Human beings are driven to express themselves, and we are naturally uplifted by a sense of having done something, having accomplished something. Ultimately, communication is an act of love, and accomplishment is an act of affirming one’s existence. Combined, that is art — affirming one’s capacity for love — and people always have and always will create it.
The cliché of the starving artist emerged because artists will sacrifice for the freedom to create art. Similarly, otherwise occupied adults pay for art classes without intending to go pro. So naturally attractive is the activity of art that we invest in it with our own resources with no promise of reward.
That is to say that we don’t need government to spend taxpayer dollars to ensure that art is produced.
When government creates funding streams that must go to art, the skills that procure money for an artist move away from the communication of love and toward the soulless description of benefits to bureaucrats and politicians. The people skilled at jumping through the hoops of the grant process and willing to produce the material that the government has defined as “art” — with a message that accords with the interests of government agencies and of politicians — will be the ones who have the opportunity to produce something that they’re able to package as “art.”
The point about the interests of government is particularly important. In a great scene from the Tim Robbins movie Cradle Will Rock, a tableful of wealthy elites conspire to use their positions and wealth to manipulate the art world so that it is subversive of itself, not of them. Privileged people tend to find art disruptive of their plans if it is a means for the expression of the broader society’s feelings.
On the other hand, if challenging the very notion of art becomes the object of art, then it will cease to be a medium through which people can communicate their discontent with their social standing. Instead of unifying people through persuasion, art will divide, as an expression of difference and aggression … of rejection.
One needn’t believe in a conspiracy of the 1% to think that opposition to government funding of art shouldn’t be led by conservative budget hawks looking to reduce tax bills or by libertarians who object to government’s picking approved artists and forcing others to fund them whether or not they like the artwork or support the message. Rather, those leading the charge to get government out of the art business should be those who believe most in art.
The health of art in a society is not a function of the livelihoods of bureaucrats and the grant applicants who win laurels of funding. It is a function of people’s desire and ability to communicate. Allowing the imposing shadow of government to engulf art suffocates artistic communication.
An even deeper presumption is at play: namely, that people acting through government somehow speak for The People, as a body. One suspects that those who say such things don’t actually believe them. Advocates for continued government funding of the arts would be scandalized at the use of the National Endowment for the Arts to promote art that is to the taste and political advantage of President Donald Trump.
In other words, what they really want is an independent voice operating with public money to subvert our society toward their own beliefs. That isn’t communication of love; it’s manipulation. And it isn’t art; it’s propaganda.
Justin Katz is Research Director of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and Managing Editor of OceanStateCurrent.com.