Be it the misuse of funds, waste, or deleterious governing philosophy, the National Endowment for the Arts has proven to be a recidivistic cultural butcher.
The NEA’s process for cultivating art is informed by standards set by universities and critical theorists. Those standards of what qualify as “acceptable” contemporary art seem to be any phenomena that offends an individual’s inherent aesthetic disposition. Preferential treatment is given to those works that 1) are able to evoke the most unpleasant reaction and 2) are created with the least amount of discernible purpose. This destructive artistic praxis is thoroughly documented, and there are few examples of NEA-backed art that does not adhere to it.
In the art world, $150 million in annual funding is a lot of money. With that kind of money comes real power to shape the culture. That concentration of power has had a chilling effect on the production of new works by artists who do not abide by the NEA’s ideology. Artists either yield to these requirements or are driven to creatively limited commercial endeavors in order to survive.
That effect has contributed to the decline of quality of art in America for the last half century, and the art world would be in an undisputed crisis were it not for private philanthropic organizations. Even private philanthropists, rather than donating in response to artistic brilliance, too often acquiesce to NEA fundraising schemes and budget crises.
Another aspect of this decline is that the NEA has been largely unsuccessful in fostering new interest in existing masterpieces. One example of this is evidenced by a 1977 survey showing that in the top ten metropolitan areas, more people attended the opera than football games. Think about that for a second. Of course these days you could combine opera attendance with symphony and publicly financed modern-art museum attendance all together and it would barely register against football. That decline is the result of misguided policies by a select few cultural elites at universities, in the press, and of course at the NEA.
Apologists will have you believe that cuts to the NEA will force orchestras out of business, or require them to do without a full contingent of musicians, such as the underappreciated contra bassoonist. This is categorically false. The NEA accounts for a tiny fraction of a percent of major symphony orchestra budgets. For example, the Chicago Symphony, which truly is a national treasure, received a measly $80,000 in concert funding in 2015. I suspect that the Chicago Symphony will be able to survive without 0.112 percent of its funding. Good news for contra bassoonists everywhere, and for maestros who can still program Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung.
This is the reality for nearly all classical ensembles, jazz ensembles, and theater companies.
For years, modern composers have engaged in NEA-sponsored outreach to the young and old in order to normalize their atonal noise music. The result is a classical musical dark age—especially compared with the prior era during the Belle Époch (1865–1914)—that has caused audiences to flee to rock bands, film composers, and Broadway musicals. Case in point: where are the NEA-sponsored classical masterpieces?
Proponents of the NEA also claim that the organization is critical to bringing culture to underprivileged areas. This is classic virtue signaling built on faulty premises. Are these areas without culture? Revitalizing urban communities does not begin with elementary-school students painting murals that look like bad cubism on abandoned buildings. Revitalizing urban communities begins with jobs and security, not wasting money on some loft-lurking Brooklynite’s self-indulgent performance art.
As expected, famous politically progressive artists are coming to the defense of the NEA. Ironically, those like Julie Andrews are defending the organization as “fundamental” even though it had nothing to do with their successful roles and subsequent cultural importance. Instead the NEA awards grants to groups like Music in the American Wild. Made up of a small ensemble of musicians and composers from the prestigious Eastman School of Music, the group travels around to national parks performing new music. Admittedly this seems like a nice idea—until you hear the music and see what they garner in terms of audience. The pieces are so grating that the only conceivable use that warrants taxpayer funding would be as an interrogation technique on Gitmo detainees. At the time this article was written, this video had fewer than 40 views; it features a live audience of about nine people. The NEA is not helping these students learn how to have a career as a musician by setting them up for this kind of failure. This is not the path to become a cultural treasure like Julie Andrews.
The solution for these students and those in other artistic disciplines is the free market and good ol’ fashion patronage that gave us the masterpieces we all love and enjoy. The NEA has failed the country in this regard, and our culture must develop new conduits between money and creators. Under this new paradigm, America will unleash a flourishing of the arts that will endure for centuries to come.
Stephen Limbaugh is a musician residing in Hollywood, Calif. His debut album Pants was the top-selling album of contemporary classical music in 2015.