Should the Federal Government Give a Stamp of Approval to Art?

Broadway Journal reports that theater professionals are very concerned about the Trump administration’s no-doubt-idle threats to defund the National Endowment for the Arts:

“It’s important money for us,” said Jeffory Lawson, the managing director of the Chelsea-based Atlantic Theater Co. As with any lost funding, replacing those grants would be challenging, he said. And beyond dollars, the NEA confers a stamp of approval for a project, which is appealing to other donors. It’s “a highly competitive grant application,” he said, that’s reviewed and rated largely by theater professionals. “It’s not just a bureaucrat making a decision.” (The NEA claims that $9 in private donations follow every $1 it grants.)

I don’t know why people who prize their independence, and are very proud these days to be defying the government in their plays and public comments, are so eager for a “stamp of approval” from that very government. In fact, I’ve written about that problem before, such as in this 1995 speech to the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts:

Government funding of anything involves government control. That insight, of course, is part of our folk wisdom: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” “Who takes the king’s shilling sings the king’s song.”

Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups. Jane Alexander says, “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money.” Drama critic Robert Brustein asks, “How could the NEA be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?”

In 1981, as conservative factions battled for control of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice explained the consequences this way:

The NEH has a ripple effect on university hiring and tenure, and on the kinds of research undertaken by scholars seeking support. Its chairman shapes the bounds of that support. In a broad sense, he sets standards that affect the tenor of textbooks and the content of curricula….Though no chairman of the NEH can single-handedly direct the course of American education, he can nurture the nascent trends and take advantage of informal opportunities to signal department heads and deans. He can “persuade” with the cudgel of federal funding out of sight but hardly out of mind.

I suggest that that is just the kind of power no government in a free society should have….

On NPR this morning, an activist complained …  saying, “My ancestors didn’t fight for the concept of official history in official museums.” But when you have official museums, or a National Endowment for the Arts serving as a “seal of approval” for artists, you get official history and official art—and citizens will fight over just which history and which art should have that imprimatur.

“Stamp of approval,” “ripple effect,” “ ‘persuade’ with the cudgel of federal funding”—all of this is asking the federal government to pick winners, not just in automobile or energy companies, but in art and literature. Is that really a model for independent artists?