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Money for Art, Pt. 1 – Arts Funding in America

by Jerome Weeks 1 Jun 2009 3:01 PM

Our culture war has never stopped. Davd A. Smith, a Baylor University history lecturer, sees federal support of the arts as a trigger of that war — almost since our republic began.

Image: shutter stock

David Kam,’ I Love America: Art on Money,’ ink on paper, no date.

It’s dead certain that our culture wars will rage again.

David A. Smith, a senior lecturer in history at Baylor University, does not actually make that prediction in his book, Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy. But it’s there. It’s there because, according to Dr. Smith, the culture wars have never really had a ceasefire. Federal support of the arts has been the trigger for an argument, he believes, that has flared on and off practically since the origins of the republic. Dr. Smith’s book is the first to study government arts funding in this light.

Of course, the tag “culture wars” was originally coined during the past two decades — referring to  the loose but linked political firefights we’ve had on the national level. Patrick Buchanan’s call to arms at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992 may have woke up political writers to the term (“There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself”), but a year earlier, James Davison Hunter’s book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, had defined the term. Dr. Hunter saw Americans as divided into two polarized moral understandings, the “orthodox” and the “progressive,” and he tried to make some historical sense of what has been a tangle of social, political and religious differences, involving creationism, stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion — and federal funding of the arts.

Specifically, the confrontation over arts funding was launched in the late ’80s by Republicans in Congress. Senator Alphonse D’Amato, Senator Jesse Helms, Representatives William Dannemayer and Dick Armey became incensed over government-funded artworks they deemed offensive. Or to turn that sequence of events around: The National Endowment for the Arts provoked a public outcry when it began underwriting artworks that these members of Congress felt went too far. The works, they charged, exceeded limits of community taste on matters of sexuality and faith. The artists explicitly advocated a “homosexual agenda” and were hostile toward Christianity — and they did all this with tax money.

But while other people might see the history of arts funding as marked by just these kinds of occasional, specific outcries over decency or budgets, Dr. Smith sees them connected in a long, knotted thread. This thread stretches from 1817 — when Congress paid to have the first patriotic oil paintings installed in the Capitol Rotunda — all the way to the just-finished tenure of Dana Gioia as director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dr. Smith believes that what links all these clashes is a disagreement over underlying principles about the nature of democracies and government arts funding. In this way, his book lends a welcome coherence to the history of arts support in America. It’s a clear-headed analysis.

It’s what’s lacking from Money for Art that’s so thoroughly dismaying.

For Dr. Smith, federal arts funding rests uneasily on two unresolved issues about culture in a democracy: how the arts are funded and why they are.

First: Who decides which artworks will be backed? The NEA spends our tax money, so we citizens have a say. But if we want to fund greatness in art, greatness is hardly settled by a popular vote. Conveniently for us, American Idol demonstrates this outcome week after week.

On the other hand, letting “art experts” decide which are the deserving works can lead us back to the culture wars of the ’90s when elected officials were outraged by what our experts had chosen. As Dr. Smith puts it, arts funding in a democracy struggles to balance an “elitism of creation” with “an egalitarianism of access.” It’s a combination he understandably finds “elusive” — because both sides, taxpayers and artists, are armed with legitimate arguments.

The American public already chooses which artworks we want to bankroll — with our wallets. This system is called popular culture, and whether the entertainment industry’s products are good, bad or indifferent, the industry does create and distribute everything from books to songs to films, and oftentimes, it captures things that are unique to American culture. If that’s direct support (at the cash register), why do we need indirect support (through federal funding)?

Which is the second, more basic conundrum: In a democracy, what’s the purpose of government patronage of the arts? Do taxpayers support the arts because we see them as a testament to our values? Do we wish to promote these values around the world? Do we pay artists for their work as an economic assistance program? Do we honor and reward our ‘masters’ of the arts — the way the Japanese title their great artists ‘national treasures’ — because they express our deepest selves in ways that pop culture often doesn’t? Do we believe that the arts are simply beneficial for all?

