How the Political Right Views Arts Funding

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 1 (Spring 1998)

Lance T. Izumi

Lance T. Izumi is a senior fellow in California studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. The following text is based on a transcript of Izumi's remarks at a symposium sponsored by the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF). The topic of the two-day symposium was the support of visual artists. It was held in Seattle on December 4 and 5, 1997. The remarks are published here with permission of Izumi and WESTAF.

My role here today is not to play devil's advocate or to be adversarial. What I want to do is have a reportorial discussion with you about what it is that folks on the political Right think about the arts in general and about individual artists in particular. As was mentioned earlier this morning, there is great tendency in any discussion of the arts for people to stereotype their opponents. So, we have a situation where many on the Left think that Jesse Helms-type conservatives just want to kill all artists if they could or at least put them on a train to never-never land. On the other side, you have the people on the Right who look at artists and say, well, these people aren't adding anything to society, they're just promoting filth, et cetera.

I believe that if we're going to discuss this subject substantively and have a fruitful outcome, we have to get beyond these stereotypes of each other. We also have to understand the other person's point of view a little bit more. For me, sitting and listening to you has helped to break down many stereotypes I initially had. I came here as a conservative public policy analyst who looks at lots of different issues, but not usually the arts, although I am a consumer of the arts. Listening to the folks here today and to Charles Bergman [Jackson Pollock Foundation] last night, I now have a better conception of your positions and viewpoints. What I'd like to do here is to give you some of the reasons that people on the Right feel the way they do about the arts, and hopefully break down a few stereotypes you may have.

If you look at the Right's position on arts and individual artists, it basically consists of two lines of thinking. On one hand, the Right has a position based on economic arguments drawn from free-market theory. The other position has more to do with artistic judgment and the influence of government bureaucracy and ideology. So, I want to address both of these main categories, and tell you what it is that you, as advocates for the arts and as people who would like more funding for the arts, need to do if you want to succeed. Because, unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you feel about it), the people who adhere to the Right's positions are a large segment of society. You're not going to get them to swing over to your side simply by demonizing them. You're going to have to address their concerns, or at least know what their arguments are and how, maybe, to forge some middle ground where you can at least come together a bit.

In the economic area, the Right's position is mainly based on their general view that government's role in society must be limited. Now, you've talked a lot today about funding for the arts, and you haven't drawn a bright line between private and public funding. Now, the Right, on the other hand, does draw a very bright line between the two. I mean, you could have the most outrageous art, yet someone on the Right probably wouldn't squawk very much as long as it was purely privately funded. It is only when you have government funding that the Right begins to take an interest. If people like Senator Helms or others on the very hard Right in Congress initiate or get mixed up in these debates, it's partly because government funding gives them an opening to get involved. And so we have the yearly budget discussion. Congress has to vote on it and make some difficult decisions. Individual congressmen have to vote on it. And each individual congressman has an opportunity to perhaps demonize the entire category of the arts and arts funding. There's a certain irony, therefore, in the way public funding can work against the arts. This would be one of the Right's points — that is, by allowing government funding, you also allow for all kinds of judgments to be made on the arts that may not necessarily have much to do with artistic merit.

I would like to point out some scholarly works that encapsulate the Right's position so that, if you're interested, you can have a reference. In the economic area, one very good recent study was put out by an institute where I was a visiting fellow this past fall — the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London. It's one of Margaret Thatcher's favorite institutes. The IEA put out a study called “Should the Taxpayer Support the Arts?” It is written by David Sawers. Even though it is a British study, the economic arguments contained in it define, quite nicely, the reasons why the Right is skeptical about government funding for the arts.

Sawers first discusses some of the arguments made for government support for the arts. One of the main arguments made by a lot of folks is that the arts cannot survive in the private market, that some sort of government funding is needed to help the arts survive. Sawers argues, as would many on the Right in the United States, that the arts survived quite well, or at least survived, until recent times when government funding first came into vogue in the United States. In continental Europe, there was much more of a tradition of royal patronage. In Britain, Sawers points out, there really was not much royal patronage. And the Church of England was not a big patron of the visual arts, partly because, after the Reformation, visual arts were viewed as a Roman Catholic holdover. Sawers says that the increase in artistic life in England through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was the result of increased wealth in the country. As wealth increased, demand for art increased as well. I think I'll read a section of his study to give you a flavor of what the fellow thinks. According to Sawers:

The Arts Council [the British equivalent of the NEA] asks us to believe that the market-based artistic merit system, which flourished for centuries and which produced the British cultural heritage we now admire, in periods when incomes were far smaller than they are today, cannot now function; and that the arts therefore cannot now survive without government subsidies. This claim is implausible. Subsidies may change the nature of the arts which get produced...because subsidized producers need not worry about the audience and can charge less....

