National patronage of the arts is ancient and almost universal. Japanese and Chinese emperors, Egyptian pharaohs and Mayan and Bantu kings all realized that a healthy national culture generated a mysterious mixture of confidence and coherence that translated into political power. Pericles's brilliant patronage of the Parthenon is perhaps the most famous example. Like national defense, scientific research and the legal system, the arts are too important, too long-term and too collective in their payoff to be left entirely to individuals or corporations (though we need to explore further the role of private enterprise, with its benefits of competition, freedom and efficiency, in all of those areas).
The National Endowment for the Arts is, in principle, a good idea. But we should judge differently arts subsidies that maintain a traditional cultural heritage as opposed to those that support new art.
State patronage works well at maintaining classical art forms; keeping the national heritage of architecture in good repair; supporting the schools and academies that train budding artists to exacting standards of virtuosity in the skills, crafts, genres and forms of the arts; and funding museums, theaters, opera companies, symphony halls and the like. The benefit of these institutions are not just the intangible ones of recalling us to our better selves; they translate into big payoffs for cities and communities that house them in terms of tourism, convention business and overall attractiveness. There is good evidence that the NEA has done an excellent job in supporting traditional arts and has had a great deal to do with the huge increase in the number of Americans who attend concerts, plays and art exhibitions.
The track record of state patronage of new art is more questionable. We have had our successes, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration arts program. But we also have had failures, and we must face the fact that in new art the NEA is regarded widely as a failure. We are not the only nation to have stumbled badly in this regard. One need hardly mention the art supported by Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. The Dutch government ended up with huge warehouses of moldering paintings and sculpture, having set itself up as a guarantor for the visual arts during the sixties and seventies. French public television, dominated by state socialist ideas, is proverbial in Europe for its stultifying dullness. (This is in the same tradition as the French Academy of Painting standing obstinately against the innovations of 19th-century impressionism.)
However, state subsidy of new art also has had its successes. European state patronage during the Renaissance was almost unerring in its wisdom, as was that of classical Greece and Japan. Ancient India, China and Egypt and the pre-Columbian empires of America did not make the sharp distinction between traditional and new art that modern Western nations do - a distinction that also can be found among the ancient Greeks and the Japanese; thus their patronage of new art was generally well-informed by the high standards of their traditional art patronage.
What makes the difference between successful state support of the arts and failure? The answer lies in the nature of the patrons.
Traditionally, the great patrons have been aristocrats, members of the priesthood and ordinary people. Aristocrats often are trained from birth in the appreciation of fine and beautiful things and have the opportunity and wealth to become connoisseurs, Likewise, great art has been sponsored by the priestly institutions of church, synagogue, temple, mosque, stupa or monastery, with their dual mission of giving honor to the divine and representing the divine to the people. And the folk or popular traditions have the advantage that they are subject to the ongoing poll and collective criticism of the human race at large, so their collectively created artworks are direct and profound. …