Cato’s David Boaz weighs in on a New York Times opinion roundtable on arts funding:

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 exhibitat 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. (link)

More power to Boaz for flying the libertarian flag high, but there are some complexities here that deserve addressing.

First of all, he’s exactly right that the NEA is primarily an institution that confers prestige, given the proportion of NEA funding compared to the total.

But give NEA head Rocco Landesman credit where credit is due, while like any agency chief he’s been “pounding the table” for higher appropriations, he has raised the taboo question of whether or not there are simply too many theaters. Also, a lot of the funding is used for education and infrastructure investment like building arts districts, which from a libertarian standpoint might still be improper, but it at least avoids the moral dilemma of funding art of which one does not approve. On the other hand, most NEA grants go to events, conferences, short-term programs and things of that nature rather than building institutions, which is a good way to make their impact visible but maybe not the best long-term use of taxpayer money.

I asked Bruce Williams, UVA media studies professor and author of After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy, and the New Information Environment, recently to elaborate on a comment he made on NPR that there was, “no such thing as a libertarian media.” Here’s his lengthy answer:

There’s no such thing as a media system that operates without government playing a profound role. In other words, media systems can’t operate the way an idealized market works. People claim the Internet is something like a libertarian medium, but that is both historically and specifically wrong. It was a Defense Department project. Secondly, there’s a long history of breakthroughs in communication technology and there’s always a strong sentiment around these new media that this is it. The utopia has arrived. This new medium is going to empower individuals, let them talk to each other, and even equalize power. If you read about the telegraph, that’s the way it was celebrated. The vision of a lot of the early pioneers of radio was that everyone would be both sending and receiving messages. People see in new media what they want to see, either the end of civilization as we know it or some kind of technological liberation. But of course neither ever happens, and that’s because government is always going to make policies about that new media.

One of the problems is this idea of the marketplace of ideas, the intellectual version of the invisible hand. But even adopting a media system that allows the largest number of people to openly make public their positions and ideas and so on, that can only happen with either government action or inaction.

This is, I think, the heart of my resistance to total laisse-faire policy in the media realm. There’s some irony in delivering his remarks on NPR, but can any libertarian honestly say that deregulation of radio has led to a competitive paradise? Of course not, it’s a wasteland of Top 40, wretched pop country, and conservative talk radio thanks to media consolidation. Granted the obverse, that trend in media “localism” that crops up every so often, is a trojan horse for fairness doctrines, as it was when President Obama brought it up about four years ago, but Clear Channel clearly doesn’t recognize a responsibility to inform the public in the same way that the networks at least pretended to during the heyday of broadcast news. Nor should it necessarily, but an informed populace is necessary to a functioning democracy, and NPR provides a hefty return on that front for a very small investment–only about 5 percent of their budget is public funds.

The question of bias in NPR programming is relevant because it’s essentially the same problem as NEA funds being used to underwrite objectionable museum exhibits or awards like the one Andres Serrano received for “Piss Christ.” Broadcasting, as well as publicly-funded venues and museums, are curating content of whatever type, which must involve some notion of what works of art, news stories, plays or musicians the public ought to be aware.  But what about all those postmodern nudist theaters they’re funding, you say? It’s the wrong way of looking at the problem. Either the state should fund art or it should not fund art, the more the state becomes involved in discriminating between good and bad art, the sooner it becomes propaganda.

The real problem, and one to which Landesman seems to be sensitive, is that many of our most cherished art forms have never existed in the absence of a patronage system yet there are fewer patrons than there used to be (though the fine art world seems to be doing fairly well in the economic malaise, thanks mostly to rising income inequality). And Uncle Sam, one of the biggest patrons, is broke. Still, I think it’s spiteful and too easy to go after NEA funding rather than a bloated defense budget, as the President has done. Governments have invested in the arts in some form since the dawn of civilization; Boaz must not be a fan of the Aeneid.

Speaking of Virgil, there’s a great passage from Donald Davidson’s “A Mirror for Artists” from I’ll Take My Stand that offers an explanation why industrialism–and its modern variant state capitalism–is poorly suited to playing the role of Maecenas. It’s a thoughtful, if not all that original, take on artistic transgression:

“Industrialism cannot play the role of Maecenas, because its complete ascendency will mean that there will be no arts left to foster; or, if they exist at all, they will flourish only in a diseased and disordered condition, and the industrial Maecenas will find himself in the embarrassing position of having to patronize an art that secretly hates him and calls him bad names. More completely, the making of an industrialized society will extinguish the meaning of the arts, as humanity has known them in the past, by changing the conditions of life that have given art a meaning.”

If the NEA’s budget were zeroed out today, the classical music world in this country would never recover. There isn’t the demand for it that their used to be, and many of the agency’s grants and awards go toward encouraging a pipeline of young classical musicians and the orchestras that they hope to eventually join. A libertarian might say they should be allowed to die gracefully, or they might even say the symphony orchestra is inflated, if normative economics could be applied to such a thing (you could probably correlate average orchestra size and European GDP growth from the 18th-20th centuries), but that’s cold comfort to fans and musicians.