TERMS OF ENDOWMENT: Government Funding and the Arts

Thursday, May 25, 2000

In 1965, Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts, declaring that it was "necessary and appropriate" for the government to fund the arts. We examine the question of whether the NEA really is "necessary and appropriate." What are the consequences of the government awarding money to individual artists? What role does the NEA play in arts education? In short, has the NEA been a success or not?

Recorded on Thursday, May 25, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Government Funding of the Arts. It used to be that American artists faced the same two choices that all artists faced. Choice number one, create works that attracted rich patrons or, at least, ordinary paying clients and produce a stream of income. Choice number two, pursue their art in solitude and poverty. Eat well or starve. Then came 1965 when Congress created The National Endowment for the Arts. Since then, American artists have had a third choice; go to the government for funding. Today the NEA spends tens of millions of dollars in all fifty states. Its proponents say the NEA plays a vital role in supporting the artists and making the arts available to ordinary Americans. Its opponents say the NEA is elitist, that it funds inappropriate art, if art is the word for some of what it funds and that government funding of the arts, in and of itself, debases the artistic process. With us today to mix it up on these and other arguments, three guests.

John Kreidler is Executive Director of Cultural Initiative, Silicon Valley. Alonzo King is an acclaimed choreographer and Artistic Director of Line's Contemporary Ballet and John Podhoretz is a columnist for the New York Post.

The question before us is simply this, government dollars and the arts, when brought together, can they produce a thing of beauty?

Title: Terms of Endowment

Peter Robinson: The 1965 legislation that created The National Endowment for the Arts reads, in part, as follows: "Congress finds and declares that it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to create and sustain the material conditions facilitating the release of creative talent."

Is it truly necessary and appropriate for the government to fund the arts? John Kreidler.

John Kreidler: No.

Peter Robinson: No?

John Kreidler: No.

Peter Robinson: So you're opposed to it?

John Kreidler: No, but is it necessary, is it vital, is it-and-and the reason I make that answer is that The National Endowment for the Arts which is the subject of the legislation you're talking about right now has never been very significant. And if it was wiped out tomorrow, in terms of the monetary impact that it would have on the ecosystem of the arts in the United States, would be virtually negligible. The important-the most-by far, the most important subsidy that the government gives, and one that I would defend to the end, is the provisions of the tax code that allow people to give to non-profit arts organizations and receive the benefit of tax co-deductions for that.

Peter Robinson: So you would-so you would say then half of it is right. It is appropriate for the government to subsidize the arts in various ways.

John Kreidler: Appropriate, yes.

Peter Robinson: Necessary, that's ridiculous on the face of it?

John Kreidler: I would say there are certain national interests that are very much promoted by the arts being supported in the United States. For example, the creative education that takes place in public schools. The-the-the effects that the arts have on civic society, I think there are certain things like that that are vital interests.

Peter Robinson: Necessary and appropriate, John?

John Podhoretz: For government, neither necessary nor appropriate. The arts are a necessity for any vital country call-the-the-the state of a country's culture is, to some extent, the biography of the culture and the country itself. But the-the-the government's intrusion into the arts by means of funding, is a distorting rather than a liberating effect.

Peter Robinson: Alonzo, necessary and appropriate?

Alonzo King: I would say that…

Peter Robinson: In support of the arts?

Alonzo King: I would say that, in these times, it's really necessary and appropriate. There-I-I think it's difficult to think of anything that really isn't art. There's some kind of disconnect that we have and we use that term because the art of government itself, you know, people don't seem to realize that it really is an intellectual virtue. It's a knowing, you know, of how to do things. It's the principle of manufacture. So how that cannot be supported in a society that we want to be whole and integrated, you know, doesn't make sense to me. So I see it as necessary and appropriate.

Peter Robinson: All right. John Podhoretz, the NEA has a budget, National Endowment for the Arts, has a budget of just a hundred million dollars a year. That works out to less than fifty cents per American. If you add together all the federal, state and local spending on the arts, it still works out to just about six dollars per American citizen. United Kingdom spends twenty-six dollars per citizen, France, fifty-seven dollars per citizen, Germany, eighty-five dollars per citizen. What kind of barbarian are you? Why the-why should this great, prosperous, powerful nation have an impoverished culture by comparison with nations in Europe?

John Podhoretz: Well it's not-it's not that we can't afford it. Obviously we can afford it. I mean, until-until 1995, the national arts budget was actually two-thirds higher than it is now. It was cut and…

Peter Robinson: By your people, the Republicans?

