Trump’s Thwarted Revolution: The Case for Defunding Federal Arts Programs Still Applies

As Trump began implementing his agenda in the early days of his administration, the daily drumbeat of outrage was as predictable as it was consistent. Whether it was denunciations of Rex Tillerson’s perceived conflicts of interest or Betsy Devos’ lack of credentials, Trump’s agenda sparked a howl of autistic screeching that now comprises a wall of digital noise that permeates the mediasphere. Each day ushered in a new set of perceived assaults on the moral fiber of the republic, but there was one agenda item that seemed to rise above others as an especially odious affront to civilization. Trump wanted to cut funding for the ARTS AND HUMANITIES. Cue Colonel Kurtz. The tremors of terror that rippled through the arts commmuniity were palpable.

It was bad enough that Neil Gorsuch secretly wanted to repeal Roe v. Wade and Betsy Devos’ appointment was a Trojan Horse for the reinstatement for school prayer. This was something infintely worse. This was seemingly an act of sabotage on the cornerstone of culture itself: ART. The indignation that emanted from the intelligentsia played out like an ad-lib. Shame on you, President Literally Hitler! Do you know who else banned art? HITLER! How dare you propose something so barbarous and regressive! You’re obviously just an unenlightened, pussy grabbing boor for even suggesting such a thing! The calls for defunding renewed, and like clockwork, the progressive establishment revved up the outrage all over again. The condemnation from all corners was strident and unanimous.

Though Trump is not the first to threaten this funding, we have yet to see any actual results from any Republican president. Reagan famously made a similar threat only to later add it to an ever accumulating pile of broken conservative promises. Apparently, we may never see any follow through. Early reports on the latest budget agreement indicate he has already capitulated just like Reagan. Regardless, I still believe his original instincts were correct and he he should have pulled the plug from the funding of the entire federal arts establishment from the budget.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will make two confessions from the outset. First, I’m an artist myself and there’s no doubt in my mind that if you were to list out all of the recipients of federal arts funding, there’d be much I’d either support outright or find commendable at minimum. Second, this was a taxpayer endeavor to which I was once fully sympathetic and wholeheartedly endorsed. This essay represents a change in a once deeply held conviction.

There are five arguments for defunding the arts programs:

  1. Taxpayer funded art is politicized art. Progressives are very clever about rationalizing and defending these programs. They’ll portay them as universal goods. They’ll say these are apolitical programs which spread a universal appreciation for art. In fact, they’re so beneficial, they’ll reap benefits that we may not even see in our own lifetimes. It may not yield the next Picasso, but it might yield the next art conscious industrialist or technocrat. However, the truth is quite obviously the opposite. Taxpayer funded art carries implicit and often explicit political content. No matter how abstract, art serves as a transmission vessel for values and ideas. At a bare minimum, it reinforces the idea that government funding generates culture, and that without it, the will to create or appreciate art would evaporate. And in the case of taxpayer funded art, the political outcomes flow in one direction. To the urban enclaves and strongholds where the Left already enjoys a cultural hegemony. Furthermore, the art world in general is overwhelmingly dominated by the Left. To assert that decades of taxpayer funding haven’t produced a quantifiable consensus in the art world is to deny reality. The progressive elites are keenly aware that opinion can be shaped and molded more easily through art than any other means. Politics are downstream from culture and no one knows this better than the progressive Left.
  2. Taxpayer funded art does not reflect the “will of the people” or a national consensus. It’s an argument that bears repeating. When art is funded through compulsory taxation, the final recipients will be ultimately be determined by a handful of bureaucrats. Subsequently, awards will be granted based on either proximity to the political apparatus or the subjective tastes of the bureaucrats. Funds appropriated through force immediately deprive individuals the opportunity to make voluntary purchases in the marketplace.
  3. It destroys the appreciation for fine art rather than strengthening it. A common rationale for this funding goes something like this. Making truly Great Art requires that the artist forego the idea of commercial success. Therefore, We as Enlightened Citizens should subsidize these heroic efforts because people just don’t appreciate these visionaries and this funding will help foster a deeper appreciation. But where’s the evidence? Are people demanding more Shakespeare and Bach? Or are we seeing the influence of the pop culture sphere eclipse all other artistic endeavors while listening to progressives bemoan the collapse they hastened? While I will concede that there’s truth to the claim that the artist must shoulder a certain degree of risk in creating original work, this line of thinking also reinforces an orthodoxy of virtue as well as a smug elitism around the entire enterprise. Furthermore, it reduces the incentive for subsidized artists to compete honestly in the marketplace alongside other commercial endeavors and produces its own aesthetic conformity. How many conservatives end up at Kronos Quartet concerts or are interested in seeing the Sol Lewitt exhibition? I suspect it’s next to zero. Does the federal funding apparatus hope to fund the next Leonardo Davinci, Raphael, Michelangelo or Vermeer? I suspect it’s a resounding No. We live a multicultural, post-national, postmodern world now, bigot. Don’t go pushing that Western civilization supremacy on us!
  4. It contributes to federal mission creep. The government is an institution vested with the power to initiate force, jail and imprison. When you attempt to project altruistic, humanitarian or higher order values on to government policy, you are essentially transforming these benevolent impulses into compulsion. Progressives are always the first to denounce the slightest hint of tyranny from conservatives, but somehow the rhetoric that fuels the taxpayer funded art apparatus inoculates them from criticism. It’s as though the good intentions and the aura of enlightened civic engagement are winning arguments all by themselves.
  5. Once implemented, federal spending programs are hard to kill. Again, we return to failed promise of conservatism in the liberal democratic age. Even a game changing president like Trump submits to the hive mind when the chips are down.

Taxpayer funded art is yet another example of how appealing rhetoric trumps outcomes. Even if you agree with every dollar of funding alloted, there will be a segment of the population who does not. Progressives always tout the size of the budget as a pittance relative to other federal expenditures, ergo all this is much ado about nothing. But if it’s truly so inconsequential, why the indignant pronouncements of moral condemnation? Why the supercharged proclamations of barabarism and small mindedness? Deploying state coercion to compel the provision of an abstract ideal of Common Good should be viewed with the greatest skepticism and the most vigilant restraint.

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