You Get What You Pay For

Tim Dunkin [Author’s Note: I originally wrote this article at the beginning of 2009, but felt that it might still have some relevance today, especially in light of the current debate about funding PBS and other “cultural” elements in the federal budget that the Left uses as indoctrination tools. I believe the arguments made below can apply to Big Bird just as easily.]

Sometimes, old ideas are the best ones. When the Republicans swept into control of Congress in 1994, they did so on the strength of a set of ideas and policy proposals – including but not limited to those found in the Contract for America – which had resonated with the American people. Smaller government, decentralization of power, fiscal responsibility, and traditional values epitomized the New Republicanism that the American people chose over the radical social and big government agendas which characterized the first two years of the Clinton administration. Unfortunately, as subsequent congresses were to bear out, this conservative, small-government agenda stalled out. Much of what we as conservatives hoped to see accomplished never seemed to materialize.

One of these policy goals which figured into the overall structure of conservative principles was that of defunding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Sadly, this was one of the objectives of the Republican Revolution which didn't make the final cut. While funding was reduced in the mid 1990s as a result of conservative pressure, most of it has since been restored, even under the auspices of a Republican Congress and President. The goal of complete defunding was never met.

This is probably because defunding Big Art – like defunding Public Broadcasting or Public Radio – is one of those issues which excite the susceptibility which the American people have to demagoguery. The Left – which reaps tremendous propaganda and indoctrination benefits from programs such as these – stirs up the proverbial tempest in a teapot every time defunding one of these is mentioned. Many conservatives, especially those who are concerned about the opinions of the elites in this country, don't want to seem like philistines when the shouting starts. And many Americans, the people witnessing it all, are under the erroneous opinion that the NEA, PBS, and the rest fulfill vital public services. Ergo, nothing changes.

It is a shame that conservatives allow themselves to be cowed by the “snootier-than-thou” crowd. If they would instead just find the backbone to make the case for defunding the NEA, they would find that this issue is one which ought to serve as a perfect fusion issue for the socially and fiscally conservative wings of movement conservatism. After all, social conservatives can get behind it since they rightly question why taxpayer money should be used to fund people who often produce little but filth masquerading as “art” which is designed to offend and attack the cherished beliefs of the large majority of Americans. Fiscal conservatives, in their turn, can rightly question why taxpayer money goes to fund art and artists – period. Both have obviously valid points, and these points fit together like a hand in a glove.

The genesis of the movement among conservatives to defund the NEA arose out of the larger culture war as it had come to a head in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Spearheaded by conservative groups like the American Family Association (AFA), calls for defunding of the NEA came in response to the granting of taxpayer funds to “artists” such as Barbara DeGenevieve (whose “work” basically amounted to pornography), Robert Mapplethorpe (who's “work” definitely amounted to pornography), and Andres Serrano (famous for his display featuring a crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine). The question which cultural conservatives rightly asked is, “Why should we be paying for this kind of abjectly filthy junk which does nothing but attack the core beliefs and morals of this country?”

It's not as if they were out of bounds in asking this sort of question, either. After all, no less a giant of American liberty than Thomas Jefferson basically expressed the same sentiment, nearly two hundred years earlier,

“To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

Ah yes, that old religious nut Thomas Jefferson. It's interesting then, in light of the sentiments of this man who, as we know, had a rather large role in writing the Constitution, that the calls for defunding of the NEA provoked the entirely predictable screeches of “censorship” and “violation of the First Amendment” from the recipients of this funding and their supporters. The First Amendment most certainly does guarantee each citizen the right to free speech (though it's highly debatable whether the Founders would have classified art – of any type – under this category, but that's another argument for another time). The First Amendment does not, however, guarantee anyone that their “speech” should be subsidized by the tax-paying citizens of the Republic. This is true regardless of how entitled these “artists” may feel themselves to be to your money and mine.

What about fiscal conservatives, some of whom maybe aren't all that concerned about the “culture war” aspects of the issue? Well, they certainly have a legitimate point in questioning why we even fund the NEA at all. Why do public monies need to be given to private citizens so that they can have the luxury of expressing their own artistic proclivities? After all, a fiscal conservative may enjoy himself by playing a round of golf, but this doesn't give him the right to expect the government to provide a caddy and pay for his golf shoes. Why should it be any different for an artist? Nobody has a right to expect others to subsidize him in his private pursuits.

Is art really something that needs to be sponsored by the government? Of course not. This may surprise some, especially among the bureaucracy in Washington and in the “art community,” but art was alive and well before the NEA came along. Musicians made music, painters painted, sculptors sculpted, and poets poeted long before the NEA. One wonders how Frost managed. How did Rembrandt do it, having to scrape by without being able to partake of his First Amendment-guaranteed piece of the pie? Picasso? It's frankly surprising that he turned out at all without getting a fat, juicy grant.

But these examples and other illustrate the point of convergence between the strictly libertarian fiscal argument and the cultural conservative argument. When you subsidize anything, be it art, mohair production, or peoples' livelihoods themselves, you are always going to get what you pay for.

Subsidizing people themselves has proven a colossal failure – thirty years and trillions of dollars later, we're no closer to winning “the War on Poverty” than we were when Johnson first brandished his ill-conceived idea. All we've done is create a dependent class of people who are noticeably less useful to the body politic than they were decades ago. Likewise, production subsidies in agriculture or anything else (i.e. corporate or farm welfare) have done little but reduce production, introduce laziness and inefficiency into these processes, and increase the cost of goods and food.

And so it is with art. It's not a coincidence that just at the time when America started to subsidize its artists is when the quality of art in America began to seriously degrade. Back in the old days, when art was good and decent people would want to appreciate it, it took a serious investment in effort and self-sacrifice to be a professional artist. The term “starving artist” often wasn't that far from the truth. But now, when any two-bit can call him or herself an “artist” and obtain a government grant to produce their “work,” any two-bit WILL. Now, “success” in the field of art no longer rests on being able to produce something that the broad mass of the people will want to view and enjoy. Instead, it comes with being able to use your subsidy to produce a shocker that will delight the small but influential wine-and-cheese crowd which hates the hoi-polloi and their retrograde values.

The sad and not-very-counterintuitive truth is that using the government to advance the cause of fine art has completely backfired. The taxpayer gets stuck footing a bill that comes out to over $150 million each year – money which could be used for things like paying down our massive, bailout-induced debt. Art itself, likewise, pays a price in that it no longer fills its role of bringing joy and beauty into the lives of people who need it, but is instead used as a tool for attacking those very people. Defunding the NEA – getting the government out of the art business entirely – benefits everyone all around: social conservatives worried about the degradation of our society, fiscal conservatives worried about the degradation of our pocketbooks, and everyone who appreciates art and is worried about the degradation of high culture in America.