Defund the National Endowment for the Arts — for Art’s Sake

(Illustration: Bluraz/Dreamstime)
The sooner we are done with the Medicis of mediocrity, the better.

Of course we should kill the National Endowment for the Arts — not because we don’t care about art, but because we do. The ladies and gentlemen of the NEA are the Medicis of mediocrity, and the sooner we are done with them the better.

The case against the NEA is not that abolishing it will save the federal government a tremendous amount of money. It won’t. The NEA’s budget is, relatively speaking, chickenfeed — $148 million this year. (Which is literally less than Tyson spends on chickenfeed, if you were wondering.) We are not going to balance the budget on cuts — even cuts of 100 percent — to the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and foreign aid. About 80 percent of the federal budget is Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other health-care programs, national security, and interest on the debt. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t pay attention to the little things, but our fiscal problem is far larger than the NEA and similar programs.

And there is nothing wrong with spending money on cultural programs in principle. When the friends of the National Review Institute visited Mount Vernon last week, some of them were surprised to hear that the institution receives no federal funding. One of the most conservative men I know turned to me and said: “Federal funding would be appropriate.” It would not be inappropriate, to be sure, even if in fact it is not needed. Well done to the excellent people at Mount Vernon and their extraordinarily generous benefactors for that.

And the case for eliminating the NEA is not that it sometimes funds controversial projects. There is much in this world that is truly excellent that is born in controversy: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring inspired a riot at its premiere, according to legend. Charles Murray is controversial. The Road to Serfdom and God and Man at Yale were controversial — Cornell went so far as to forbid one of its professors from using F. A. Hayek’s most popular book in his class. And we should not be persuaded by the narrower argument that some NEA-funded works have been offensive or sacrilegious. Charlie Hebdo is offensive and sacrilegious, and more power to it.

The case against the NEA is that it is bad for art and bad for artists.

It helps to understand what the NEA actually is and what it does. The National Endowment for the Arts has relatively little interest in art — or, if you must, “the arts” — per se. It spends a great deal of money not on art but on the artsy and the art-ish: community-development programs with an arts component; educational initiatives that touch art, music, or theater, however tangentially; partnerships between municipal agencies and politically connected nonprofits that function as a way to shunt federal funds into the coffers of friendly mayors’ offices and those of their allies.

RELATED: What’s the ‘Public Purpose’ of the National Endowment for the Arts?

Consider the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, an NEA-supported project with the most nebulously defined goals you have ever heard of: “The Mayors’ Institute on City Design gives our nation’s mayors the opportunity, time, and the expertise of the design community to forge solutions and advance ideas about what their cities can become,” says NEA chairman Jane Chu. If that is not vague enough, NEA literature adds this: “MICD has helped prepare over 1,000 mayors to be the chief urban designers of their cities and connected over 700 design and development professionals to local governance.” Grants made under that program are $450,000 a pop. The NEA says this program helps to “transform” cities. Beneficiaries include Cleveland and Cincinnati – how transformed do those cities seem to you?

This is part of what the NEA calls “creative placemaking.” The problem with “creative placemaking” is that it is basically baloney, a way to move some money into friendly hands and create some opportunities for marginally employable vaguely creative types. Everybody knows this, including the NEA itself, which is why it has gone to such extraordinary lengths to avoid actually evaluating the outcomes of such programs. Consider this 2012 report from that organ of right-wingery, the Huffington Post:

The NEA has chosen to forgo a traditional evaluation of the Our Town grant program in favor of developing the aforementioned indicator system. The project will no doubt result in a lot of great data, but essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we can’t accomplish the goal of “advancing understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities” without digging more deeply into the causal relationships that the NEA would prefer to avoid.

The author of that piece, Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas (I very much doubt he shares my views on NEA funding, but his analysis is interesting), describes the “creative placemaking” effort as part of an “underpants gnome” business model. The projects are to be judged on “vibrancy,” as indicated by metrics such as . . . cell-phone use and home values. It is no wonder that, as Moss writes, “ArtPlace isn’t requiring its grantees to collect any data on how that impact is achieved. Furthermore, ArtPlace’s guidelines state clearly that the consortium has no plans to invest in research on creative placemaking beyond the vibrancy indicators themselves, despite its advocacy goals and a desire to ‘share the lessons [grantees] are learning to other communities across the U.S.’”

Does anybody really believe that Hamilton would fail to be financially viable without government support?

The NEA emphasizes that it funds projects, not organizations and their operating costs. But money is fungible, and apologists for the NEA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the like occasionally stumble into the truth that this is in part about “the jobs supported” by such programs, as Time put it. We have not seen any great renaissance in American creativity since the inception of the NEA, but we have seen tremendous growth in cultural agencies, in their budgets, in their payrolls, and in their administrative staffs. The NEA is only one factor in that, of course, but it is a considerable one, and one that sets an example for state and local governments – an example fortified by matching grants. This is why there are nearly three times as many people employed by cultural institutions as there are police officers – when you exclude the 54 percent of them who work in private, for-profit organizations. And the police payrolls aren’t exactly lean.

As anyone familiar with the Italian Renaissance knows, artists are not immune to financial pressure or financial temptations, nor are they averse to sinecures and offices. Of course the NEA has been involved in projects that have turned out to be worthy, or at least popular: But does anybody really believe that Hamilton would fail to be financially viable without government support? Does anybody think the Museum of Modern Art would wither without the NEA? Of course not. But the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises in Philadelphia would be out $25,000, and this facsimile of Mr. Snuffleupagus made from chain-link fence might not exist.

RELATED: Separate Art and State

Public funding of art means that support and honors come not from creating great works but from flattering politicians or at least giving them the opportunity to cut a ribbon in public and proclaim their love of “the arts.” There is really no other explanation for the scandal that is public art in these United States. Our cultural bureaucracies, from the NEA down to the local organizations and institutions it supports, are the great enemy of American art, distorting tastes, careers, and patronage. They are a major factor in the malinvestment that has employment in cultural institutions growing significantly more quickly than that of the overall labor force. I am sure the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is terrific – but 400 employees?

Eliminating the NEA is not a program for punishing artists but for liberating them – from bureaucracy, from mediocrity, and, above all, from subservience to politics.

— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review.

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