In the most recent attack on intelligence in America, the Cobb County (Georgia) Commission voted to cut off all money to the arts next year. Shaken by neighboring Atlanta’s decision to grant domestic partnership status to the partners of city employees who are homosexual, and shuddering over a handful of objections over some references to homosexuality in Terrance McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, the commissioners down in Newt Gingrich country pounded their pectorals and resolved that rather than taking time and effort to decide how to fund the arts, to once and for all get government out of the picture; the money that was being given to, say, sissy groups like a children’s theater and a symphony orchestra would be allocated instead to a brimming-with-testosterone function: law enforcement.
This decision comes at a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is, once again, under attack. (Of course, the NEA is never not under attack.) The strategy for battling culture is strikingly similar to the one employed in Cobb County. Depict anti-NEA types as hard-headed, no-nonsense John Waynes while simultaneously portraying the pro-arts people as Sodomites and Gomorrahites who connive to put taxpayer dollars into the hands of “artists” who will mock God, desecrate the flag, ridicule the nuclear family and champion anarchy as they create blasphemous haiku or sculptures of excrement.
This has proven to be a brilliant propagandistic tool. But let me tell you something: It is also baloney. Sure, I am an artist, but I am as tough, hard-working, practical, patriotic and religious as Jesse Helms. I live with my husband of twenty-five years in a house in the suburbs where we’ve raised two intelligent, respectable registered Democrats. I have three dogs, one cat and a Jeep Cherokee and I think government must support the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts is vital to our nation’s survival.
The NEA serves the country. A couple of examples: With a half-million dollar grant, Salt Lake City’s Ballet West innovative” hub-and-spoke” touring is bring quality dance programs to “hub” urban areas such as Albuquerque, Anchorage, Cheyenne, Tucson and Boise and split-company touring to “spokes,” smaller communities with limited performance facilities. With a $32,000 grant, the Alabama State Council on the Arts hired a field-worker to identify traditional musicians and storytellers for a 12-part radio series Alabama folklore that will reach an audience of nearly 100,000 people. (Government support of the arts creates jobs not just for the artists themselves, for workers in related fields — from construction to ad agencies to restaurants to parking lots.)
The critics of government involvement in the arts are fond of pointing to an occasional instance of grant money being used for a dubious project. These incidents are not only infrequent, but the NEA responds vigorously to such problems, and far more quickly than did its Congressional critics, the macho men who didn’t raise a fist, or even an eyebrow, while billions were being squandered by the Pentagon’s negligence, or by the cupidity and stupidity of individuals in the deregulated savings and loan industry.
When not getting apoplectic about a particular painting or play, the critics of public money for the arts proclaim: We need law enforcement; we don’t need way-out art. Why waste our money subsidizing work no one will pay to see? If the stuff is so great, people will be standing on line to see it. In other words, they are arguing that the arts, like private enterprise, should function according to the laws of supply and demand, free of government interference or subsidy.
Even though I earn a great deal of money from writing, I know very well that art is not commerce. If we as a nation treat it as if it were, all we will be left with is works the public is willing to pay for. What will happen, then, to the dancers, opera singers, puppeteers, poets, to the classicists who preserve the ancient plays, to the innovators in synthesized music and hyper-fiction? What of the avant-garde? If they’re so dedicated to their so-called art, the hard-ballers in Congress say, they’ll do it for free. But they can’t, not if they have to put bread on the table themselves and their families. We, the public, need them though, to help our society, especially us middle-aged middle-brows, to see life from a new perspective. More important, we need them to inspire as yet-unborn generations of writers, dancers, film-makers and fine artists.
Instead of buying that tired old analogy of art as a business, we should compare it to education. Almost all Americans can agree that it is an essential function of government to maintain and raise the level of education of its citizenry. We do not commit public funds merely so that our school can teach practical trades — auto mechanics, neurosurgery. Education is also the great equalizer; no matter where a citizen comes from, the government sees to it that he or she will be equipped to understand how the world works, from its technology to its economics to its philosophy, literature and art.
As we support education, so must we support the arts: to advance civility and to propel society forward. Historically, queens and kings, popes and princes did not patronize (i.e., subsidize) the arts solely for their own pleasure. Today, all of the NEA’s programs cost each American just sixty-eight cents a year (as opposed to $1,137 for defense and $201 in education). In contrast, Germany spends $27 per citizen for the arts. France spends $32, but of course, they’re French.
Don’t buy the argument that art is for wusses and wimps, or for a couple of thousand sneering elitists in Manhattan and San Francisco. Art is for all of us, and it is our government’s responsibility to keep culture alive.
For those of us who work in the arts, it is hard enough getting up each morning and facing the empty page, the blank canvas, the vacant stage — to say nothing of our own limitations — without having to confront the hostility of our own elected officials. Those of us who care about art are a little tired of defending its right to thrive in America. But, once again, we’ll take up our arms. And why not? After all, we artistic types are nothing if not tough. Because in the United States of America, we’ve got to be.