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McCain v. Obama on the Arts and Arts Education

by Jerome Weeks 28 Aug 2008 9:03 AM

It’s difficult to assess the presidential candidates’ differences on the arts, arts funding and arts education for a simple reason: Senator McCain doesn’t seem to have spelled out any stand on these issues, other than a general opposition to funding “obscenity.” This isn’t meant as a partisan statement in support of Senator Obama. If you […]


It’s difficult to assess the presidential candidates’ differences on the arts, arts funding and arts education for a simple reason: Senator McCain doesn’t seem to have spelled out any stand on these issues, other than a general opposition to funding “obscenity.”

This isn’t meant as a partisan statement in support of Senator Obama. If you do not agree with federal subsidies for the arts, then you’d certainly oppose his advocacy for an increased NEA budget. You can read the Obama campaign’s official arts policies spelled out on page 3 of the PDF here. Interestingly, these stands include amending the Internal Revenue Code to permit artists, when they’re making charitable contributions, to deduct the fair market value of their works, rather than just the materials. When the current code was adopted in the ’90s, it was widely seen as a significant hindrance to private donations to nonprofit organizations.

In contrast, Senator McCain has made very few public remarks about art subsidies — or any arts issue at all and certainly nothing in print. Determining his view from what can be found online is akin to sifting tea leaves to find a philosophical framework. In 1999, he said, “I have opposed federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts because I believe it is not proper to use tax dollars for what many Americans feel are the obscene and inappropriate projects this organization has supported. I support providing federal block grants to the states for arts education and artistic endeavors pursued by state and local authorities, while assuring that federal tax dollars are not spent on obscene or offensive material.”

This, at least, is fairly plain. He actually indicates a support for art subsidies — only when directed mostly to arts education and with local-community restrictions in place. This is , more or less, the direction the NEA has been cautiously (and, arguably, successfully) pursuing since the overheated culture wars of the ’90s.

There is always the National Review Online’s attack on Senator McCain for being  an “ideological multiculturalist,” but this has more to do with his views on bilingual education and free speech than anything specific to the arts. The ArtsVote website, which linked to candidates’ policies during the primary races, lists a McCain arts policy as “pending” from back in April. And when it comes to arts education, the Educator Compensation Institute unearthed a single item about the senator’s belief in teacher testing and merit pay for the best teachers.

Otherwise, there is nothing of substance to be found, certainly nothing official.

Education Week, which tracks issues and government policies for teachers, could find only vague answers about education — back in January. They conclude that “McCain is a campaign-finance, foreign-relations, anti-abortion, tax-cut candidate. Education is not his thing. Depending on your perspective, McCain’s relative silence on education may be a good thing. If you think the federal government has grossly overreached into the state business of education, then he may be your guy.”

The same, it would seem, is true for the arts in general.

CORRECTION/AMPLIFICATION: Because of that single statement about obscenity and federal subsidies, I attributed to John McCain a willingness to fund the arts (while making certain that anything “obscene” is not funded) . It’s a willingness that, in fact, may not be there at all, at least as demonstrated by some of his legislative actions.

According to Elizabeth Currid of the  University of Southern California, writing for USC’s Election 2008 website (“a special resource for journalists”), McCain “has a historical track record of supporting anti-arts legislation, including the 1999 Smith-Ashcroft Amendment, which would have cut all funding for the NEA; and the 1989 Helms Amendment, which aimed to deny funding to art considered ‘obscene.’

McCain, she concludes, “doesn’t have an arts policy, other than a desire to eliminate spending directed toward the arts.”

Thanks to CultureGrrl for the inspiration. Obama photo from McCain photo from

  • I have to say I’m impressed with this fairly unbiased perspective of the candidates.

    Thank you, Mr. Weeks.

  • Thanks. I do spend much more space spelling out what I learned about Senator McCain’s views because, frankly, it took so long to find any. I’ll leave it up to the reader to dig into Obama’s policies — which are laid out in that PDF, once you get past all the lists of cultural mucketymucks.

