Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Arts Funding, Anyone?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Arts Funding, Anyone?

Article excerpt

THE National Endowment for the Arts is up for congressional reauthorization. This turns our attention to the always amusing and sometimes outrageous spectacle of our innocent government spending hard cash on ugly art, vapid literature, and grating music.

Predictably, the discussion focuses not on quality, but on obscenity and censorship. These questions, however, deflect concern from what should be the prior issues in reauthorization: whether we need a national arts endowment at all, and, if we do, what its budget should be.

The arguments for a government program have never been convincing. Is there a shortage of artists? On the contrary. Universities abound with artists' studios and potter's wheels, theater companies and resident composers. It is in fact easier to make a living in the arts than it ever used to be. The problem for artists is not that there are too few of them, but too many, crowding each other for ink, recitals, and exhibitions.

Is there a shortage of good art? Manifestly. But how does the endowment advance the cause of quality? Its standards are nebulous. Everything depends on the selection panels and the staff. Where is the evidence that their efforts have helped raise the level of American literature or composition? Assume that the Endowment could point to 50 excellent new works created in each of the past 25 years, which is doubtful enough. Was its support essential to even half of them? To any of them? It certainly has never enunciated standards that distinguish high from low.

Although the endowment cannot make a persuasive case that it contributes enough to the public good to be worth $175 million per year, Congress is more likely to fiddle with its structure than to drastically cut or eliminate it. So, if the endowment is here to stay, what should its purpose be, and how should it be managed?

Its chief goal should be to separate the better from the worse. This suggests that decisions be left to experts. But the experts turn out to be artists and arts bureaucrats who are disappointingly subject to fashion and jealousy. Even when they agree on something for a reason, it is hard for thoughtful citizens to replicate that reason and apply it for themselves. …

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