And it could be argued that arts funding is a practical matter. It’s aimed at expanding or equalizing public access. Certain art forms — live theater, dance, art museums, classical concerts — are too local, too small-scale or too costly to be truly ‘popular.’ For those Americans who don’t live near major cultural centers, our federal dollars can help with “distributing” these arts. It can help fund national tours, extend museum hours, encourage community efforts, subsidize arts education.

Faced with such a shopping list, one may ask,”Why can’t the NEA try to meet all such needs?” But of course, the NEA has never had the budget to fulfill even half of these goals. As Dr. Smith demonstrates, in trying to meet them, the NEA has found itself yanked by ideological forces and competing constituencies until it has been repeatedly re-shaped and re-defined.

The endowment was established in a burst of early ’60s idealism and optimism, driven partly by the desire to create American masterpieces by underwriting American artists and institutions. This desire was whetted by the sense that our culture was finally coming into its own. Our popular entertainments at the time may have been widely derided as shallow or crass despite their quintessentially American expressions (formulaic TV westerns, disposable pop music, campy Broadway musicals). But these, in the view of many critics, were counterweighted by a growing, even global admiration for our new, supposedly more “serious” accomplishments: jazz, abstract expressionism, modern dance, dramas by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, music by composers Aaron Copland and Milton Babbitt as well as the Nobel Prize-winning novels of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.

Indeed, the expressed wish at the time of the NEA’s establishment was that the endowment might one day find and fund “the American Shakespeare.” And until recently, its slogan was even “A great nation deserves great art.”

But in the Reagan-Bush ’80s, when the agency came under fire from fiscal conservatives, and then, in the Bush and Clinton ’90s, when it faced the wrath of social conservatives, the NEA barely survived. It did so chiefly by emphasizing the goals of education and access. The NEA shifted its purpose to bringing art (more traditional, more palatable art) to Americans, especially schoolchildren.


Ron English, “Money is the Root of All Art,” 1994

It had been doing this all along, but it hastily reformed its indirect grant procedures. These were too hot, too risky in the new political climate because of the uproars over Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photography and Andres Serrano’s urine-soaked crucifix. These artists had not actually received direct NEA grants, but that fact hardly mattered in the fracas their works ignited.

In those uproars in the ’90s, Dr. Smith argues — convincingly, I believe — that artists and arts advocates made a serious mistake in logic, law and public relations by repeatedly proclaiming their First Amendment rights had been violated. An artist has the right to express himself as he pleases; he hardly has the right to have that expression funded by the government. Besides, as the critic Dave Hickey argued, in his umbrage, Senator Helms had it exactly right: Mapplethorpe was dangerous because he made explicit gay eroticism beautiful, beautiful in ways that evoked the Great Masters in painting.

On this point about the First Amendment, the NEA Four — the performance artists whose projects were vetoed by NEA head John Frohnmayer in 1990 — were a different matter precisely because they had a free speech claim, an argument over censorship. That’s because their projects had won approval before being vetoed. So they won their court case — and they lost the war. It was the NEA Four’s court case that led an infuriated Congress to kill all individual grants. And although the case was resolved in the NEA Four’s favor, the Supreme Court also said that the NEA could, in fact, insist on ‘decency standards.’

So this is what the NEA does today: With its very modest budget, it increases public access to the arts. It researches and documents our declining literacy rate, and in its “Shakespeare in American Communities” program, it promotes stage tours of the original (not the American) Shakespeare. It also insists on decency standards.

The goal of finding and developing new, “great art” by individuals is not really on the agenda anymore, despite the NEA’s (no longer operative) slogan. Now the NEA simply declares “Art works” — implying the undeniable fact that artists deserve to be paid for their labor, and they are just as much a part of our workforce as any plumber.

As Roger Kimball put it in the National Review — he was hailing the back-to-basics changes brought about by NEA head Dana Gioia — “Farewell Mapplethorpe, Hello Shakespeare.” To Kimball, all of these forced changes have represented a victory of hallowed tradition over trendy, post-mod transgressions. In logic, Kimball’s tactic is known as the “excluded middle.” For Kimball, it seems, those were the only two choices to fund or not to fund — very clear, opposed choices.

