, and exhibits.
First of all, the NEA is an example of the nationalization of government in the USA. Many activities which used to be local and private are now partly federalized. These include education, art, energy, and labor. One may see merit in federally owned works such as the memorials in Washington, DC, which pay homage to the country's past wars and leaders, but providing funding to private artists and local museums is another matter. There is no Constitutional basis for such privileges and subsidies.
There was plenty of art in the USA before 1965, so federal funds are not needed to create art. Indeed, there are numerous "starving artists" who are creating nice art pieces with no takers. If anything, art is overproduced, just as there are more poems and novels being written than there is space for them in published magazines and journals.
There is also substantial funding for operas, museums, and art galleries from admissions, private donations, and local funding. The NEA's support for operas and museums is a tiny part of their overall financing. They managed to survive prior to the NEA. Indeed, government funding may be counterproductive. If donors think that the government is supporting the opera, they may be less inclined to contribute to it.
Any government subsidy to the arts is necessarily selective, since there are millions of artists who would gladly receive grants. So the grants are either random or else they reflect the bias of the granting agency and political pressures. The NEA tends to help the well-established museums and artists rather than the struggling unknowns. At worst, federal funding can promote a "politically correct" artistic agenda.
Since some art is controversial, grants necessarily discriminate. As the Brooklyn exhibit shows, if the works are subsidized, it forces taxpayers to finance art they find revolting. If the works do not get grants, it denies controversial artists an equal opportunity to be funded.
The US Supreme Court ruled in NEA vs. Finley in 1998 that the NEA may deny grants to artists if their work is ruled indecent. Karen Finley is the performance artist who smeared chocolate on her nude body to symbolize the oppression of women.
One poet was granted $1500 for his poem "lighght". That was the entire poem ("Cultural Agencies" in the Cato Handbook for Congress, 105th Congress, 1997). I'd like $1500 for this poem: "phpht!".
There is no way to reform the granting process or make it fair. The problem is that the NEA uses resources that belong to the people and selectively gives these as privileges to favored persons and institutions. No reform is possible; the concept is inherently unjust. The NEA should just be eliminated.
-- Fred Foldvary
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Copyright 1999 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.