[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.