John Podhoretz: By-by-well, my people, yes, but-but the problem is not that it's not affordable. Of course-it would be affordable at three times the cost. The problem is whether or not it is a-it is an appropriate as you-as you-as the authorizing legislation had it, an appropriate task of government to place itself, to interpose itself in the process of the creation of independent works of art, either in their creation or their distribution. This is not to say, I mean, I think John is right that-that the provisions of the tax code that allow for charitable deductions are extraordinarily important but that does not-you know, a-a tax-you know, a tax break is not a subsidy…

Peter Robinson: Here's a question, does government funding of the arts produce better art?

Title: A Per Capita Idea

Peter Robinson: It turns out, as far as the figures that I can find suggest, the highest per capita spending on the arts is in Finland, about ninety-six dollars per citizen. Now the orchestral works of Sibelius aside because he composed a lot of them outside of Finland, can you name two great Finnish works of art?

Alonzo King: I don't think that's important.

Peter Robinson: You don't, why not?

Alonzo King: Because the fact is that…

Peter Robinson: You want the government to fund the arts. Here's a country where the government funds the arts more richly than in any other countries and you did-I mean, when you think of Finland, you may think of Nokia, the-the self-I mean, you can think of all kinds of things with regard to Finland. Plucky, courageous country, standing up to the Soviets through all those years but you-cultural cornucopia is not what comes to mind in Finland.

Alonzo King: Yeah, I don't think it's about-I don't think it's about an-a Finnish product or a star or some celebrity because of some work of art. I think it's about the process of making art. The art itself, its aim is higher than the arts, art itself. And so it-it's a character building, self-revelatory process.

Peter Robinson: Right. So you…

Alonzo King: That's inseparable from education, for great education.

John Podhoretz: Art-but art is created whether or not government dollars are spent. I mean-I mean, I'm a writer. You-you-you-you're a-you run a dance company. You run a dance company under-under those circumstances. You need to perform in front of people and have a-have a-have a building and have a theatre and all that. But-and-and so I understand that that's a slightly more complicated question but painters can paint, writers can write, poets can write poetry, musicians can compose, you know, at night and on the weekends, the way a lot of people, you know, while they're doing their regular jobs.

John Kreidler: We've been missing an important distinction here in all of this which is, when we talk about government support for the arts, that really covers a lot of-a lot of territory. And-and, so far, the questioning has gone to the matter of…

Peter Robinson: Direct spending…

John Kreidler: …spending on the creation of art.

Peter Robinson: Right.

John Kreidler: And creation of art is just one part of the arts. Just to make a very simple distinction, there's also the whole matter of delivering art that's been around for a long time. Arts education, trying to incentivize the general public to take a greater interest in cultural activity no matter what it is. To me, the big issue in the United States that has gotten all of the attention is direct government support of particular artists to do work, some of which has ended up being controversial. And-and I think, in general, the history of world art has not done well, insofar as the creative side of it, when government has tried to create art and-and anoint particular artists to be the carriers of governmental money. I think it's been much more successful at helping to deliver artistic services to the population. Different thing…

John Podhoretz: That is an important distinction though mostly arts of that sort are a local responsibility, not even a state responsibility but a local responsibility. For example, I don't think anybody would deny, I live in New York City, that-that the-that the institutions in New York City where you can see great works of art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, contribute both in a very tangible and in an extremely intangible way to what makes New York City the city that it is. Should New York City do what it can to support the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Absolutely. It is a-it is an institution, it is a building, it's very expensive to heat, it's very expensive to air condition. Can it-can it build an Opera House or a-or a-can it-can it help defray the costs of running an opera company? Yeah, sure.

Peter Robinson: John, let me try…

Peter Robinson: Why is John Podhoretz drawing a distinction between federal funding and local funding of the arts?

Title: A Right at the Opera

Peter Robinson: The great institutions that you just named, the Met was founded in the nineteenth century at a moment of great flowering of private philanthropy, private philanthropy. The Metropolitan, the old Metropolitan Opera House was built with private money. Museum of Modern Art, the Rockefellers gave the-the land on which that museum stands and the endowment that-on which the museum operates to a large extent. New York City, in the last five and ten years has seen in its creation of wealth unparalleled anywhere in human history with the possible exception of here in Silicon Valley. There are people pulling down bucks in the financial district in New York who can very easily underwrite what needs the heating costs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And so why, I mean, can't you just say, this is not the role of government?

