By Matthew Ormseth
President Trump’s announcement last month that he intends to slash funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in order to funnel an additional $54 billion to the military came at an interesting time in my personal life, considering I’m in the homestretch of a senior thesis debating the ethics and usefulness of art in society.
The three entities have long been in the crosshairs of conservative penny-pinchers, who complain that federal funding is awarded only to media and works of art that advance a liberal, anti-religious agenda. (Lobbyists from the Heritage Foundation published a 1997 report titled, “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts,” which included the claim, “The NEA is welfare for cultural elitists.”)
Regardless of the nature of the content produced by federally funded art and media projects, the combined budgets of the three entities is only about $741 million, the New York Times reported in January of this year. That’s less than one-tenth of a percent of the federal budget overall.
But the actual dollars and cents of slashing the NEA, NEH or CPB’s funding has never mattered much to their conservative foes. For them, it is a matter of principle. The fact that some of their tax dollars — if only a microscopic sliver of them — fund media or art they find distasteful, offensive or critical of their political and religious viewpoints is more than many can stand.
Their objections do beg the question: Does the government have a duty to help foster the arts? Some NEA-sponsored projects have produced art of dubious quality or value. Take, for example, artist Ann Carlson’s performance art piece “Doggy Hamlet,” billed as “a full-length outdoor performance spectacle that weaves dance, music, visual and theatrical elements with aspects from competitive sheep herding trials.”
“Through story, motion, site and stillness, ‘Doggie Hamlet’ explores instinct, sentience, attachment and loss, and is a beautiful and dreamlike spectacle weaving instinct, mystery and movement into an unusual performance event,” Carlson’s description reads. Videos of “Doggie Hamlet” reveal two people standing in a Vermont field, alongside two dogs and a herd of grazing, disinterested sheep. (“Doggie Hamlet” received $30,000 from the NEA). Or, recall Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a jar of Serrano’s urine, which took home awards in a NEA-sponsored competition.
But regardless of the actual content of the art produced with taxpayer money, we could see a return to by-the-rich, for-the-rich art if federal funding to the arts is slashed — or worse still, a return to the patronage system in which wealthy patrons pay poor artists to produce art tailored to their tastes and sensibilities.
Art has always been classist in nature — apart from a remarkable few, artists historically tend to come from the wealthier strata of society.
Artists must have the time and the resources to devote entire swaths of their lives to perfecting their craft. But in recent decades, the NEA and NEH have helped even out that playing field by offering grants and funding competitions with cash prizes.
It has allowed artists — albeit to a limited extent — to pursue a pure distillation of their vision, one untainted by classist sensibilities. Vincent Van Gogh famously never sold a painting in his lifetime, but most modern artists have to think about things like rent and utilities and car payments.
In a laissez-faire approach, where the artist is forced to sell his or her work on the market to eke out a living, their work would skew toward the commercial, catered to the tastes of the monied class.
But one must also ask: What is the role of art in modern society? Fine art — painting and sculpture — often seems to exist only in the realm of snobbish gallery showings, the backrooms of high-end dealers and the shadowy, sealed-off penthouses of the nation’s elite.
Does art still play a role in setting the tastes of a society, or of functioning as some kind of moral compass, as it once did?
It’s up for debate, but so long as it is we should continue to fund the pursuit of art in its truest, purest and least commercial forms.
Art is the hallmark of an individualistic and innovative society. It encourages the perpetual revisiting and re-evaluating of norms, beliefs and ideals that define a culture and a nation.
Art is the freedom to sit in a field with dogs and sheep and decide it means something incredibly important to you, and we would be a weaker and considerably less free nation if we decided to do away with it.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.