Cutting Government Support Of The Arts

Among the productions I was most proud of during the 20 year run of The American Century Theater: June Havoc’s “Marathon’33”, brilliantly produced by Rebecca Christy with negligible government funding…

 President Trump’s proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year includes deep cuts to public arts and media funding.


Perhaps my reaction surprises you, given that I co-founded and for 20 years helped run a non-profit professional theater company.

The proposal cuts the Institute of Museum and Library Services and reduces the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget from $445 million to $15 million. It also cuts the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities by almost 80 percent as prelude to phasing them out. As an aside, it will be interesting to see those suddenly emergent national debt hawks who were in cryogenic sleep during the Obama administration manage the trick of bemoaning the deficit created by the GOP tax cuts while fighting to the death for the superfluous federal expenditures on the arts. If we can’t cut these programs, we literally can’t cut anything.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, if it was ever necessary, is no longer. There were just three TV channels when it was launched: there are now hundreds. PBS is no longer commercial-free television: have you watched it lately? That doesn’t even take into consideration the constant fundraising. It is true that the commercial network fare  now completely eschews any but the lowest culture, but increasingly so does PBS. The theory, as it has been for years, is that if a TV show is British, it is high culture. It isn’t. “Father Brown” is junk. There are better mysteries on CBS.  “Midsummer Murders” is so slow you want to rend your garments. “Downton Abbey” was fun, but it was a soap opera. Taxpayers should not have to underwrite shows like this.

I confess to enjoying NPR, and it has been good to me professionally and personally. But it is partisan, and a publicly funded news station should not be. It is also flagrantly elitist to its core. If NPR is really popular, then some foundations and its wealthy listeners should be able to fund it.

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, a rich kid himself, has called arts spending “welfare for rich, liberal elites.” I agree in the sense that the government is paying for what the wealthy in a community should devote more of their own funds to pay for. The performing arts are now too expensive for anyone but the wealthy. Movies are half the price of a typical community theater show, and movies are seeing their box office numbers dropping. Opera? How many middle class Americans go to the opera? Symphonies? Ballets? Same thing. The entertainment industry doesn’t even pretend to care about keeping their product affordable for anyone not driving a Lexus. Look at the prices to see “Hamilton” or Bette Midler as Dolly on Broadway.

The New York Times unwittingly gives away the real reason they feel we need the government funding the arts, however. It’s indoctrination and propaganda:

[T]he National Endowment for the Arts  amplifies the voices of Americans who aren’t the so-called coastal elite, or the aristocratic, or the advantaged. It seeks to diversify the stories we tell and the lives we see. This diversity can take many forms. It can be seen in racial difference and regional difference, in terms of gender and in terms of class…. Over the last 50 years, through Creative Writing Fellowships alone, the endowment funded the work of Tillie Olsen, who wrote stories about the deep fatigue of working-class mothers; Philip Levine, a Detroit-born poet and the “Whitman of the industrial heartland”; Ernest J. Gaines, the descendant of sharecroppers who wrote fiction about rural Louisiana; and Bobbie Ann Mason, a short-story writer from rural Kentucky who, along with Carver, brought “dirty realism” into vogue — a working-class counterpoint to the fictional worlds populated by rich, liberal elites.

Bingo. When the government funds the arts, it cannot help itself from funding artists and art that advance the government’s agenda and those of its agency administrators. What this means, and what honest artists will admit, is that artists change their projects and messages to attract dollars, not to express themselves. My theater company encountered this constantly. It was made clear that we would have a better chance at grants if we did more works by women, about minorities, and exploring gay issues. I am proud of our eclectic and diverse choice of seasons, projects and artists.We also kept our ticket prices lower than almost all of the other small professional theaters. Indeed, we suffered for that: since we charged about what the amateur theaters did, a lot of people assumed we weren’t a professional company. As a company run by straight, white lawyers that attracted older citizens with advanced degrees and explored American stage works 25 years old or older, government funders had steadily decreasing interest in our work, even though it was the only professional theater in the area that admitted children free of charge.  What mattered most was whether our art supported the government’s objectives. The quality of the art was secondary.

I don’t fault them for that: they were  giving out money, after all, Nonetheless, the power to fund is the power to control, warp and destroy.

Artists will always be with us. So will the performing arts, but new structures, systems and funding needs to be found that does not involve the government, whose participation pollutes art and make integrity impossible and innovation difficult.

Trump may not be seeking to cut government funding of the arts for the right reasons, but it’s still the right thing to do.

8 thoughts on “Cutting Government Support Of The Arts

  1. “The performing arts are now too expensive for anyone but the wealthy.”

    The Charles Murray interview with Cato discussed how it was seen as Civic virtue for the wealthy to voluntarily subsidize “high” culture and other communal goods to make it more affordable for the masses. At least now, “high” culture, having to compete, may actually become high culture again and not just Leftist pablum.

  2. For all the above reasons, I concur. But the most important one is this:

    What mattered most was whether our art supported the government’s objectives. The quality of the art was secondary.

    To me, this is the crux of the biscuit. It is understandable, as you say later, but it warps the artistic impulse and talent, bending it to ends that have nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics.

  3. Does this mean that the CNN & MSNBC split screens will now have 8 talking heads instead of the 4-6 bashing Trump 24/7?

    I’m a supporter of the arts who has no problem with the cuts. Those affected will come up with the money some way. Just last week I gave 100 bucks to WBJC in honor of Jonathan Palevsky’s show “Face the Music,” which I listen to regularly. I’d give 200 bucks to TACT if you bring it back Jack (now that I have no COIs as a reviewer)!

    I do like some of the PBS programs, some of the time (“American Experience,” “Live from Lincoln Center”) & I’m mostly hooked on the Brits (“Victoria,” “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries”), but you have to keep your critical faculties alert during the entertainment. I suspect popular shows will land on some commercial streaming platform & viewers can pay for what they like. I do go to symphonies & occasionally opera, though I’d say I’m middle class & hardly liberal or elite.

    I agree about the NEA cuts, which have had an agenda throughout the 38 years I’ve lived down here, though I think the NEH has operated more in a bipartisan way or at least cycled with changes in administration.

    Fans of Charles Murray will want to read the data driven sociology book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” and the divide between Fishtown (which reads true from my Philly perspective) & Belmont, suburb of Boston. Both seemed to have seen a bump since 2010, though if gentrified working class neighborhood’s are cool, SuperZips rule.

  4. Math error, 33, not 38 years in the DC area. The NEA is more tribal than the NEH in its allegiance. No one would step out of line ever, it would lead to ostracism. Speaking of which, maybe Trump’s floor offer will force an invite to the KC Honors next year.

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