    But if you want a quick synopsis, it goes like this:
    – Increase the budget for the NEA
    – Increase Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination Grants (which encourage public/private projects between schools and arts groups)
    – Create an “Artist Corps” to work in low-income areas
    – Promote cultural diplomacy to foreign countries
    – Amend the tax code, as I mention above
    – And what many individual artists would surely see as the best proposal: Provide health care for artists, but that’s really just part of his general health care plan.

  • Artist against Obama

    Obama is not the champion of arts and culture as he would like you to think! I wish the McCain campaign would hit on the fact that the artist behind the Obama HOPE poster, Shepard Fairey, is a known radical who has made a career on works depicting the burning of the White House and other extreme images of social violence. His past works provoke violent actions and exploit the concept of class warfare to the point of being a calling card promoting violence in the streets.Thank you so much for exposing this!

    Obama claims to support the arts while walking hand in hand with Shepard Fairey who is a career copyright violator and supporter of the orphan works bill. I don’t understand why so many people are ok with that. Why would any artists support Obama? I know he has made statements supporting art education and art programs. But what about the rights of artists Mr. Obama? Actions sometimes speak louder than words and Obama hand selected Shepard Fairey so what does that say about his position on artist rights?

    I like street art but I don’t think it is wise for a candidate for President to support it openly. Obama actually praised Shepard in a letter for his career and for ‘bombing’ images of Obama on illegal places like stop signs. How can a candidate support risky activity like that which could result in an accident? The clean up of graffiti and other street art does cost tax payers billions per year. And Obama supports that? Talk about wasteful spending that could be used to support art education and art programs! Obama has already failed the art community with his actions while supporting it with his words. It just does not add up.

    I know that McCain’s campaign has upset artists for using their songs without permission but there is a difference because they bought the rights to use those songs. At least McCain’s campaign was nice enough to stop using them even though they paid. And the difference is that McCain did not select those songs his campaign did. Obama hand selected Shepard Fairey to represent him as an official campaign artist. Obama has accepted $400,000 from this copyright violator and criminal but he donated Rezko’s donations to charity? McCain has fought for copyright protection and patent protection. So he has my vote.

    I make part of my living selling prints. So I will not vote for Obama because he threatens my career. The media should expose this and McCain should target it!


      Yeah, ad homineim argument is all you Conservitives have left, isn’t it?

  • Artist against Obama

    Also, it was a Democrat controlled congress under Bill Clinton that forced the NEA to stop giving individual loans to artists. Some Republicans pushed for it but it was Democrats who pressured the NEA and could have prevented all together. The NEA is one of the biggest buddy systems around. They pander to certain curators and specific artists. It is the life line of the art world buddy system that keeps so many emerging artists down. I know that. You know that.

    As an artist I have to agree that artists like Andres Serrano, who is now sculpting with his own feces, should not be funded. I’d rather see an unknown painter funded than a hack like that. A lot of artists never have their work shown while anyone who uses bodily fluids as a form of expression is at least given some press. And you wonder why so many Americans don’t care about art.

    • I always believe art should be separated from politics. Thanks for the summary.

  • Chisto ONE

    I do think that Obama’s connection to Shepard Fairey needs to be exposed. It is not an act of desperation it is the fact that the media has failed to report on it. The media has failed on a lot of things. If it was McCain and Shepard the media would be all over it.

    Actions like this by the artist and the fact that Obama praises him should be questions,

    See this article that expose Obama and Fairey,

  • Chisto ONE

    And it should not be “you Conservatives” or “you Democrats”. Citizens of the US are not defined by the political party they support. The last time we did that resulted in a Civil War. There are already threats on Edward Winkleman’s blog about how there will be riots if Obama is not elected. Is this what we have become as a nation?

  • Faith

    It amazes me everytime I turn around it is another questionable allegation against Obama. Right now he is at five ……..: Acorn, U.S. citizen, Bill Ayers, real estate fraud friend, Muslim or christain, radical preacher. Yes everyone would like a change. But to pick someone that could possibly be a seed for the enemy. I can not believe how many people are stupid and do not see the writing on the wall. VOTE MCCAIN!!!! We need to protect our country first. First, by picking someone who will pledge allegence to the flag of the UNITED STATES!!!!!!!!

  • Fun. Add to your bookmarks. And how long it took to write articles?