29 January 2004

Speaking of the dangers of patronage…

It appears that the Bush Administration has proposed increased funding for the arts. This is far from an unvarnished good thing; and that is regardless of what political or partisan purpose or persuasion pervades the program, or might influence it in the future. On the one hand, I support increased funding, in a very general sense, for the arts. But I believe that such funding should be hands-off to channels with review later only for financial accountability. The shameful cuts in PBS funding under the Reagan Administration (and later) for the purported "political bias" in its programming are but the tip of the iceberg. The whole point of leaving artists in control of such programs is that polticians are not qualified to judge art, and perhaps nobody is qualified to judge it as it created. As Orwell noted, "[Using] the word 'political' in the widest possible sense…[, t]he opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." Such as these:

Some conservatives, like Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, vowed to oppose the [proposed] increase. Even without support from the government, he said, "art would thrive in America. …. We are looking at record deficit and potential cuts in all kinds of programs," he said. "How can I tell constituents that I'll take money away from them to pay for somebody else's idea of good art? I have no more right to do that than to finance somebody else's ideas about religion."

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"Government involvement is designed to take the arts from the grand citadel of the privileged and bring them to the public at large," [Rep. Jim] Leach [R-Iowa] said. "This democratization of the arts ennobles the American experience."

Robert Pear, "Bush Is Said to Seek More Money for the Arts" (29 Jan. 04) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity).

These two extreme opinions are so far at odds with reality that by themselves they demonstrate that neither the Administration nor Congress has any business whatsoever in making these kinds of decisions. On the one hand, Mr. Tancredo's attitude is almost identical to Stalin's; look at what happened to Zamiatin, Pasternak, et al. That's right: he's acting liking a Commie. As soon as government claims control over content in the arts, the arts go to hell. Directly to hell. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. On the other hand, Mr. Leach's comments disclose an equally dangerous, if not equally obvious, difficulty with government funding of the arts. The unstated roadblock in his glib truism is the grant process. All this does is slightly change the address of the "grand citadel of the privileged," so long as there is anyone other than artists (and even that is with a big caveat) involved in the grant process. The address moves down the road to those artists who are prominent enough, and otherwise well-supported enough, to survive the grant process itself. That is simply not going to include an unknown genius or a radical dissenter (whatever form that radicalism takes).

A more-realistic alternative would be an indirect increase in arts funding by removing some of the market and taxation barriers to the arts. It's all well and good to have marketplace involvement; in fact, it's critical; but perhaps the Oxford University Press's influence on British publishing should be looked at very carefully for some ideas. The OUP has an immense advantage over most publishers: it is untaxed. That may be too radical a solution, particularly since so much of the recognizable "arts" in this country already sits in the hands of corporate conglomerates that seem to be doing quite nicely in the profit column (particularly when using real, and not illusory, accounting). But there are surely ways to manage this that would both increase the real funding available to artists by making it less risky to take a chance and simultaneously avoid the obvious Tancredo problem of pinning particular dollars to particular works. <SARCASM> Besides, the Bush Administration is so fond of bizarre tax cut programs that it should positively enjoy the challenge of creating an appropriately Byzantine system. </SARCASM>