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Why Are Americans So Hostile to State-Funded Art?

A personal, historical, and comparative consideration of using public money to support the humanities.

Wikimedia Commons.

On May 23, the Trump administration requested that Congress close the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, the premier government organizations for funding arts, scholarship, and culture in the United States. The NEH and the NEA, despite commanding a tiny fraction of the federal government’s budget, have long been on the GOP’s kill list, since conservatives consider them to be a complete waste of taxpayer money. The organizations responded with a level head. Instead of evangelizing for the arts and humanities as essential components of a nation of grandeur, an official for the NEH stated that “from Greenville, South Carolina, to Red Cloud, Nebraska, and beyond,” the organization has “inspired and preserved what is best in American culture.”

Where does this antipathy to state-funded art come from? I grew up in England under New Labour, Tony Blair’s smile shining over me. We learned that the Arts Council was an integral part of the state to which our parents paid taxes. I had always presumed that public funding for the arts and humanities was part of the general project of reconstruction after World War II, in the vein of the National Health Service. (I have this lazy habit of thinking everything is down to the war.) But in an email, Stefan Toepler of George Mason University told me that the responsibility of maintaining institutions of high culture in Europe had “largely been transferred to the state, often at the municipal level, by the early 20th century.” Still, he said, the postwar period in Europe cemented the idea that the government should provide access to arts and culture, “so much so that one could speak of culture as the fourth pillar of the modern welfare state in addition to the three traditional ones (health, social welfare, and education).”

Clearly, one could not say the same of American attitudes. In 1978, Dick Netzer published a book called The Subsidized Muse, examining how support for culture and the arts had become policy in the big-dog states of the Western world. First came the Ministry of Culture in France, in 1959. Then, in 1965, three creative acts: a Ministry of Culture, Recreation and Social Work in the Netherlands; the first junior minister for cultural policy appointed in the United Kingdom; and the establishment of the National Endowment of the Arts in the United States. Since then, such policies have become particularly embattled in the U.S., as part of a general assault on the welfare state. In a 1999 article for Journal of Cultural Economics, Toepler and Annette Zimmer, in what now seems to be incredible understatement, explain that, “Today, public policy and in particular the concept of the welfare state with its focus on ‘big government’ is in a severe crisis.”

In Western Europe, support for the arts is in great part the result of centuries of patronage culture. Cultural policy there is as much the product of longe durée tradition as it is about the post-war concept of welfare. And for countries like France, the arts inform its self-conception as a great nation. In the 1980s, the French government appointed a minister for Rock and Roll, to try to fix the country’s flagging presence in that field.

By contrast, private interest has always had a large stake in the cultural policy of the United States. Before the establishment of the NEA, arts and culture support remained the project of urban elites, business communities, and institutional philanthropy. Not the glorious nation, not the government. When the government did eventually intervene, it supported artists through passive systems like tax exemption for cultural organizations, and of course for the donations of their wealthy patrons.

Considering all this history—why do we wonder at the state of things?

If I were to write a memoir, it could be used by future historians as a primary document explaining how, where, and what money was available to a person wishing to live a life focused on arts and culture at beginning of the 21st century. Although of course I am inside my life, and so perhaps see the institutions and policies I have experienced as more interesting or important than they really are, those experiences could be a case study in whether there is a possible alternative to the traditional workplace.

Growing up in London, I had access to free health care. Furthermore, I took advantage of the free year of art schooling—the ABC Foundation Diploma in Art and Design—that was at that time (2006) available to anyone who got into art schools. I then attended university to study English literature, and paid precisely the same fees as anybody else attending university in the United Kingdom (£3,000 per annum).

After finishing my undergraduate studies, I obtained a place on a PhD program at New York University, the largest private academic institution in the United States. Compared to our American colleagues, it is relatively easy for a U.K. graduate to get into these courses without a masters degree, because our undergraduate degrees are much more specialized: We study the named major and nothing else. This despite the lower fees I paid, and the total absence of broader education that my colleagues—most of whom had to shell out for extortionate MAs—were required to bring to their application forms.

At NYU, undergraduate students regularly pay upward of $50,000 a year for their education. But in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, PhD students are entitled to have their fees waived and to receive a stipend that allows them to live pretty comfortably in New York City. This money comes from a fund with a man’s name on it.

I can read my intellectual life as rooted in the centuries-long differences in arts and culture policy between the United States and the United Kingdom. After nine years of constant study—which really meant avoiding a labor market decimated by the recession that began in 2008—I came out the other end with a doctorate. I never had to think about the financial issues surrounding my scholarship for an instant, besides the general constant grind of being in a low-income category, and planning the dodges I would make to get more of life for free. My student loan balance does not make me feel ill.

Those historic differences in arts funding policy were to only become more visibly pronounced in my work after graduation: I went into the world of nonprofiteering, aka working at a literary magazine in Brooklyn. This magazine is a prominent and influential one, but run by a tiny staff. There, we wrote grant applications to the NEA, to the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, and so on.

When I worked at n+1, my job was almost entirely concerned with raising money through an events program that at least sometimes furthered the intellectual priorities of the magazine. Like the museums that run gift shops and lease images for commercial use, the arts field has to engage in “marketization” strategies that allow them to exist. In the case of n+1, running dance parties was “marketization.”

I also built relationships with sponsors. Nonprofit life in America is inextricably bound up in the capitalist principles of philanthropic giving, sponsorship, and what scholars call “cause-related marketing.” Every year, the n+1 Foundation runs a gala, where sponsors purchase tables with tax-deductible donations that support the Foundation’s operations. There’s no shame in this: It’s the responsible way to run a nonprofit in America.

That tiny nonprofits like n+1 hold an outsize position in cultural influence is largely a historical legacy of arts and culture support in the United States. American public policy has always relied on third-party institutions to make federal government programs happen. The Ford Foundation in the 1950s ran a huge program that, in Toepler and Zimmer’s words, “helped establish the arts as a legitimate recipient of public funds and a relevant policy issue.” The approach was the classic market failure idea: “The arts could not be sustained by private sector income alone due to the economic characteristics of the services they produce.”

Can we call it coincidence that the Ford Foundation was prominent in American public life just as it was building toward LBJ’s Great Society? Whatever the case, the government’s gaze on the arts shifted. With an insistence from the very start that fundraising and third parties “co-finance” its project, we can see the Ford Foundation’s market-based activism culminate in the NEA’s establishment in 1965.

This third-party participation is also a legacy of that passive system of support discussed earlier. Because of a lack of aristocratic culture of patronage, a system of tax breaks and tax-deductible donations has sustained a nonprofit system profoundly intertwined with third-party sources of cash. This comes at the expense of a true arts and culture policy, truly run by the United States government.

When a president proposes abolishing the NEA and the NEH, what is he doing? In one sense, he is treading on the values espoused by President Johnson, who claimed that an “advanced civilization” needs to foster arts and culture with public support. In another sense, he is also asking for the era of intertwined private money, elite philanthropy, and public policy to end. Or, rather, for it to extend only to himself, and no further; it is as if he wishes to draw historical lines around himself and his personal fortune, much of which was amassed through a different kind of government largesse.

The NEH and the NEA may survive yet; they have in the past. But my own heart broke for the realization of my own good fortune, the way that public money lay before me a series of stepping stones that carried me across the recession and delivered me, broke but intact, into the person I am now. We are who we are because of where we are from, in geography but also in history. When these stepping stones have sunk, where will tomorrow’s young scholars tread? The future path is muddy, and the president is building no roads.