Acton Commentary

Barzun, the NEA, and the Economics of Art


In the wake of a proposed 15 percent increase in next year’s funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), we are back to square one in the debate over the government’s role in arts funding. President Bush’s support for a fatter NEA budget has raised hackles among fiscal conservatives and aroused some of the same critics who, disturbed by its morally obtuse activities, were behind the 1995 movement to eliminate the agency. But do we really want to eliminate all government funding for the arts?

Critic Jacques Barzun has observed that art patronage has existed in one form or another for more than 2000 years. After humans evolved beyond painting with charcoal and berry juice on cave walls, arts patrons became an integral component of creative efforts to capture both the human experience and flights of inspiration in ennobling and entertaining ways through the visual, literary and performance arts. Art became a signpost for civilization and, because of the support it received from the church and state, a reflection of religious or national identity.

Even today, the church is a guiding inspiration for creative souls. In his 1999 letter to artists, Pope John Paul II noted that art forms are a “wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.” Art is an integral part of culture and, as the pope writes elsewhere, “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God.” Art is, then, an expression of the strength or frailty of a people’s relationship with the divine.

The tides of history changed the nature of arts patronage. After the Reformation, royalty became the predominant patron of the arts until the Industrial Revolution when, according to Barzun, artists wrested control of the muse from their patrons and insisted on the freedom to create as they chose. But they discovered that they still needed support, albeit from more manageable sources. Canadian-born painter, novelist, critic and essayist Wyndham Lewis labeled the new class of bourgeois arts patrons the “Apes of God,” which described a group who increased their private largesse immeasurably out of both a lack of understanding of the new art and a fear of being labeled philistines. This period effectively came to an end in the mid-twentieth century, when Western governments assumed the mantle of arts funding. In 1965, the NEA was created.

NEA supporters argue that the arts would suffer immeasurably if government funding were eliminated. But literature funding is a good example of how this simply isn’t true. While the NEA appropriated $820,000 in literature fellowships in 2002, the vast majority of writers do not rely on patronage, charity, or the sale of their work to survive. T. S. Eliot worked for years in Lloyds Bank and later as an editor at Faber & Faber; William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician; poet (and current NEA chairman) Dana Gioia was a marketing executive for General Foods; and hundreds of artists are employed as university and community college faculty. More often than not these artists’ writings are enhanced rather than diminished by their experiences in workaday careers.

It is only at history’s remove, moreover, that artists’ talents and contributions can be recognized with any lasting assurance. This is because it is often an artist’s nature to push a genre forward before an audience is prepared to understand or accept the fruits of such labor. It is therefore presumptuous for a government committee employing public monies to predict the lasting aesthetic value of art without the benefit of historical perspective—much less to do so before the art is even created.

Barzun is not against all arts funding. The art that history has validated, which resides in museums and libraries, deserves public funding in Barzun’s opinion, because it is what he refers to as “public art.” However, Barzun writes, “Our mistake, our predicament, is that most of the art now produced is domestic art trying to become public art.” By domestic, he means local and amateur art that exists for curio shelves and arts and crafts shows. This art was the focus of the NEA’s $840,000 Folk & Traditional Arts Infrastructure Initiative in 2002. “There is no reason to neglect or look down on the domestic kind,” Barzun explains, “But there is also no reason to support it with public monies.”

Another compelling argument Barzun presents against public funding for art lies in the title of his 1989 essay, “A Surfeit of Fine Art.” There currently exists a glut rather than a shortage of art and its effect is not to lower prices or deflect aspiring artists into other lines of work; instead “it only augments the need for subsidies…. Because art generates excitement, because a great many people have some little artistic gift, and because the life of the artist looks wonderfully free, more and more people in each generation decide that they want to be artists. And throughout the land one or another agency is at work to multiply their kind.”

In the midst of the ongoing debate over the role of the NEA, it might serve both sides well to adopt a more balanced approach such as that articulated by Jacques Barzun. That does not necessarily translate into an increase in funding. It may even mean a sharp cutback. Recent efforts by the NEA to claim the high ground in the budget battle by presenting Shakespeare and the $15 million “American Masterpieces” educational program obscure the issue. Such programs steal audiences from local and regional artists, compete against legitimate public institutions that house historically validated art and add to the overabundance of art that squelches the recognition of quality efforts. The NEA is not a muse; it is a government agency. The sooner that is recognized, the sooner it will find its proper place in the arts culture of the nation.