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So Long, NEA — It’s a Matter of Principle
by

This is not about my hometown newspaper but about America.

The Los Angeles Times is a metaphor for the hysterical reaction to the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Friday’s front page included a photo of a young girl playing the violin, as the newspaper offered this subhead: “The NEA works; why does president want to destroy it?” What appeared to be front-page news was in fact an opinion column by Christopher Knight, the newspaper’s art critic, surely a disinterested observer.

The same day’s business section headlined “Budget plan could slow economic growth” over a photograph of NEA-funded art. The Calendar section’s headline was “A harsh note — Arts programs big and small across California would suffer” below photos of dance, opera, theater, classical musicians, and, yes, youthful violinists.

Instead of the violins, the newspaper could have shown the NEA-funded “Piss Christ” — a crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine, hardly the only NEA sponsored trash. How dare I judge this “art” — they would say. Am I for the C-word, censorship? But no less an artistic authority than President Barack Obama has said, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” Imagine, then, the politically correct outcry (maybe violence) if taxpayer dollars instead defiled Mohammed.

In the past, conservatives erred in questioning specific NEA grants; the issue instead is a matter of principle, the NEA’s existence. Liberals celebrate principled George Will for castigating Donald Trump generically but conveniently ignore principled George Will’s particular call to abolish the oxymoronic NEA. George notes one artistic director’s observation that “the real way to succeed” is not to attract new audiences but to “please those who dole out the free cash.”

Put another way and thus my shock: There is not, in the United States of America, a growing and cataclysmic shortage of artists and musicians, just as we might also note parenthetically that film school graduates, with massive student debt, fill the ranks of waiters and waitresses.

Saturday’s Times Calendar section’s headline was “Artists don’t tend to keep quiet,” for a column by the newspaper’s music critic, Mark Swed, who compared the NEA budget to Trump’s security costs, the latter indeed worth reviewing but irrelevant. Swed is right that artists are “kvetchers” (whiners) but wrong that they are “our moral compass.” Let each person buy his or her own compass. Put another way, why should taxpayer dollars fund one person’s morality over another?

Liberals (like Swed) obsess about the alleged Vladimir Putin-Donald Trump connection, but Swed happily notes that Putin funds art. Tell me about all the anti-Putin artists the Russian government funds. Long ago I visited with dissenters in the former Soviet Union when a much younger Putin headed KGB surveillance over foreigners like me visiting Leningrad. Then in captive Lithuania, artists privately explained to me that their government subsidy stifled any dissent. When is the last time you saw NEA “art” that favored traditional marriage or opposed abortion or challenged the mythology of multiculturalism? It does not matter what your view is on such subjects, Mr. Swed. You are entitled to your opinion. But government should not pick the winners and losers whether in business or in the arts.

Swed’s modest proposal is for Trump to vastly expand the NEA so that Trump’s “tone would be different.” As Trump famously said early in his campaign. “We have heads being chopped off because they’re Christian and they’re talking about my tone.” The subject is not President Trump’s temperament but the NEA.

“If you don’t value the arts, you don’t value humanity,” one NEA recipient dancer told the Times. The issue is not whether “the arts” are valued but whether taxpayers should subsidize artist Smith over artist Jones. Los Angeles Art Museum Director Michael Govan says the NEA’s demise would be “destructive… to American culture,” if not to the impoverished Govan, whose annual compensation exceeds $1.5 million.

Govan might respond that the NEA is not just about beleaguered painters whose work would never grace his non-egalitarian museum but also about, say, guitar players who are indistinguishable from, well, other guitar players. Bottom line — some artists deserve tax dollars forcibly expropriated from all taxpayers. Could it be that as wonderful as art and music are and how they truly nourish the soul, in a free society, dispensing tainted largesse is not the province of the central government?

Christopher (the Dark) Knight berates the Republicans, because “the word ‘arts’ appears nowhere in the 2016 Republican Party platform.” Perhaps art critic Knight was drawing during high school civics. The U.S. Constitution does not ordain the national government as custodian of the “arts.”

Before the NEA, American philanthropy for the arts was substantial and remains so. For example, Eli Broad is a wonderful patron, whether the NEA exists or not. And who would you rather have give billions to the arts, Eli and other wealthy benefactors who voluntarily do so, along with those who voluntarily buy tickets… or taxpayers forced to give?

The end of the NEA, Knight insists, relates to a kind of political conspiracy: “Simple people who are puzzled by organized society” possess “a greedy worldview popularized by junk novelist Ayn Rand.” Rand’s books, which Knight calls “juvenile texts, comic books without the picture,” have sold more than 30 million copies, outpacing Knight’s paintings by more than 30 million.

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