John Podhoretz: Well you can. I mean, in some of these circumstances, these are-these are-these are-these are things with a long history. For example, Metropolitan Museum of Art sits on public land. It's-it's-it's-it's sited in Central Park which is owned by the City of New York. Therefore, that part of the land…

Peter Robinson: That's a subsidy…

John Podhoretz: All I'm saying is that-is that there are circumstances under which you can understand that localities have a-have a-have a pressing public interest, particularly failing cities that have fallen on hard times, Syracuse, New York, Pittsburgh in the-in the 1970's, which have an active interest in attracting and helping to subsidize certain forms of arts, theatre companies and things like that, in order to revitalize a downtown that has fallen to pieces.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so can I-can I then…

John Podhoretz: But nationally…

Peter Robinson: Right…

John Podhoretz: …and for the purposes of art, that is, for the purposes of…

Peter Robinson: With a capital A…

John Podhoretz: That is of the future of art and the creation of-of enduring works of art, government funding has no place.

Peter Robinson: If New York City or Syracuse or any locality wants to fund money with public-fund arts with public money, that's their business and that's okay with you?

John Podhoretz: Well in the closer-it's always the case of the closer you get to a voter, the more, you know, the more of an issue something can be if voters are offended by it.

Peter Robinson: Right.

John Podhoretz: I mean the-the-the size of the, you know, you have a hundred million dollars and a 1.4 trillion dollar federal budget that goes to art. I mean, you can't vote or not vote on arts funding. It's-it's-it's-it's ludicrous.

Peter Robinson: Alonzo and John, let me…

Peter Robinson: Next question, is The National Endowment for the Arts an elitist institution?

Title: Avant Guardians

Peter Robinson: Why should the single mother who works two shifts as a waitress in Alabama and whose idea of entertaining herself is to watch a movie, when she finally gets enough free time to do so, be taxed however lightly but, be taxed to support relatively high brow endeavors such as ballet?

Alonzo King: When I think about government and arts, I really think education and that mother, if she has children, wants them to get the best possible education that they can and she wants that education to be whole. We currently are educating children on the banking model solely and-and all people are interested in-there used to be a-a period of-of idealism, different dreams, now all you hear people talking about is making money. And in schools that is-that is the prescription. It's-it's science and math. That to not offer a child another opportunity, another way of looking at the world and, more importantly, of discovering themselves. I think it's criminal. So it wouldn't be-it wouldn't be the idea of these institutions so much as the opportunity for children to have another way to learn.

Peter Robinson: John Kreidler, give us the name of the organization that you now head.

John Kreidler: Cultural Initiative, Silicon Valley.

Peter Robinson: Are you seeking federal-grants from The National Endowment for the Arts or money from the State of California?

John Kreidler: Marginally. It's not that-it's not the main thing that we're seeking. We wouldn't deny it.

Peter Robinson: Okay. We talked a moment ago about the wealth creation in New York over the last decade. The wealth creation in Silicon Valley over the last decade is nothing less than astounding.

John Kreidler: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Not just by comparison with recent American history but by comparison with all of world history.

John Kreidler: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And so, even marginally, to go-hit up the government for funding for your arts organization, it would strike me takes a lot of brass. How do you defend yourself?

John Kreidler: Now The National Endowment for the Arts is still the-the topic that's on the table, I think.

Peter Robinson: Right, sure.

John Kreidler: And I think that there is an analogy here that may not-may not suit John but between public education and the arts. I think that that's part of where Alonzo was going. Again, I'm just-to state my position, I'm very leery of government supporting artists to do individual pieces of art. I think it's been botched up, not only by United States government, but by governments all over the world. On the other hand…

Peter Robinson: Can we-I just want to-so what you have in mind, I want to make sure I'm understanding this correctly. So, for example, in one-Stalin invents Soviet realism and there's just no good painting that gets done under Soviet realism, right? But, even in this country, FDR, the public works projects…

John Kreidler: WPA.

Peter Robinson: …WPA during the '30's, very little actually good or memorable art comes out of that.

John Kreidler: Disagree.

Peter Robinson: You disagree with that?

John Kreidler: I do disagree, Orsen Wells, the Mercury Theater in New York was astounding under the WPA.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So what is your point then, that the government doesn't pick the winners all the time or…

John Kreidler: That-that even when it does pick winners and I think that the NEA has picked some winners, by the way, that it-it-it just doesn't work in American democratic society to anoint a central agency to make decisions about whose art is more interesting or likely to have a greater future than others. I think the role of the federal government is much better when it comes to the delivery of art services ra-things that have been created rather than trying to create the works. I'd rather see that left to the private sector.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead John.

