Why does the federal government appropriate funds for the arts? Ever since 1965, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act designated public support for symphonies, art galleries, theater companies, movie producers, and other arts programs. In governmental lexicon, “arts are defined to include music, drama, opera, dance, painting, sculpture, literature, architecture and such allied fields as urban and landscape design, photography, graphic arts, crafts, motion pictures, radio and television.” (Executive Order 11112). Why? Several posts in the next few days will be dedicated to some of my thoughts on why federal dollars are appropriated to arts funding.
Arts as public good:
The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act declares: “The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States” (P.L. 89-209). Art is a public good, where responsibility of costs and enjoyment of benefits are shared equally for all citizens. In economic terms, art is non-excludable and non-rivalrous – meaning no one person can own or limit other’s use of it. Real world examples of arts as a public good would be community sculptures, public architecture, and free art galleries. It is all enjoyed by any member of the public at any time.
The funding for the arts as a public good is not the whole story because of the intrinsically individualistic nature of the arts. Each person values art differently; the public good is not equally enjoyed. But what of plain, simple, and ugly art? Public sculptures may be “intrusive and just plain ugly. There is no reason such works should be foisted on the public” (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/26/1989, A26). In this mindset, the spending is an unjustified public expense. Also, NEA grants do not have requirements to publish; individual artists are not required to produce goods for the public, raising doubt to the public good justification (Straight 1989).
The idealistic artist, in fact, often avoids producing works that appeal to the general public. Politicians often speak of the ‘ideal artist’ as a counter-cultural individualist – someone who can confront ugly truths as much as sunny optimism. President Kennedy said, “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state,” thus, “[t]his is not a popular role” (Kennedy 1963). An unpopular pursuit that is neither publicly enjoyed nor valued cannot – or is not likely to be – a public good.
The public good argument justifies only part of the programs and goals of the NEA. President Kennedy linked the contributions of artists to the foundations of the national identity and as exemplary models of the American citizen. Poet Robert Frost represented a dissenting, inquisitive,
individualistic figure. Kennedy called the artist a national hero, who contributed “national strength” and “self-comprehension,” thus strengthening “human spirit” by challenging power. In a 1991 the NEA Chairman cited another famous example of the counter-cultural artist, who eventually helped the public connect to a difficult truth: “Not all of the messages [communicated through the arts] are blue skies and pretty mountains. One of the most successful public arts projects that I know of is the Vietnam Memorial, which was funded through a competition that Mia Linn won and that the National Endowment sponsored. That controversial monument is now one of the most popular in Washington” (House Hearing, 1991, Reauthorizing of the NEA). The individualistic artist can sometimes create a public good – be it a sculpture, poem, or photograph – that can strengthen the nation.
Is that enough to justify spending millions of federal dollars on the arts? Next week I will look at potential positive externalities as an explanation for federal funding.
While working on this project, local funding always seemed incredibly justifiable – a healthy, vibrant community would naturally support its local artists. Extending that argument to the national level, surprisingly, ends up incredibly difficult. If there is interest, I can later post a few examples of how messy federal support, and supervision, can become. I hope you enjoy!