Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The Most Annoying Article I've Read in a Long Time

Apparently there is nothing that proponents of government subsidies for the arts won't say to protect the NEA. The most recent and outrageous claim? The arts will save us from terrorism! In an article in today's Chicago Tribune (requires registration and will be inaccessible in a week) titled -- no joke -- "NEA fights for its life -- and ours," theater critic Michael Phillips defends the NEA by implying that our very lives may be at stake. Arthur Miller, quoted in the article, says, "The arts can do more to sustain the peace than all the wars, the armaments and the threats and the warnings of the politicians." Right, that's why NEA officials are lobbying to have their offices moved to the Pentagon. If only Osama had been watching more NEA-funded programming on PBS, the World Trade Center might still be standing.

Okay, maybe I'm misinterpreting the author's rather vague argument. Phillips's real point, I suppose, is that the arts help us to heal. We're a wounded nation, and what we really need to make us better is … more artists on the government teat. Let's take a poll of people in the Washington, D.C., area to find out what government action would put them most at ease right now -- I'm sure a majority of them will say, "More large sculptures to hide behind."

Phillips has other arguments, if you can call them that. In the all-the-cool-kids-are-doing-it category, he observes that England's government spends $639 million a year on the arts compared to our "pathetic" $126 million. "America is a rather larger country than England. Why does it think so much less of itself as a cultural entity?" Yup, the measure of how much we value something is how much we make taxpayers cough up for it.

You might think the things we value most would be the things we pay for voluntarily, with dollars from our own pocketbooks instead of our neighbors'. But according to Phillips and others of his ilk, our values are revealed by what we're forced to do, not what we choose to do. Hence the failure of the article to mention the scads of money spent by consumers and private foundations on the arts and entertainment every year. A report produced by the NEA itself places consumer spending on the performing arts at $9.8 billion and motion pictures at $8.1 billion in 2000. Yet the only private efforts that attract the author's attention are the vaunted "public-private alliances" that the NEA uses to leverage its funds.

Do Americans really want and need more art and culture in their lives? I don't know, but I do know how to find out. Let them decide how to spend their own money, and see how they spend it. As an added bonus, we'll actually know what kind of art they actually want to see -- as distinct from what self-appointed cultural critics and government bureaucrats want them to see.

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