John Podhoretz: I think that the reason that arts institutions are so passionate about the desire for The National Endowment for the Arts has to do with an idea that it conveys cultural legitimacy for the federal government to be involved in art and in the arts.

(Talking at the same time)

John Podhoretz: I think-I think that that is extremely pernicious because the federal government …

Peter Robinson: Give us the argument here…

John Podhoretz: …well the federal government is not-is, you know, essentially is a-is-works for us. It is a-it is a-it is a way and a means of spending tax dollars. It is not greater than the American people, it is not more significant than the American people and it should-and it does not have anointing authority. And it should not be given that kind of power by people.

Peter Robinson: That's okay with you, isn't it, that argument?

John Kreidler: I don't think that's the strongest argument. I think that the reason why we have something like the NEA more than that is to-is the same reason we have a Department of Education. And I realize that's a hot issue too but-but the fact is that the-I think the federal government has been in its best when it is supporting the delivery of services and especially when it's been dealing with equity issues. That is, if rural Appalachian isn't getting its share of touring arts events or if it's in-in poor neighborhoods of San Francisco or San Jose, to me, the NEA has done some good work along those lines to-but that's not the same thing as creating art. It's the delivery of services and I think the same argument…

Peter Robinson: All right. The NEA may have done some good just as John Kreidler says but doesn't its entanglement in congressional politics just create too many problems?

Title: The Deal of the Arts

Peter Robinson: Allocating money to the arts or to the humanities by way of the political process, that is to say, congressmen getting in and competing for funds the way they compete for funds for the highways or the way they compete for military bases in their home districts, that is in and of itself, hand-fisted at best and-and possibly pernicious in and of itself.

John Podhoretz: Well I think that the real problem with arts funding has to do with the fact that it raises a constitutional conundrum. Obviously the first amendment guarantees us all freedom of expression. The second article of the constitution which governs the powers that-that are-that-that are attached to the legislative branch of congress, gives congress oversight authority over the money that it-that it-that it lays out. What that means is that this creates a paradox that the founders never foresaw because if congress hands out money to arts institutions, it has the right to oversee the way that money is spent. That is a conflict with the first amendment which says, "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech."

Peter Robinson: You go for that?

John Kreidler: I think there's a lot of truth to that and in the framing of the 1965 act that created both endowments, that was understood, that there was this-the possibility the government would be too intrusive and so the way that that was handled, and I'm not saying this was a perfect way but, it was to try to institute what was called the "arms length principle" so the government would put the money into The National Endowment for the Arts as the vessel for transmitting it to arts institutions and artists but the government wouldn't make the decisions. And what was done in order to accomplish this was basically copying the British system of impaneling peer review groups of people, artists and administrators, who would-who were the people who actually would adjudicate whether a particular organization or a particular artist deserved the work. In the end, that system has broken down. I mean, the congress has still intruded into it.

John Podhoretz: Under the circumstances, a chilling effect sets in when I think-perfectly legitimate part of the political process, congressmen complain, conservative groups complain, people say that the government is supporting pornography or obscenity and what happens is, and this is the danger to the arts, is that museum directors and-and troupe, people who run troupes and all that start getting worried about their funding and they don't make decisions, even if they're wrong-headed decisions based on what they believe to be in the artistic interest of their company.

Peter Robinson: Alonzo, this is-this is-this is the argument, that you, as an artist, when you accept government funding, become in one way or another chained to or at least-at the very least, you become aware of the political process, you suddenly find yourself reporting to Senator Jesse Helms, an extremely conservative senator from North Carolina, whose values you perhaps don't share at all, isn't that a problem?

Alonzo King: It's-it depends on who the person is. For some people, that's a problem no matter who is supplying the money, that people have certain prescriptions that they want followed, no matter who it is down to a private person, to city, to state, people have ideas about how they think that money should be spent. So…

Peter Robinson: So your experience is wherever the money comes from, it comes with at least implied strings attached?

Alonzo King: Most of the time. My thing is that everyone should have access in art education from the moment that they are children, bottom line.

Peter Robinson: Your big thing is really art education?

Alonzo King: That's-that's my real big thing.

Peter Robinson: Can we just eliminate The National Endowment for the Arts? What I'm trying to tease out here is whether The National Endowment for the Arts for-for artists such as yourself is-is symbolically important just as John Podhoretz claimed.

