Critical of Govt. Arts Funding

In his 2004 State of the Union message, President Bush encouraged parents, educators, and government leaders to “work together to counter the negative influence of the culture.” – Bill Ivey, Arts, Inc.

This statement typifies the attitudes to the arts and culture in the United States.  Throughout the years, the venue of Arts and Culture has been vilified by one party or the other for political gain.

While the government cannot put outright sanctions on entertainment – because that would be censorship – they can and do threaten in multiple ways.  In the non-profit sector the government constantly threatens to take funding away from the arts and culture if controversial works are funded.  This causes government Arts Agencies such as the NEA and State Councils for the Arts to shy away from any art that is not mainstream.  The government fears the arts not solely for its controversial nature, but also for its staying power and influence over the masses.  Artists such as Maplethorpe will never receive funding from a government source due to their explicit themes.  Such can be said for musicians whose music is offensive to all but the most highly trained ears.

If the art is in anyway challenging to the mental capacities of a ten year old or offensive to an eighty-year-old Catholic great-grandmother then it will not be funded.  This removes massive chunks of literature, music, visual art, and theater from public viewing.  In effect, by the government refusing to fund anything remotely outside of mainstream, they are censoring US artists.  Not that outright censorship has not occurred in the United States; it has, in fact it usually happens on our doorstep.  My hometown of Bakersfield, California has attempted to ban books, most recently The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison.  Other books they have succeeded in banning include The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  The banning started as a parental outcry at the public high schools due to the sexuality of content in The Bluest Eye, even though the book is on the Department of Education approved reading list.  To purchase Morrison’s book, a Bakersfieldian had to order it online as it was no longer available in the bookstores, libraries, or schools to comply with popular whim.  Luckily, the ban never came to fruition, but it is still censorship of the cultural fabric in the United States.

While this is an extreme case of government censorship, it is not without note.  If the government is banning books that are considered inappropriate for a given city or population when the book was created in the free market of for-profit, then what chance does non-profit art making have?  The problem with government funding is this: the government has the right to give funding to whom they see fit, but the government does not have the right to decide which art the public consumes.  Hence the catch 22.  Countering the negative influence of culture is akin to slaying the monster in the closet.

Government officials taut the horrors of culture in stump speeches all the way to, as referenced above, the State of the Union.  The Arts are a four-letter-word and even though government only gives roughly $172 million to them a year (which is the equivalent of a single F-22 Raptor) the populace has been led to believe that spending is exorbitant.  Democrats ‘support’ the arts as a leverage to increase voter base and knock the Republicans down another peg or two to their constituents.  Republicans cry foul when a single penny enters the hands of an artist, which rallies their base.  This entire bargaining debate happens long before funding actually reaches any artist.

I am reminded of a terrible B-movie, Mars Attacks when the main character says, “can’t we all just get along?”  Then again, this is politics, and if a politician is not at another’s throat then they are not playing the game.  So we cannot get along, and our funding is restricted to a tiny fraction of a single percent of the overall budget.  And that minuscule amount is given to safe artists, who contribute little to the cultural fabric of the United States.

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