On January 19th of this year, The Hill reported that the incoming administration was proposing that “the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.”
The public backlash has contributed to the hysterical opposition greeting the new administration. The NEA states it is an “independent federal agency whose funding and support give Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” How can anyone discontinue that?
Conventional wisdom holds that supporting art is the right thing to do. This artist dares to disagree.
In the 70’s I had the great fortune to study art in Holland. It was a “soft” socialist country whose various social welfare programs included one that gave stipends to artists. At 20, I was curious about how it worked.
Claudette was a close friend and also a student at the Free Academy Psychopolis in The Hague, Holland, and was receiving a stipend that covered her rent and expenses each month. She was carefree, passionate, had lots of talent, and loved to paint figures. But the stipend wasn’t free; each month she needed to come up with five paintings, within certain dimensions, then schlep them to a government office, to be judged by a panel. From there the artworks were accepted and held indefinitely in storage.
She soon figured out that they would accept almost anything. The day before the meeting she would quickly paint five abstract paintings, all signed, and get her check. She then planned to make personal art for the rest of the month. But a funny thing happened. She didn’t feel motivated and her passion for painting diminished. Her story was not unique; I heard the same thing from several people at the Academy.
At this time I was working summers to pay for my art education, and I had painted a large still life, and I still remember how proud I was signing it. It was hanging in the academy’s hallway where a man saw it, loved it, and tracked me down to purchase it. His desire to own that painting was palpable, and getting a good price for it was a profound experience for me, one that inspired me to keep going as an artist.
Fast forward to today. The NEA is funding such absurd projects as the $40,000 Laundromat Project: “To support artists’ residencies and arts education programming at
neighborhood laundromats. Artists will develop and mount site-specific, socially relevant art projects in local coin-op laundries to engage neighbors and patrons in the creative process.”
Government funding of the arts does bring up a lot of questions. What does it do to an artist’s soul to make art for bureaucrats? And what does it do to art? A private patron needs no justification to buy art, but what standards does a government use for their support? If the agenda of the government is to nurture artists, does this approach work?
Ayn Rand doesn’t think the government should be involved in the humanities or with anything as personal as art: “Nothing is less secure than a position of dependence on the arbitrary power of politicians dispensing favors….” She pointed to “the fear, the intrigues, the rigid censorship, and the abject bootlicking in which and with which the recipients of governmental favors have to live moment by precarious moment.”
The NEA has tremendous leverage to direct the arts, and the good news is that art will always be with us, it is part of our DNA. But wouldn’t a better alternative to the NEA be for us to take this role as individuals and seek out, support, and enjoy the art we love?
Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.
Originally published with The Atlas Society.