THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS faces a key vote next week, when a catch-all appropriations bill reaches the floor of the US House. The bill contains only $10 million for the NEA (down from its current $99.5 million), and there will likely be a motion to zero it out altogether. As members of Congress break for the Fourth of July weekend, here is a question to ponder: What would the Framers of the Constitution have thought about a federal agency for the promotion of art?
The Framers, remember, were among the most learned and cultured citizens of the New World. Many had read widely in the classics and English literature; many, perhaps most, were fluent in French, the universal language of "civilized" men and women. They knew that in Europe -- where in 1787 Goya was enjoying the patronage of Spain's Charles III and where Luigi Boccherini was being named court composer in Berlin -- government support for artists was taken for granted. If someone had proposed that the new American government undertake to subsidize American art, how would these refined and sophisticated statesmen have reacted?
The question isn't hypothetical.
On Aug. 18, 1787, at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina rose to urge that Congress be authorized to "establish seminaries for the promotion of literature and the arts and sciences." His proposal was immediately voted down. In the words of one delegate, the only legitimate role for government in promoting culture and the arts was "the granting of patents" -- i.e., protecting the rights of authors and artists to make money from their creations.
The Framers treasured books and music, but they treasured limited government far more. A federally-approved artist was as unthinkable to them as a federally-approved church or newspaper. That is why the Constitution does not so much as hint at subsidizing artists or cultural organizations. It is why Americans have always been skeptical about the entanglement of art and state. And it is why so many artists have snorted at the notion that art depends upon the patronage of a Washington elite.
"There are no Miltons dying mute here today," the playwright Thornton Wilder once observed; even in small towns, "anyone who can play the scales is rushed off to Vienna to study music." The great American painter John Sloan remarked acidly that "it would be fine to have a Ministry of Fine Arts in this country. Then we'd know where the enemy is." William Faulkner was so disdainful of government approbation that he refused to dine at the White House with President and Mrs. Kennedy. "Too far to go for supper," he growled.
But then, Kennedy himself had campaigned against government patronage of the arts. "I do not believe federal funds should support symphony orchestras or opera companies, except when they are sent abroad in cultural exchange programs," he said in 1960. Most orchestras didn't disagree. In a 1951 poll of the American Symphony Orchestra League, 91 percent disapproved of federal subsidies.
In short, when Congress created the NEA in 1965, it was violating a two-century-old tradition of keeping art government-free. The gamble didn't pay off. Art in the last 30 years has grown not better, but more politicized. NEA money hasn't inspired artists to reach new heights of expressiveness, truth, or beauty; it has incited them to noisome depths of coarseness and banality. Like most other kinds of government welfare, NEA handouts have fostered whining claims of entitlement -- and frenzied warnings of doom if the entitlement is cut off.
But American art won't wither if the NEA disappears in 1998, just as it wasn't gasping for breath before 1965. The mainstay of American art is not the NEA. It is the tens of thousands of private Americans who voluntarily give $10 billion a year to the arts, a tidal wave of generosity unparalleled anywhere.
And it doesn't end with philanthropy. Add to that $10 billion the vast sums Americans spend on theater subscriptions and concert-music recordings, on ballet tickets and nights at the opera, on literary magazines and jazz festivals -- and then add to that the millions of man-hours donated by volunteer ushers and ticket-takers and docents and fundraisers. The total is staggering -- and it makes the NEA about as relevant to America's artistic splendor as a falling apple is to the law of gravity.
Could the arts survive without government funding? What a question! The government doesn't fund the Van Cliburn competition or the National Book Awards or the MacArthur grants. The government doesn't organize poetry slams or produce festivals of one-act plays or commission new string quartets. The government doesn't keep art galleries afloat or make the Tony Awards so popular. To adapt an old bumper sticker, arts need the NEA like a fish needs a bicycle.
The NEA is an experiment that failed. In 1965, Congress might have thought that a federal agency could improve or enliven American art. Now it knows better. More novel-reading will take place this year because of Oprah Winfrey than because of anything the NEA has done in its 32 years. If the endowment faded away, who would care? America's tens of millions of art-lovers, swept up in the richest, most democratic arts scene the human race has known, would hardly notice it was gone.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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