Alonzo King: But see, for me…

Peter Robinson: For you as an artist?

Alonzo King: For me, that's not…

Peter Robinson: Don't worry about the economy in San Francisco.

Alonzo King: That's not the argument for…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Alonzo King: For me, the argument is that people are practicing art and-and whatever level that is that that is giving them self inquiry in a-in a-in a…

Peter Robinson: But…

Alonzo King: …in an environment…

Peter Robinson: You are genuinely convinced that there will be less art taking place in America without The National Endowment for the Arts?

Alonzo King: It's already less. I mean, well that's a difficult one but yeah, if it's gone, there will be less. There will be less than…

Peter Robinson: I have yet to be convinced that the NEA is both necessary and appropriate. Let's try one more time.

Title: Louvre It or Leave It

Peter Robinson: I don't know whether it does much good or much-it's only a hundred million dollars and boy is it annoying. I'm-the Maple Thorpe controversy, this caring for the woman smeared with chocolate controversy, that the Supreme Court-I mean, the Supreme Court, half their time goes to this dinky-let's just get rid of it. Arts won't suffer particularly and we'll all be able to lead much more peaceful lives. Just get rid of it. What do you think?

John Kreidler: The numbers would say it doesn't make much difference at all. But, let's…

Peter Robinson: I was hoping I could get you to stop there. Go ahead.

John Kreidler: All right. But…

Peter Robinson: Go ahead John.

John Kreidler: …but really the-the fact is that over the twenty, the-the thirty odd years of The National Endowment's existence, there's been very little controversy about almost all of what it does. It's been a very small part of-of the organization that has been involved in-most of the organize-of-of the NEA's money does not go to support individual artists. It goes to support dance companies, arts education programs in the public schools, about which there's been virtually no controversy.

Alonzo King: Preservation…

John Kreidler: Preservation, so the big-the big fight has been over the symbolism of, I think, what John is bringing out part-the creative side of the arts. And my feeling is that well, to answer your question, the money doesn't matter that much. What I do think is very crucial…

Peter Robinson: It's too small.

John Kreidler: …it-in comparison to what foundations are doing, state governments, local government, there's no contest here.

Peter Robinson: Right.

John Kreidler: And especially when individual people donate through there own-attack charitable donations.

Peter Robinson: Right. Right.

John Kreidler: The big thing I think that the federal government should be doing and hasn't done for thirty-five years is there ought to be some positive political leadership around the arts. The Kennedy administration, the Johnson administration, they said, this is something that's good for us to engage in cultural activity. We haven't had a national government that's done that-I would rather have Bill Clinton playing a saxophone on television and saying, this is a good thing for kids and-and let the NEA go away but I'd still would argue that most of what the NEA does is positive and is in the national interest.

John Podhoretz: This is where I have to differ with you. When politicians talk about art in the United States, it's a very embarrassing thing. They sound-for the most part-they sound stupid-whether they're-if they're talking nicely or they're talking harshly. They sound-they sound Philistine or they sound sentimental and mockish. Either way, that is another (?) of why it's a mistake for politics and the arts to mix.

Peter Robinson: Last question. I'm going to ask you for a prediction. The early 1990's, the budget of The National Endowment for the Arts gets up to over a hundred and seventy million a year, Republicans come in, they recapture the House of Representatives, they cut it. The budget is now about-it's actually a little under a hundred million dollars a year right now. Four years from now as the next president, whoever he may be, is finishing his first term in office, what's your guess? What will the budget for The National Endowment for the Arts be four years from now. It's about a hundred million now. John Kreidler?

John Kreidler: I'd say it's going to be about two hundred million dollars and the reason being that Bill Ivy who's the current Chairman there has a far more populist understanding of the arts in this country than any of his predecessors in the whole history of the organization. I think that he will walk into congress and make a case that nobody else has made for it.

Peter Robinson: So that this is still a politically viable institution and then some?

John Kreidler: Yes, but I-I would say also that two hundred million dollars still remains insignificant.

Peter Robinson: But it'll double?

John Kreidler: Sure.

Peter Robinson: Alonzo, what do you think?

Alonzo King: I think-I think it will continue to-to survive and probably will increase.

Peter Robinson: John Podhoretz?

John Podhoretz: A hundred and seven million.

Peter Robinson: John Podhoretz, John Kreidler and Alonzo King, thank you very much.

John Kreidler: It's a pleasure.

Peter Robinson: At the very least, government funding of the arts is a tricky matter. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. Vincent Van Gogh, move over. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.