Sawers says that reduced dependence on the audience may well have made the arts more elitist. Yet the reality is that, “artists now have a far larger market for their creations than they did a century or two ago, even if the subsidized sector is excluded, because of the growth of new media.” Sawers goes on to say that for this reason, he believes the arts should not be subsidized at a national level by the government.

Sawers notes that those who say there should be government funding view the arts as a “merit good.” According to economists, a “merit good” is something that is good in and of itself, regardless of whether a consumer wants it or not. The trouble he has with this description of art is that somebody has to make the decision that a good is a “merit good.” If it is the government, then the decision is a very paternalistic one, made by somebody who says, “I know better than the rest of the people in society.”

Sawers does, however, support some funding for the arts, but at a very local level — which is very interesting because a lot of the talk here today has been about local funding. Last night, Mr. Bergman said that we are never going to get the federal funding we need for all the art that we want, and he's most likely correct. As has been said today, it really is up to the local people to do more of the heavy lifting. Interestingly enough, conservatives like Sawers say that's fine if it improves the local economy. You can make a better economic argument for, let's say, taxing people or businesses locally to promote museums, individual artists, and festivals if they increase your local economy. This morning there's been talk about cultural tourism. If, for example, investing money in individual artists in Seattle somehow increases the attractiveness of Seattle to people coming to Seattle, increases business, increases economic development, then, such public investment, according to Sawers, would be allowable. He has more of a problem with national taxation for national goals, which he says will lead to a lot less real benefit for real people. His view is that national subsidies and national taxation are regressive because if you tax in a general sense, the beneficiaries are going to be those who are wealthier — since they tend to consume more art.

Another area where Sawers says government funding is permissible is art education. He views art education and investment in art education as producing positive external benefits for society. In another article I have here, Samuel Lipman, a conservative writer for Commentary magazine (and a pianist and music critic as well), makes a similar point by saying that if we do not like the tastes of private patrons, we should not go and get the government to take the place of the private patrons. This merely substitutes one bad taste for another. Instead, we really should educate people about art. My area is K‑12 education reform, and I believe we should have a greater component of art education in schools. By having more art education, you create a better market and better patrons. In the long term, this is a better way to do it than having the government play a patron role.

The final argument that Sawers addresses is whether subsidies are needed to foster innovation in art. Let's just take Seattle. I believe someone mentioned last night that you have “x” number of artists who are earning below $15,000 a year. One is supposed to conclude that since these artists are not able to earn a real living, they can't go on and do their art, thus stifling their innovation. Sawers' argument is that subsidies may be superficially appealing, but you are just substituting judgment again. Obviously, the intent is not to just give a few grants to people — the gist last night seemed to be that it would be nice if lots of grants were given out. So, you're going to allow government to have a very large role in subsidizing artists. You are substituting, therefore, the tastes of the government, or whatever is approved by government, for the innovative ideas of the artists.

In a capsule, that summarizes the economic argument made by the political Right against government intrusion into the art marketplace. Now, we go to the Right's more inflammatory position. We can talk about economics in a kind of dispassionate way. I mean, there's a reason why economists are viewed as dull people. I was an economics major and I can tell you that more than a few of my professors were pretty dull. So, we can talk about boring things such as supply and demand curves. But when you get into the judgment area, everybody not only has an opinion, they have very strong opinions and can voice them in very heated rhetoric.

Let me mention one thing about rhetoric and the importance of language. As a former political speechwriter — I was the chief speechwriter for California Governor George Deukmejian — I know the importance of language and tailoring your message to different audiences. A professor of rhetoric would probably say the same thing: you cannot have the same message for everybody, because if you do the people who don't like the message will probably turn you off. I would be interested to see the transcript of the language used here today. This is not a criticism, this is just a reaction of somebody like myself coming from the political Right. Let's suppose I tried to sell your ideas to people on the political Right. Now, your buzz words are all wrong. I could not go to somebody who is a pro-family Christian, and say, “Look, read this transcript and you'll be automatically changed in your views on subsidizing the arts.” I couldn't do it. I'm not saying that if you personally were talking to somebody who happened to be a member of the Christian Coalition that you might not try to tailor your words. But it is interesting to see how often people do not change their rhetoric regardless of who the listener is. All of you are somehow involved in the arts, which is a communications field. You try to communicate some idea to an audience, to try to persuade them in many ways to your point of view. So it strikes me as odd that when you try to defend your positions publicly, you use all the wrong language. When I wrote speeches for Governor Deukmejian, I did not use the same language in a speech to the National Rifle Association that I used for a speech to the state arts council — even if the subject was the same. Different language, different shades of meaning are essential. There's got to be nuance, sensitivity.