Dr. Smith puts this development in a different context, asking, is the NEA an “I” (created to serve the artist and her art) or is it a “We” (created to serve the taxpayers and the wider community)? In the ’90s, Dr. Smith notes approvingly, that question was finally settled. The NEA is a “We.”

On the face of it, this is common sense. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not exist for the benefit of individual guard rail manufacturers. It exists to improve the chances of the rest of us surviving a road trip. But Dr. Smith’s polarization of the interests of “I” and “We” is as reductive as Kimball’s choice of Shakespeare vs. Mapplethorpe. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, exists to protect and preserve the environment. But it does this for the benefit of all Americans. Ergo, one can make the case that in many instances, helping the “I” (the artist and her art) can actually serve the greater good of the “We” (the rest of us) — a belief that Dr. Smith himself holds and one of the motivating reasons behind the endowment’s creation.

Critics and pundits have made a number of these same points before. But Money for Art is the first book-length study that examines the long course of federal cultural programs through the lens of these tensions, tensions inherent in all democratic arts funding. But along with this analysis, Money for Art offers a revisionist history of the endowment. Dr. Smith seeks to debunk popular conceptions about presidential administrations and the arts. (Test your knowledge with the Arts Funding Quiz .)

Briefly put: Ever since John Kennedy publicly fêted leading artists at the White House, Democratic presidents have been greeted with the expectation that they will usher in a new era of cultural achievement — despite repeated evidence to the contrary. Jimmy Carter, for example, had actually cut the arts budget in Georgia when he was governor. He was still (ultimately) the candidate of the arts establishment.

So it’s ironic that Richard Nixon proved to be the endowment’s best friend in the White House. According to Dr. Smith, Nixon hoped the NEA might counter prevailing cultural currents, which he viewed as divisive and anarchic. Nixon apparently — and I admit, surprisingly — saw the arts as a vital cultural force for healing and arts funding as a worthwhile government endeavor, attitudes Dr. Smith wishes to foster.

In much of this, Money for Art is admirably sensible, trying to wend its way between conservative and liberal, public and artist, untangling the claims and counter-claims of each. What is maddening about the book — even startling — are its blinkered views about the highly politicized nature of the arts funding debate in America over the past 70 years.

Chief among the oversights is Dr. Smith’s strangely cursory treatment of the arts programs of the Works Progress Administration under Franklin Roosevelt. The Federal Theatre Project, the Music Project, the Art Project and the Writers’ Project were essentially the NEA’s predecessors. Yet the primary reason Dr. Smith discusses the WPA at all is to uncover the source of what he sees as a common misconception: the idea that, even today, federal arts funding is a “jobs program.” The WPA was most certainly a jobs program, but as Dr. Smith argues convincingly, it was designed as a temporary, Depression-era, emergency measure and not a new alignment of the government with the artist.

What the author fails to recognize is that the fierce partisan conflicts in the late ’30s over the WPA sketched out the basic battle lines for the full-bore culture wars of the ’80s, ’90s — and beyond.

First, Republicans — and a sizable number of conservative Southern Democrats — vehemently opposed the WPA not simply because it was part of Roosevelt’s economic recovery program. They feared that with the WPA, Roosevelt was underwriting a new liberal political machine. He was buying votes with jobs. They also feared that the WPA’s arts programs were little more than a propaganda arm for FDR (and thus, a propaganda arm for Communism as well).

But in opposing the WPA and what it represented, Republicans and conservative Democrats faced major difficulties — ones that may sound rather familiar today during the Obama administration. They were tied to what had turned out to be catastrophic economic policies. The Depression had swept them out of their long-held control of Washington and they faced a president who was personally very popular, who had a sizable mandate for change.

