People expect me to be angry about proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), so my inbox has been flooded with comments about it.
“What has the NEA actually done for you recently?” I’ve asked in response.
“Well, I like their murals in the post offices,” answered more than one correspondent.
“That was the WPA,” I answered, “And you should know that.”
My first job, in the late 1970s, was in a museum. The greater part of my working career has been spent either as a self-employed artist or working for non-profits in arts-related fields. In the trenches, far from Carnegie Hall, the NEA is absolutely irrelevant.
In 2012, the NEA published How the US Funds the Arts, intended in part to demonstrate how backwards we are compared to other nations. For performing art groups, only 1.2% of revenues came from the Federal government. And performing art groups, by their cooperative nature, are more likely to need crowdsourcing of some kind than are visual artists.
The problem with the NEA giving $30,000 to the Institute of Contemporary Photography to buy violent and homoerotic images by Robert Mapplethorpe wasn’t just the content; it was that Mapplethorpe was already a successful artist. That money didn’t go toward making new art; it went to collecting the work of a recently-dead artist, which was really about investment, not about developing new art.
Giving Andres Serrano a $15,000 award for Piss Christ not only offended the taxpayers; it set in stone the idea that we should have rules about paying for the stuff. This, falsely labelled ‘censorship’, paradoxically gave offensive art more power than it ought to have had. It’s now thirty years later and we’re still dealing with the flashback.
Government bureaucracies are slow-moving ships, whereas artists are generally light skiffs moving in the breeze. For example, the NEA frequently makes individual music grants to support “artistic achievement, significant impact, and continuing contributions to the development and performance of jazz.” Now, jazz is nice, but it’s hardly cutting-edge. Cutting edge is being done by teenagers in their parents’ basements.
And that’s my real beef with the NEA. It isn’t there to fund new art; it’s there to prop up art that appeals to the chattering classes. The arts in America are a multi-billion-dollar industry. The idea that we need government support perpetuates the myth that artists are economically ineffectual.
Artnet, which tracks market prices, makes an annual list of the most expensive living artists. Consulting this list will give you an idea of what the real tastemakers in the world buy.
Meanwhile, the masses stubbornly insist on buying music, movies and paintings that reflect their ‘pedestrian’ taste. Mock it if you must, but our pop culture is a vibrant scene that’s been aspired to and copied worldwide for more than a century.
Want a copy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait with a Whip (1978)? I’m not going to stop you, but you can pay for it yourself. Want a nice painting of a lighthouse? I’m not going to stop you, but you can pay for it yourself.