Arts funding

Response on NEA funding from reader AE, and my response following.

She writes:

I totally disagree with your analysis of Bush's maneuvering vis-a-vis the NEA. Some fun facts to know and share:

The NEA was was established as the agency it is today (or at least as the agency whose gutting we mourn) by Nixon, of all people, who increased its budget from about 30 million to 130 million.

Arts funding was about 30 million higher under Regan it was under Clinton I and reached its nadir under Clinton II (looong after invocation of the NEA four became passe, I might add.)

The degeneracy of the NEA was made into a touchstone issue not by Regan/Bush et al, but by Buchanan. He used it to symbolize the elitism of the current Republican establishment, which just didn't understand that the common working man didn't care about all this esoteric shit and would prefer to spend their hard-earned dollars buying pick-up trucks than bankrolling dirty photos of fags fisting each other.

One might argue that these figures are due to the Republican
Executive/Democratic Congress split of recent years. It does seem like most opposition and debate around national arts funding has been historically centered in the congress.

However, under Bush II & Republican dominance of both branches, the NEA's budget has been quietly but steadily increasing, at least during the last three years that I've had a professional stake in knowing the numbers.

Locally, it seems that arts funding does not follow an ideological donkey/elephant divide. When faced with fiscal crises, governors and mayors of all political stripes have slashed arts budgets with impunity. Gray Davis virtually eliminated arts funding in CA, for example.

Anecdotally, while faced with the largest fiscal crisis in NYC since the
'70s, Bloomberg chose not to gut the Department of Cultural Affairs, cutting it's budget proportionately to other city agencies (by one fourth) WHILE quietly dumping 6 million dollars of his personal money into private philanthropy earmarked for small to midsized arts orgs.

In summation, this 'Democrats are friends of the arts, Republicans want to see its demise' argument really chaps my hide. Republicans are historically more controlling of the art they would like to see America pay for, but are (save the working man shit-kicker movement) great defenders of the civilizing power of art as a social good and willing to put out the dough.

In contrast, progressive politics tend to focus on social utility: go ahead and fist each other if that's how you want to express yourself (we like the gays and women and minorities), support our agenda, and we'll get around to funding you after, say, universal single-payer health care has been enacted.

Hey, want to make some art about universal single-payer health care? That would be swell. Maybe you could feature, oh say, me as the protagonist up against a hoard of fearsome Republican barbarians. They want to see the demise of art, you know...

AE makes a valuable point about Dems having no love for arts funding. One could tell a story about how liberals made a tough choice during the culture war years to cut their losses, and that the knee-jerk reaction--I don't waste political capital on art--has become ingrained in the people that might have supported federal funding before, and further validated the snarky left leaning-libertarian types who never really gave a shit. But, as she points out, history shows there's nothing in the Democratic gene pool necessarily dictating they should support arts funding. Just because artists themselves don't have a lot of money and are usually Democrats isn't the same thing. They aren't really a big constituency. But who cares anyway?

AE's point that the story of arts funding is better told through the Republican party is well taken. Let's all remember that before the GOP got hijacked by the far right, the neocons, and the Grover Norquists of the world, there was a kindler gentler brand of Republican that parlayed their natural strain of elitism (in the best sense of the word) into federal support for the arts, worked on reasonable solutions to keep social insurance programs solvent, and thought foreign policy should be pragmatic above all else. As many have shown, the deterioration of all these long held Republican positions didn't really start until the 90s. Reagan may have paid a lot of lip service to the fundamentalists, but as far as policy goes he retained a lot of the traditional Republican portfolio. Hence the deep divisions in the party that have arisen since the Gingrich revolution, as epitomized by Jim Jeffords' defection several years ago. The 'new' Republicans have browbeaten the ideological descendants of Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller (i.e. Bloomberg's adopted strain) to where they are either cowed beyond repair or simply invisible. They were undoubtedly horrified that the Gingrichs of the world were talking about the arts as the enemy of morality and civilization, but the pressure was too great, the electoral blackmail too powerful, and they pretty much relinquished their voice on arts funding and a host of other issues, not least of all, fiscal responsibility (although finally they are starting to speak up about that).

That said, I don't think George W. Bush can be seen as picking up exactly where that tradition of federal cultural support left off.

The rise of arts funding under his watch has not required any political risk, a clue to what the limits of this new rise might be. The dance of G2 and the Christian right is a delicate one. He has proved himself an expert at the calculus of keeping the far right wing's uglier side to a dull roar, at least in the same room, while quietly giving them enough big-ticket items to stay happy. The truth is, for these people voting for a Democrat is akin to pronouncing yourself an atheist. The details have to be worked out, but they aren't going anywhere on election day. Bush knows this, and has brought order to the 'winger tent decidedly absent during the Gingrich carnival.

Anyhow, the point I was trying to make in the earlier post is not that Bush's NEA increase is interesting because he's a Republican, but that it's interesting because he's Bush. His reclamation of the NEA is part and parcel of the larger strategy which has served him well so far: policies which look and sound progressive while actually being nothing of the sort. The revealing flip side of this is that while liberal (although in this case not owned by the Democrats) positions appear to have a lot of resonance with voters, the real liberals (whether Democrat or Republican) who would actually make an honest go at it have been outfoxed at getting any traction on them. The political utility of expanding the NEA for Bush is a different animal from traditional Republican support for the arts; you can get an idea of the outline by watching NRO lick its chops here.

Bush's NEA push has been about appealing to that broad swath of voters that go in for the 'compassion' juggernaut--sure they sympathized with Buchanan's screeching about federal funding for degenerates, but it got tired and a little scary, and government funding for Shakespeare tours and jazz concerts seems like a nice compromise. NEA funding works for Bush on many levels...he's got a loyal agency chief, an appeal to swing voters and another way to keep the Christian right in their place (publicly at least).

I guess the question then is, so what? Who cares where it comes from as long as federal arts funding finally has a friend in the White House after so many painful years of cuts? To some degree, I agree with this, and while it is not impervious to critique, I say more power to the administration on this one. But we shouldn't think that this is a total victory for federal arts support. For one, I don't trust for a minute that Bush will waste any time supporting this when his budget gets chewed up in Congress. I think its safe to say that, along with the whole raft of election year ploys that he has no money for, this has a very low chance of surviving. Where in previous years the conservative anti-arts funding forces might have deffered to him on anything, he's going to be a lot more vulnerable going into this budget battle.

Secondly, while more money is a good thing, the public relations campaign surrounding it is invariably going to be about 'nice' art and art for 'educational' purposes. Even if old guard Republicans found some funded work distasteful or only supported respectable work in other respects, they believed in the independence of funding decisions because they believed in the independence of government agencies. No such luck with Bush. Furthermore, there is little hope in the way of structural reforms, like resuscitating the much-needed but controversial grants for individual artists. Finally, in the long run, it can only serve to dampen artistic dialogue and breed self-censorship. A situation where 'good' artists can go to the government for money while 'bad' artists have to go elsewhere. That isn't about any blatant censorship or suppressing 'political' art, or those cards they made everyone sign about producing useful art, but the simple fact that when you try to score political points by publicly attaching value judgments to money intended for art, you can't help but create a climate where people adjust their thinking accordingly.

I'm not saying I won't take it, but it leaves a lot to be desired when compared to the age-old Republican record on arts funding.


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