Art is oftentimes misunderstood, and I mean this in a couple of different ways. Art is intimately created and (sometimes) shared graciously and bravely with the world. The scrutinizing eyes of those who observe this art will often “misunderstand” what the artist was aiming for when creating. (Though it can be argued that after art is made public, any and every interpretation can be correct.) However, the very roots of art are also misunderstood–how art came to be art; the reason behind it; where it will go from here; whom it is for and whom it is from; and, receiving close attention recently, who should pay for it?
This concern of funding for the arts arose when President Trump’s first budget blueprint proposed the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). When this proposal was released, there was immediate concern, and understandably so. There is no doubt that the money given to the NEA has been a vital contribution to many successful, integral artistic aspects of our society. However, it is worth considering: is it fair to use taxpayers’ money (government money) to contribute to something as controversial as art? I believe in art with my whole being. I have both experienced and observed the way it educates, the way it heals, the way it connects, the way it peacefully yet radically speaks what needs to be said. I also know, though, that once the government is involved with a creature as fragile, as beautiful and as tendentious as art, something significant is lost.
Our country’s founding fathers believed in limited, constitutional government. They also happened to be cultured men who knew and appreciated art, familiar with many European systems of public art funding. However, when writing the U.S. Constitution, nowhere did they specify a power to subsidize the arts. When the federal government has control over funding for the arts, they have control over the “freedom” of expression. In the same way there is separation of church and state in the United States, so there should be a fight against established art. A government that allows freedom of religion should allow freedom of expression, which the United States does, according to the First Amendment.
However, there is danger in limiting that freedom when the majority of funding for the arts is controlled by the government. In 1990, the Presidential Commission on the NEA concluded that because the NEA distributes the money of taxpayers, it has an obligation to maintain a high standard of decency and respect. However, funds of the NEA continue to be distributed to highly controversial areas, such as sexually explicit (arguably pornographic) movies and religiously slanderous exhibits which are offensive to many citizens whose taxes contribute to these artworks. Art exists for an important reason, and I believe in the freedom for artists to create art that isn’t always “family-friendly,” because “art” doesn’t have to mean “beautiful.” Sometimes art exposes disgusting truths. Art is brutally honest, and brutal honesty isn’t easy to look at, let alone involuntarily lend money to.
In 1883, decades before the NEA existed, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Beauty will not come at the call of the legislature….It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men.” Federal government and art have no business intermingling when it comes to funding, for this injects a third-party judge between the artist and the audience. Suddenly, art is no longer directed toward an audience of citizens with shared experiences–left alone to be digested and judged as relevant, thought-provoking, perhaps even pleasant–but instead toward an audience of governmental powers who are dangling funding as bait for production of what they consider art. It is in keeping with democratic beliefs to allow art to thrive based on what the market (being the support or rejection of citizens) decides, not based on what the government decides.
Artists will continue to create art, whether or not they have the permission, funds or audience they desire or deserve. That’s the remarkable thing about art–it’s unstoppable. And as long as there is money in the hands of citizens, art will be funded whether or not the government allows it or funds it, because art is one of the rare things in this world that contributes directly to the betterment of everybody, even if they haven’t yet realized it. Art is human; humans are art. Government is not in the equation.
Sources: The Heritage Foundation, National Review, New York Times, NPR, religiondispatches.org