The National Endowment for the Arts Is Bad for Art and Should Be Defunded

For over a decade as a theatre artist, my salary was made possible by taxpayers funding the arts. To be sure, some of that money was made possible by private grants and, I guess, through monies raised at the box office. But, let’s be honest, without the taxpayers footing a hefty portion of the bill, I wouldn’t have been able to make as little money as I did make. In hindsight, and after much reflection and a better understanding of economics, I am truly sorry, and ask the taxpayer to forgive my thievery. However, spilled milk can’t be put back into the bottle. That doesn’t mean that we have to keep spilling the milk, though. It’s way past time to defund and shutter the National Endowment for the Arts.

From the organization’s website, “The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency that funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.”

That mission statement prompts a few questions. (Well, the first one isn’t so much a question as an eye-rolling musing.): 1. Yeah, it’s easy to fund things with other people’s money, NEA. 2. How does creating a false market for art promote and strengthen creative capacity? 3. All Americans? Really, NEA? Are you sure that “all Americans” have the requisite skills to participate in the arts?

The first question/eye-rolling musing is countered by artists and those who hold the arts community’s purse strings that arts organizations provide an economic engine to communities (by the way, I could write a whole other article about the absurd, silly, politics that I saw first hand while I worked directly for a specific arts funding organization—and by “funding,” of course, I mean that they took taxpayers dollars and with a kindergartener level of pettiness disbursed that stolen taxed money amongst their friends). The NEA and their supporters will trot out research about how many dollars are added to local economies due to things like theatres, symphonies, and museums. Of course, as almost every person with at least half a semester of Economics under their belt is screaming, the NEA’s argument embraces the broken window fallacy.

The economic stimulus felt and supposedly generated by the arts community comes at the expense of other markets. Chances are, the tax dollars given to arts organizations would have been more effectively used elsewhere to benefit local economies. All that money pumped into the local economy by arts organizations would have been pumped into the economy anyway. The taxpayers would have decided which markets to support. And those markets would’ve naturally grown, strengthened, and added jobs and wealth to the economy. The National Endowment for the Arts model artificially props up mostly unwanted markets by using tax dollars that get funneled through inefficient and wasteful bureaucracies.

Segueing into the second question, artificially propping up an unwanted market does not benefit the arts. It does benefit the people who work in the NEA office and the many local organizations that help funnel taxpayers’ money to arts organizations, though. What it does to the arts is create a marketplace that supports bad art. If you don’t believe me, buy tickets to your local community theatre’s production of Seussical the Musical. Besides the money you spent on the ticket, your tax dollars helped pay for that crap. In other words, even if you don’t buy a ticket, your hard-earned money is still being used to stoke the egos and fill the free time of wanna-be actors and directors.

Don’t misunderstand, I love art. Like, a lot. And I’m willing to pay for it, as are many other patrons of the arts. If the National Endowment for the Arts were to be defunded and shuttered, it would help clear the deck of bad art that people aren’t willing to pay the real cost for. Instead of tickets to Seussical the Musical at your local community theatre costing twenty-five or thirty dollars (or less), the removal of tax subsidies would push the ticket price to well north of fifty bucks. Ain’t nobody paying that to see their next door neighbor’s slacker son poorly dance while wearing a red and white striped hat. Instead, the money that’s legitimately used in the arts marketplace would be naturally funneled to the art being made that true patrons of the arts are interested in engaging—you know, good art.

The response to the third question is directly connected to the second question. The fact is, not everyone has the requisite abilities needed to make art. Why should taxpayers be forced to pay for their next door neighbor’s slacker son to tread the boards? If he was truly talented and if the NEA was defunded, he would have the opportunity to prove his worth on a fair and open market. Theatres competing for the dollars of those of us who love theatre would find him. The next door neighbor’s son would either be proven to be a talentless slacker, or his marketable talents and skills would come into the spotlight.

Of course, supporters of the National Endowment for the Arts will counter that the opportunity for arts participation mainly refers to providing access to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise have it. Well, art isn’t necessary for life; art does enhance life, but having your life enhanced at the expense of others is not a right. People don’t have a right to other people’s money just so they can watch a play or visit a museum. That’s a hard truth, I get it, but it’s a truth, nonetheless. On a personal level, my parents couldn’t afford to take me to the theatre or concerts, but I had the entire canvas of God’s masterpiece before me. The songs of the mockingbirds instilled in me an understanding of the power of musical sound, as did the whistling of the wind through the loblolly pine trees. The dance of hardworking ants introduced me to the beauty of movement. The color splashed across the beach by the sunset taught me the power of color. I didn’t need to go to the theatre, to the symphony, or to museums to learn to appreciate and make art.

The arguments used to support the notion that taxpayers should foot the bill for the arts fall short when compared to economics. Those arguments also undermine art. It’s time for the National Endowment for the Art to be defunded and shuttered.