9780679443995So they picked up the only charges they had that gained public attention and undercut the Roosevelt administration: government waste and Communist subversion. And to a degree, the WPA was vulnerable on both counts. I won’t go over the protracted in-fighting, but two histories worth reading, two books with different perspectives, are Ted Morgan’s Reds: McCarthyism in 20th-Century America, a survey of our government’s pursuit of Communist infiltration, and Nick Taylor’s American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA — When FDR Put the Nation to Work.

Two points need to be made about the WPA battle, however. One, the attack on federal arts programs had little to do with the arts or with arts funding. The WPA could have been producing auto parts. The arts — provided they could be portrayed as wasteful or dangerously Communist — were mostly just a club to use against the New Deal.

And two, the club was more or less successful. The WPA wasn’t completely disbanded until 1943 when wartime employment rendered it unnecessary. But before then, Republicans and their conservative Democratic allies did manage to stall, even derail, the federal arts programs, blunting some of the administration’s power and authority.

It’s certainly true that many people opposed the WPA and its arts programs out of honest economic and political disagreement. Amity Shales, author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, argues that the arts are not really the province of government and that what the New Deal accomplished through the WPA could have been done through private sources.

But regardless of the economic ideals that some politicians held, opposition to the New Deal devolved very quickly into an ugly Congressional witch hunt — led by Texas Representative Martin Dies’ House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee brushed past any active Nazi subversion or infiltration and turned its attention on the WPA, calling witnesses to testify against the agency, especially its arts programs. These charged the Federal Theater Project with, among other things, whites and blacks fraternizing under its auspices (certain to rile Southern Democratic segregationists).

Then there was the committee’s grilling of Federal Theatre Project leader Hallie Flanagan about a playwright she’d cited in an article. “Is he a Communist?” a committee member demanded.

“Put it in the record,” Flanagan replied patiently, “that Christopher Marlowe was the greatest dramatist in the period . . .  immediately preceding Shakespeare.”

Eventually, the HUAC report to Congress denounced “a rather large number of the employees of the Federal Theatre Project” as either outright Communist party members or CP sympathizers, two things it had never actually established. (See Taylor, pp. 409-426.) Congress was furious at the FTP.  The 1940 appropriations bill pointedly “zeroed out” the FTP. It handed the other arts programs directly over to the states for sponsorship (where they often languished) and among other changes, enacted a “loyalty oath” that all WPA employees had to sign. Ironically, the WPA had been established to be “open” to all political persuasions precisely because Republicans feared their party faithful might be excluded from employment.

In other words, using the WPA’s cultural programs against the New Deal was effective. It inflamed opposition to Roosevelt, sullied New Deal programs as both wasteful and Communist-influenced — and those programs were dispersed or took a major financial hit.

These weapons proved so effective, they were picked up and used again — a decade later. In the ’50s, President Dwight Eisenhower was often portrayed as culturally clueless. Dr. Smith devotes much of an engaging and persuasive chapter (“Paint by Numbers”) to rehabilitating Ike’s reputation on such matters. He was the first president, the author argues, to see the efficacy of “culture as a weapon” in the Cold War. Our arts could make the United States appear as a country worth respecting, even emulating, at a time when we were mostly known for our military might and our air-conditioned materialism.

Composer Aaron Copland

But even before Eisenhower had moved into the White House, his relationship with the arts was pushed in another direction entirely. His inauguration festivities originally included a performance of “Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copland. But two weeks before, a single conservative Congressman objected to Copland’s inclusion, charging him as a Communist sympathizer because of his work with various international and left-wing organizations. Copland protested his innocence, but his music was pulled from the program.

This public embarrassment became a public nightmare when Senator Joseph McCarthy — sensing more publicity for his Red-bashing — had Copland subpoenaed to appear before his investigatory subcommittee. Because some of McCarthy’s Red hunting was tied to the FBI’s “queer hunting,” Copland had several reasons to be terrified that his career as one of America’s rare, beloved classical composers was over.

The results were more pointless than usual for McCarthy’s subcommittee: Copland later wrote that he believed McCarthy wasn’t even certain who he was or why he was being questioned. In the end, the composer managed to appear politically naive before the senators, who saw no threat in him. Yet for years afterward, Copland lost paying gigs on political grounds and was apparently deemed a still-dangerous “security suspect.” (See Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, pp. 412-414).

