Monday, March 21, 2011

Why I don't support eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts

The temptation to be a curmudgeon is hard to withstand. When a drama critic encounters a "Gay Fantasia" or an art critic encounters an exhibition of soiled teddy bears -- indeed when anyone trained in anything encounters the self-congratulatory work of someone trained in nothing -- it is very difficult to resist the temptation to lay back one's ears and bray.
-- J. Bottum

The NEA is a target-rich environment, nowadays. Their department heads should certainly be required to come up with savings from their budgets, same as everyone else. But despite all the offensive crap produced under its imprint over the decades, despite its perceived political biases at times, I think it should be preserved. The reason is that the fine arts in any society throughout history usually require patronage. The Renaissance geniuses had to be funded by various popes and nobility, for example. The Dutch Masters are an exception, mostly making their own way in the bourgeois markets of 17th century Holland. And there have been artists such as Pablo Picasso, John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth who were both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. But for the most part the arts require sponsorship, and in a democracy (especially one with a leftover 1930s ideal of democratic art) the sponsor is the government. People need art, no doubt about it, but in a pure market environment the job of the artist too often turns into trying to prove that people need his art.

“Art happens - no hovel is safe from it, no prince may depend upon it, the vastest intelligence cannot bring it about.”
-- James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Sure, but the rent ain't gonna pay itself. It's to be hoped that the directors of the endowing bodies have enough acumen and taste to weed imposters and charlatans, of course. And we've all heard of artworks that the public wasn't ready for at the time they premiered. But it is through such thickets and blind alleys as those, that art gropes its way forward--given the funding.