Separation of Art And State

This article appeared in The New York Times on May 1, 2012.
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What do art, music, and religion have in common? They all have the power to touch us in the depths of our souls. As one theater director said, “Art has power. It has the power to sustain, to heal, to humanize… to change something in you. It’s a frightening power, and also a beautiful power… And it’s essential to a civilized society.”

Which is precisely why art, music, and religion should be kept separate from the state.

Government involves the organization of coercion. In a free society coercion should be reserved only for such essential functions of government as protecting rights and punishing criminals. People should not be forced to contribute money to artistic endeavors that they may not approve, nor should artists be forced to trim their sails to meet government standards.

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.”

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.

We don’t need any more fights over “Piss Christ” or the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/​Seek” exhibition on sexual difference in portraiture or the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum. And we can thank our lucky stars that Kentucky’s Creation Museum is private, or we’d have a major political battle over that.

Meanwhile, we should note that the NEA’s budget is about 0.2 percent of the total amount spent on the nonprofit arts in the United States. The rapidly growing crowdfunding platform Kickstarter expects to direct more funding to the arts in its third year of operation than the NEA does.

The American Founders knew that the solution to the Wars of Religion was the separation of church and state. Because art is just as spiritual, just as meaningful, just as powerful as religion, it is time to grant art the same independence and respect that religion has: the separation of art and state.

David Boaz

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and has played a key role in the development of the Cato Institute and the libertarian movement.