The Trump administration is reportedly considering cutting, or even entirely defunding, the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The latter would be privatized.
To many this signals the coming of a “cultural dark age.” What will the Europeans say? What will Meryl Streep say?
As someone who has made his living in the arts for decades, writing novels and feature films, and was a former officer of PEN, I should be appalled. I’m not. In fact, I’m supportive. And not just because it saves taxpayer money. Government sponsorship of the arts is fundamentally undemocratic and ultimately dangerous.
Whether we notice it or not, almost all art is political on one level or another. It favors the status quo or it doesn’t. It’s part of the solution or part of the problem, depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting on. This is clear in books, theatre, and film because of their content, but is also apparent in less literary areas like the visual arts and music. Sometimes this political art is just propaganda, sometimes it rises above it in the hands of masters like Goya and Daumier.
But most of all, when sponsored by the NEA, it represents the views of the incumbent political party and works to represent its interests and policies. This was almost comically illustrated in 2009 when Yosi Sergant — the publicist responsible for commissioning Obama’s original “Hope” poster who became the NEA’s director of communications — was caught on a conference call specifically instructing their artists to defend the Obama agenda in their work. (Calling, Leni Riefenstahl!)
In the case of Sargent, nothing that serious happened and the Obama administration, embarrassed, moved its communications director to a more harmless job. But this event that occurred early on in that administration was a warning to all of the totalitarian tendencies in government control of the arts,.
State-sponsorship of the arts also creates what we could call a “Solyndra Effect,” after the failed solar company whose financing was aided by the Obama administration. Picking winners and losers in the arts is even more difficult than in business, with the government prone to choosing Salieri over Mozart even more frequently than it does a Solyndra over a more worthy company. This selection is better done by the public because art should really be for the pleasure and edification of the people themselves, not a tool of their rulers. In the arts, it’s better for the market to rule. It also makes for better art in the long run, no matter what some professor might tell you.
This doesn’t mean I don’t applaud individuals, corporations, and foundations that want to sponsor artistic organizations and artists of all kinds. That is their prerogative in a free society. They made the choice of who or what to support and deserve their names in the symphony hall lobbies. But the citizens of this country are miles from the decision-making process of the bureaucrats at the NEA. They don’t even know it exists. They’re too busy watching “Nashville.”
The same goes for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is equally prone to politicization. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is worse and its privatization is long overdue. Their radio outlet NPR is the left-wing equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. Let them compete on an equal basis.
All that said, I don’t think the NEA and the NEH should be completely extinguished, just seriously curtailed. Someone has to be there to give out the medals.
Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media. His latest book is I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already. Follow him on Twitter @rogerlsimon