The Separation of Art and State

May 3, 1995 • Speeches

Alice Goldfarb Marquis wrote in the New York Times recently, Twice in one recent week, my concert program contained a flyer headlined “Warning! The performances you enjoy could be canceled!” This referred, of course, to the National Endowment for the Arts, presented as a pure virgin cruelly lashed to the railroad tracks.

The good news for the NEA, I suppose, is that on most of my recent train rides I’ve been presented with flyers reading, “Warning! This train could be canceled!” So maybe the Republican Congress will leave no trains to run over threatened virgins.

Discussions of policy issues should begin with first principles. As my colleague Ed Crane notes, there are only two basic ways to organize society: coercively, through government dictates, or voluntarily, through the myriad interactions among individuals and private associations. All the various political “isms”–fascism, communism, conservatism, liberalism, neoconservatism — boil down to a single question. The bottom line of political philosophy, and therefore of politics itself, is, “Who is going to make the decision about this particular aspect of your life, you or somebody else?”

No matter what the philosophical debate, keep your eye on the bottom line: Politics is about the individual’s relationship to the state, pure and simple.

Do you spend the money you earn or does some politician?

Do you pick the school your child goes to or does some bureaucrat?

Do you decide what books you will read, or will some politician make that decision?

Do you decide what drugs to take when you’re sick, or does a bureaucrat in Washington?

In a civil society you make the choices about your life. In a political society someone else makes those choices. And because it is not the natural order of things for someone other than you to make those decisions about your life, the political society is of necessity based on coercion.

The American Founders understood this. That’s why they declared, “All men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and why they wrote a Constitution that granted the federal government only a few enumerated and limited powers.

In 1794 James Madison, the father of the Constitution, rose on the floor of the House and declared that he could not “undertake to lay his finger on that article of the Federal Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Things had changed by 1935, when President Roosevelt wrote to Congress, “I hope your committee will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.”

Since then it’s been open season on taxpayers’ wallets. Congress has ignored the Constitution and assumed that it had the power to ban, require, regulate, or spend money on, anything under the sun.

And that’s how we ended up here, discussing threats to artistic freedom from the 104th Congress. There would have been little fear of such threats from, say, the 54th Congress a century ago. The First Amendment prevented Congress from abridging freedom of speech, and the doctrine of enumerated powers meant that Congress couldn’t involve itself in the arts at all. Emily Dickinson and Winslow Homer, Sinclair Lewis and Aaron Copland plied their trade blithely unaware of Congress.

Today, however, the federal Leviathan concerns itself with every nook and cranny of our lives, and the arts have not escaped its tender, stifling embrace.

I don’t have to tell this audience about the importance of the arts, whether we’re talking about literature, drama, painting, music, sculpture, or, lest I forget, dance. President Kennedy–or one of his talented speechwriters–put it this way:

Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.

More recently, the managing director of Center Stage in Baltimore told the Baltimore Sun, “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.”

It is precisely because art has power, because it deals with basic human truths, that it must be kept separate from government. Government, as I noted earlier, 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.” “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.

It is often said that other governments have long subsidized the arts. True, but as Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, points out, the examples usually cited are of autocratic, even tyrannical governments. Do we really want our government to emulate the Roman Empire, or the Medicis, or Louis XIV?

Now it’s also true that the social democracies of Western Europe subsidize the arts more extensively than we do. But those countries too are different in important ways from the United States. First, as Yardley says, “they are accustomed to state influences (in religion as in the arts) that our ancestors crossed the ocean to escape.” As we should not want an established church, so we should not want established art. Second, the European countries are small and homogeneous comparedwith the United States. Thus they can “reach consensus on certain matters that we, precisely because we cannot agree on them, prefer to keep out of the hands of government.” No

European country was founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, nor does any European country have such a limited government.

Let me take just a moment to note that the amount of arts funding in the federal budget is quite small. That might be taken as a defense of the funding, were it not for the important reasons to avoid any government funding of something as intimate yet powerful as artistic expression. I bring up the dollar amount for another reason–to point out how small it is as a percentage of the total arts budget in this country. The National Endowment for the Arts has a budget of $167 million– less than 2 percent of the over $9 billion in private contributions to the arts from corporations, foundations, and individuals in 1993. According to the chair of the American Arts Alliance, the arts are a $37 billion industry. Surely they will survive without whatever portion of the NEA’s budget gets out of the Washington bureaucracy and into the hands of actual artists or arts institutions.

So far I’ve looked at arts funding from the perspective of art and political philosophy. Let me take just a moment to consider the taxpayer’s perspective. In that marvelous British television show, “Yes, Minister,” Sir Humphrey Appleby once said, “Subsidy is for art, for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want. It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have. If they want something, they’ll pay for it themselves.”

Take a typical American taxpayer. She’s on her feet eight hours a day selling blue jeans at Wal‐​Mart. She serves spaghetti twice a week because meat is expensive, and when she can scrape together a little extra she likes to hear Randy Travis or take her daughter to see Mariah Carey. Now what gives us the right to tax her so that lawyers and lobbyists can save a few bucks on Kennedy Center tickets?

Thus the case against government funding of the arts. But the question posed tonight is not, “Should the government fund the arts?” but “How will the 104th Congress affect artistic freedom?” If Congress takes my advice and eliminates the endowments, artistic freedom will be better protected than ever before. But alas, Congress frequently ignores my advice, and as long as government funding remains, there is a real threat of government meddling in the arts.

The latest newsletter from People for the American Way identifies a lot of threats to free expression. Some involve an actual assault on private actions–such as censorship of the Internet, a ban on flag‐​burning, a denial of tax exemption to groups that support ideas some congressman doesn’t like–and fortunately the First Amendment will protect us from most of these. But most of them involve restrictions on the way government funds can be used. Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger, now a member of the Clinton White House, warned recently that such rules are “especially alarming in light of the growing role of government as subsidizer, landlord, employer and patron of the arts.”

Dellinger is right. But the only way to solve the problem he raises is to reduce the government’s role in society. Surely we can’t expect taxpayers just to hand over $1.5 trillion a year to various agencies and interests without regulating how the money is spent. Their representatives in Congress and the administration think that those who are paying for the education, or the art, or the medical care have a right to say just what they will and will not pay for.

Thus the Georgia legislature punishes Georgia Public Television for the PBS broadcast of Tales of the City. Thus Congress bars the arts endowment from funding obscene work. Thus public schools are pressured not to teach Huckleberry Finn. Thus the director of the National Air and Space Museum is forced to resign after criticism of an exhibit on the bombing of Japan. Whether the pressure comes from Jesse Helms or Jesse Jackson, the Rainbow Coalition or the Christian Coalition, taxpayers’ money is subject to political control. On NPR this morning, an activist complained about the forced resignation of the museum director, 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.

We fought these battles before, in the Wars of Religion.

The American Founders knew that the solution 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. It is time to establish the separation of art and state.

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