More tellingly, around the same time that Copland faced the Senate subcommittee, McCarthy called for dismantling the overseas libraries that the Voice of America ran in Europe. These libraries were an example of Cold War federal arts patronage. They spread American ideas and literature abroad. But McCarthy objected to their stocking such “anti-American” authors as Langston Hughes: A number of these attacks were racially motivated because Black authors tended to present not the most flattering portrait of American life.

But during the course of negotiations with the administration on the issue, McCarthy aide Roy Cohn suggested the bans shouldn’t stop with books. They should ban music as well.

And why not start with Aaron Copland’s? (See Reds, pp. 446-447).

Just how instrumental Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” or “Lincoln Portrait” might be in recruiting listeners to Marxist economic theory was never clear. But then, that wasn’t Roy Cohn’s concern. The point was to use government powers and public hysteria to punish, tarnish or intimidate domestic political enemies, including prominent artists, no matter how tangential, even insubstantial, their relationship was to any real Communist threat. Prominent artists made for very persuasive, public hangings — as the history of the Hollywood Ten and the subsequent media industry blacklist prove.

JSG Boggs, ‘Funny Money,’ paper and ink, no date.

It could be argued that much of this — especially the Communist-hunting — isn’t really part of Dr. Smith’s purview in Money for Art. But insofar as the book concerns the relationship between our government and the artists it funds — as well as taxpayers’ attitudes towards the arts — this history is obviously pertinent. The attacks on the New Deal via its arts programs and the McCarthy-era investigations into individual artists were deeply anti-intellectual and fearful of the arts as somehow subversive, elitist, fraudulent (not “real” art), “provocative” (politically, racially and sexually), dangerously anti-American and a waste of public money.

These suspicions remain motivating impulses in the arts funding debates today — thus providing even more evidence, if any were needed, for Dr. Smith’s contention that the culture wars existed well before the ’90s because of fundamental differences over the arts.

In light of all this political demonizing at the time, we can understand what it meant to artists and the arts establishment in 1960 when John Kennedy invited Leonard Bernstein to participate in the presidential inauguration. Bernstein was an even more publicly left-wing figure than Copland. He’d been blacklisted by CBS and the State Department from 1950-’54. It was a sign that McCarthy-ite attacks on the arts were over — at least for now.

And then, when Pablo Casals was hosted at the White House, the Kennedys invited Copland, too.

I’ve lingered over all this political history from the ’30s to the ’60s because Dr. Smith devotes entire chapters to the arts policies of Eisenhower and Kennedy. And he does touch upon the Casals-Copland-Bernstein visits to the Kennedy White House.

Other than those visits, virtually nothing else I’ve included here is mentioned in Money for Art.

The important conclusion to draw from all this history is this: Being used as a weapon or a whipping boy has been a political function that the arts have repeatedly been dragged into well before the ’90s. Of course, many artists weren’t dragged at all; they joined the fray willingly, eager to stick a thumb in the eye of the bourgeoisie, and then demand federal payment for the service. Dr. Smith quotes any number of artists over the years making inflammatory or confrontational tirades — often being their own worst enemies when it came to courting Congressional or public approval, even as their art suggested they were actively defying such mainstream approval.

Such statements only made it easier for politicians to pick up the weapon that had already been proven effective: using the arts as a flash point to inflame anger and suspicion against their political opposition, to punish that “elitist” opposition. This has been so even as the NEA has been tasked with making the arts less “elitist” — if by that highly elastic term we mean less confined to the larger, coastal cities and to the college-educated. Tarring the arts (and arts supporters) has worked as a political attack strategy, especially when artists, arts organizations and the NEA are used as stand-ins for a supposedly decadent, educated, effete establishment. That establishment is seen as located in Hollywood, New York or Washington, D.C. — even though all three cities are extremely different (even opposed in attitudes) when it comes our culture industry. They are all targets because they all, to a degree, wield some sort of power or influence in that industry.

