WHAT STATION is President Clinton tuned to? Congressional leaders want to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and quit throwing good money after bad. Voters clamor deafeningly for reductions in government spending. In a nationwide LA Times poll one month ago, 69 percent of respondents favored cutting back government arts subsidies.
Yet Clinton's 1996 budget proposal recommends not only keeping the NEA but increasing its allotment by $ 5 million! This is dumb politics. It's even dumber judgment.
There is no good argument for retaining the NEA. The best proof of that lies in the weakness of the case made by its apologists. Consider this flabby argument, one of their favorites: The NEA should be preserved because it spends only 64 cents per citizen.
"I do not believe that the taxpayers . . . begrudge the 64 cents each year that the endowment costs them," cries NEA chairman Jane Alexander. "Sixty-four cents: the price of two postage stamps a year!"
This rationale, repeated ad nauseam by NEA supporters, earns an A for its arithmetic (a $167 million budget divided by 260 million Americans does indeed equal 64 cents per person) and an F for its logic. What does the per-capita cost of the NEA have to do with the price of fish paste? For only pennies per person the government subsidizes tobacco farmers, pays the indicted Dan Rostenkowski a lavish pension, and keeps Cuban boat people locked behind barbed wire. By Alexander's lights, no one should begrudge any of these since they only cost each of us the price of a few postage stamps.
Another limp argument: Absent government funding, worthy and popular arts organizations would waste away from hunger.
"Without the NEA, we lose four times," lamented Susan Hartnett of the Boston Center for the Arts to the Globe last year. "Our New Folk Art program . . . wouldn't have happened. Fourteen of the artists who've shown in our gallery wouldn't have gotten grants. The current show we're doing in collaboration with Very Special Arts wouldn't be open. Our plans to . . . fix the Cyclorama an exhibition space in the South End, which has served the arts for 20 years, would never happen." Nearly every outfit that receives an NEA check will tell you the same thing: If the NEA goes, we'll be in desperate shape.
Of course, there's a clanging inconsistency here. If the NEA budget is so tiny it amounts to practically nothing, how can the NEA be the mainstay of art in America?
Somehow Whitman managed to write without an NEA subsidy
In fact, the NEA-is-indispensable argument is worse than preposterous. It is deeply insulting to the nation's real arts benefactors: the individuals, corporations, and foundations that contributed nearly $ 9.5 billion last year to sustain the arts and humanities. In 1994, private giving to the arts dwarfed the NEA budget by a ratio of 57 to 1. And that doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of hours donated by arts lovers who gave of their time instead of their cash -- volunteer ushers, docents, ticket-takers, stagehands, gift shop cashiers, tour guides, interns, and so many others.
The mainstay of American art is and always has been a generous private sector. The NEA isn't a mainstay of anything except bureaucracy.
But the most wrongheaded NEA argument of all is the claim that subsidizing art is a proper function of government.
That cannot be true unless judging art is a proper function of government, for passing judgment on art and artists is what the NEA does every day. When it gives a grant to this theater group, it denies a grant to that one. Thumbs up on one sculptor, thumbs down on a second. The US government approves of your exhibition; it disapproves of yours.
This is Ministry Of Culture stuff, and it should make all of us uneasy. When government interferes with art, it is generally artists who suffer the consequences. The Communists put playwright Vaclav Havel in prison; the Nazis staged mocking exhibits of "degenerate art"; the Soviets jerked composer Dmitri Shostakovich up and down on a yo-yo of government favor and disfavor.
The NEA isn't the Politburo, but it has no business in a society protected by the First Amendment. In America, the state is expected to keep out of the marketplace of ideas. If it is wrong for government to censor a work of art, it is just as wrong for government to subsidize one. Jesse Helms has no business deciding what goes on a museum's walls. Ted Kennedy doesn't, either.
There are no good reasons to preserve the NEA, only weak and self-serving ones. When the arts endowment was established in 1965, the 89th Congress may have imagined it was doing something wise. Thirty years later, the 104th Congress surely knows better.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)