We all talk about sensitivity, sensitivity to diverse groups. The Right is also sensitive and is part of the diverse group we call America. So, if we don't include them and be sensitive to things that they consider important, then, is it any wonder that they do not respond to your arguments? Take, for example, something said this morning. Jan Brooks [artist and director of Northern New Mexico Grantmakers] mentioned a silversmith who made little items of Judaica. She made the point that the faculty at the school in question was less than happy about the silversmith's work. Now, here at this conference that might just slip by and no one might think twice about it. But that type of incident is exactly the kind of thing that people on the political Right are going to focus onto — “You see? They hate religion.” Does Jan's example mean that if I tried, as a student, to do a replica of a Renaissance Florentine cross, somehow it would be viewed as less art than something that was more “contemporary” or more extreme or more novel?

This example is useful because it allows me to segue into the Right's position on culture. I'm not going to talk about what is written in the newsletter of the Christian Coalition. What I will talk about has been written in the journals of the academic Right on the topic of culture in our society. The main cultural organ, here, is the New Criterion, edited by Hilton Kramer, the former art critic of The New York Times. Whatever your view of Kramer and the people who write for him, they are not from some rural backwater. Their views are read by many people on the political Right. The views contained in elite publications like the New Criterion filter down to the mass magazines of the Right which in turn influence grass roots subscribers. Let me, then, read you a short passage from the New Criterion to point out what you have to overcome.

Hilton Kramer wrote an article in the September 1993 issue of the New Criterion in which he describes his view (and the view of a lot of people like him in the academic Right) of the arts bureaucracy. Again, you may think this is pretty inflammatory language, but it does, I think, give a fair representation of what the Right thinks:

In more and more of the art world's activities, the center of intellectual gravity has already shifted from decisions made by artists in their studios to decisions made by committees of non-artists that take a purely instrumentalist view of art. An immense superstructure of art advisors, art consultants, art lobbyists, art activists, and other non-artist professionals, working in close conjunction with a vast network of arts councils, offices of cultural affairs, public art projects, minority and “community” arts groups, and other special-interest cultural organizations, both in and out of government, now exerts an enormous influence in determining public policy as well as private patronage in the art world. The most significant thing about this bureaucratic leviathan is that it is completely captive to the political Left. Its principal purpose today is to advance the radical Left's agenda for the cultural revolution that has already completed its long march through the universities and is currently in the process of annexing many other institutions of cultural life — the art museums, for example, where the revolution has made enormous inroads in programs and acquisitions, and in the policies of foundations, corporations, and agencies of government that support museums.

Now, that is a very all-encompassing statement. I am sure most of you disagree with part or all of what Mr. Kramer says. But, if grants from government to individual artists are filtered through this bureaucracy, and if this bureaucracy is a captive of the Left as the political Right believes, then, is there going to be any real support on the Right for that grant to the artist? Again, who is making that grant? Who is making the choice of which artist will get the grant? People who the Right does not like.

Mr. Kramer has lots of other comments about the trends in art itself, and you can guess what they are. For example, he says, “aesthetic considerations are consigned to oblivion while standards more appropriate to the social sciences are given priority.” But, if you are going to change people's minds about individual artists, if you are going to make a case for government funding of individual artists, then you are also going to have to get rid of this view of what — I hate to say this — of what all of you represent. How do you do it? Partly by language. Partly by inclusion of other people aside from those who cling to the art world. I love to go talk to the local Republican women's clubs. Why? Because they all agree with me. There's nothing better than to sit with a group of people who just love you to death. The more challenging thing is to go talk to people who disagree with you and to try, maybe not to change their minds totally, but at least to get them to say, “Well, okay, I'll at least consider your point of view.” I am in touch with a lot of pro-family social conservative groups, even though our institute is actually an economic conservative organization. I can tell you they probably do not have any contact with most of you. And who's influencing the legislature? Who's influencing the governor's office? Who has their ear? Is it you? Or is it these folks on the Right?

Social conservatives have a lot of troops out there, as elections have proved over the last few years.

So, my recommendation to you is to reach out to some of these people, not to bring them totally to your camp, but to have some kind of detente, perhaps, where you can at least talk about things, rather than ending up being stereotypes in each other's newsletters.

Thank you very much.

WESTAF will publish the complete proceedings of the symposium entitled, “The Visual Artist in the New Funding Environment.” For information or a copy of the proceedings, please contact the WESTAF programs director