So alongside Dr. Smith’s contesting principles over democracy and arts funding, I would place partisan warfare as a fundamental explanation for why the arts have been a persistent but intermittent casus belli since the New Deal. When it comes to arts funding, the culture wars have been a convenient war by proxy, a war fought by liberals and conservatives for public approval.

It has been and continues to be a war for moral standing, government power and money. It’s a war fought through the arts and rarely because of the arts.

Next: Money for Art, Pt. 2 – Re-Playing the ’50s and the ’90s

  • Danielle Georgiou

    I must say that I agree with this analysis of Smith’s book. I think it’s fantastic that we have another comprehensive summary of the history of arts funding that focuses on the sociopolitical reasons for our cultural wars, but anyone with a general knowledge of sociology, psychology, and politics and, further, anyone who understands that cultures can clash can figure out why there is a battle between the government and artists. But to truly get to the root of the conflict, stereotypes and passion must be pushed aside and the theory behind the wars must be looked at. And I think that goes even further than just trying to define the how (the arts are funded) and the why (they are).

    Yes, those questions get us to the theory, but they are prediscursive. They are just leaders to the real point. How the arts are funded and why they are funded is based upon two simple political models: the political systems model and the policy communities model. The political systems model states that political systems can be analyzed in terms of their structures and function, while the policy communities model that multiple interest groups are involved in both the planning and decision-making processes, and that communication is vital to seeking solutions to future problems. So, it’s more than a synergetic relationship between the public telling the NEA what art it wants bankrolled; it’s more about political participation and action, and realization that most of the action takes place on a state and local level more often then it does at the national level.

    Smith’s book tends to focus on the NEA and many past presidential administrations and their arts legislation. Though, I do agree that an analysis of our president’s past dealing with the arts is important, their actions tickled down to the states, and in some cases (hello, Reagan!), the states had almost full control. The devolution of arts funding from the 1980s and onward has had a huge effect on defining the how and the why. The “Cultural Wars” of the 1990s resulted in a decrease in NEA funding that has persisted for the rest of the decade and into the 2000s (until pretty much this year), but states started experiencing an upward trend in funding in 1999 (which peaked in 2001, fell briefly again in 2002, but has been climbing ever since). In fact, in 2007, states’ fiscal conditions were extremely favorable. It marked the third consecutive year of gains for the arts following the end of the recession in 2004 and 36 state arts agencies (SAAs) showed appropriations growths. These favorable conditions have spurred state legislatures to respond by increasing arts funding by more than $81 million.

    Further, since the states tend to be the political system that has the most influence in the present day, it’s helpful to view the policy communities at work at the local level too. Instead of relying upon lobbies in Washington and organizations focused on federal arts funding outreach, look at the states. Here, taxpayers and politicians alike (well in some states) realize the potential of the arts and of working together towards an artistic goal, a goal that has economic benefits.

    When you look at the commercial appeal of the arts, all 50 states have grant programs available for their constituents to increase their access to the arts, 49 states have instituted arts education programs, 40 states have instituted cultural development programs, and 32 states have visual arts programs. The latter two programs directly relate to the measurement of commercial appeal which is marked by the building, or restoration, of arts centers, and tourism. Tourism is America’s largest service export, one of America’s largest employers, and is the third-largest American retail sales industry. Nearly all 50 states have used either cultural development programs or visual arts programs to boost their commercial appeal. In fact, the 32 states that have Public Arts programs have appealed for more arts funding in the last decade. The arts have been proven to be an economic benefit; they attract visitors, residents, businesses, and investments to the states.

    So the states and the arts have a pretty good relationship, for the most part. It kind of makes the idea of “culture wars” a moot point. The arts are a part of our history and will always effect our present and our future, but arts do not always have to be dragged into the battlefield. I agree with the fact that “being used as a weapon or a whipping boy has been a political function that the arts have repeatedly been dragged into well before the ’90s.” But coercion is not a fundamental democratic principle. It’s not explanation for the “wars;” it’s a poisonous side effect.