Is the NEA really necessary?

The National Endowment for the Arts works for a few institutions and artists, but the amount of ill-will it creates offsets the good. The art world – and country – would be better off without it.

The NEA has lost its relevance. There was a time when the art world revolved around Europe. The creators of The NEA sought to ensure that the post-war America was as competitive in the arts as we had proven to be in manufacturing and commerce. Within a generation, they had accomplished their mission. By the mid-1980s, New York had overtaken Paris as the center of the art world. Today, the US has more galleries, art professionals, and museums than any other nation. We also have the most artists. In fact, there are too many artists and too much art being made.

Yikes, what? The art world hates to see this written but knows it to be true. Regularly, conversations between members of the community often try to quantify the problem. It seems that for every institutionally recognized artist, there are ten unheralded artists making a living through gallery sales. For every shown artist, there are another ten selling out of their garage. And for every one of those, there are another ten that will never sell any work at all. That is a lot – and an almost uncalculatable number – of artists working in the US.

 

The NEA isn’t needed. The private sector is very good – even better than the public sector – at supporting the arts. Every city has their benefactors and it is because of them (not the government) that we have public art and museums. In most cities, every new building must allocate a percentage of building costs to public art. And many organizations (US Artists, Bemis, Artadia to name a few) have demonstrated that they are better at giving out NEA styled grants than the government was. Of course, the community wants government money and more of it, but what community doesn’t want more free stuff? The arts in the US are thriving and would continue to do well without the coins tossed at it by the NEA.

Cloud_Gate_(The_Bean)_from_east'.jpg
Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate known unofficially as the Bean. A $23 million dollar sculpture funded completely through private donations.

Accessible – easy to grasp and like – art doesn’t need the NEA to fund it. There are lots of ways to get this made and displayed. Benefactors put it up in parks, buildings hang it in their lobbies, and decorative galleries and design shops sell it out of their storefronts.

Really good art is inaccessible to a vast majority of the population and shouldn’t be paid for with tax dollars. It is often head-scratching and not pretty to look at. People may not care, or don’t want to invest the time and understanding. In some cases, they may even find it offensive. These folks would rather see that money go to something they care about – even if it’s only enough to fix a few potholes. Some argue, that this is precisely the reason the government should fund the arts, but again, there are plenty of better sources of financing available and far too much art already.

Too much of what passes for good art today will not be remembered by history. Popular artists often make art that appeals to their contemporaries but lacks political balance. Most work in a political echo chamber where their fellow artists, curators, gallerists, and collectors all have very similar views. As a result, preaching to the choir – and doing so with hyperbole! – tends to get an artist noticed and may be required for public grants.

Yet, as I have argued for years, this does not make for good art! Good art – like good thought – recognizes that solutions are hard, people’s opinions are diverse (even those of educated ones), and that gray is more interesting than black or white.

The NEA provides little benefit relative to the other sources of financing available to the art community. Meanwhile, it creates significantly more negative controversy than other possible uses for the same funds. To repeat my favorite Penn Jillette quote,

You get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in [being forced to do it].

I put my money where my mouth is. I care about art and I support it. I buy it, I view it, and I give money to organizations that allow good artists to make more of it. I do not feel I have a right to force regular taxpayers to share in my passion.

 

[Featured Image. Honey Grid #2 by Karen Finley, an American artist who notoriously directed her 1980s NEA grant toward a shocking performance piece. This author was fortunate to see her at Metro (then Cabaret Metro) in 1991.]

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