National Endownment For The Arts

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorUniversity, Bachelor's February 2002

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The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is a way for the federal government to sponsor a public need for art. However, inevitable conflicts arise in a nation betwixt between the simultaneous pursuit of individual self-interest and public interest. This analysis examines the debate surrounding the public funding for the arts through NEA. The justifications of Margaret Wyszomitrski, Michael Kammen, and Laurence Jarvik provide the basis for my analysis and review.

To begin, I strongly believe that the arts serve a public purpose and not surprisingly, I struggle with Jarvik's argument and justifications for the elimination of the NEA. Because the arts serve private interests and a public needs, public funding for the arts is necessary and proper for the American public. It is through serving the public need that I believe that the NEA is a legitimate and necessary governmental program.

Kammen and Wyszomitrski argue that culture and art is a necessity rather than a luxury.

Wyszomitrski justifies this understanding by articulating five basic and implicit public needs addressed by the arts in her analysis. They are: furthering the quest of security, fostering community, contributing to prosperity, improving the quality and conditions of life, and cultivating democracy. Her justifications for governmental role in the arts, including their funding, are based in Alexis de Tocqueville's doctrine of "enlightened self-interest." This doctrine holds that holds that it is "to the individual advantage of each to work in the good of all" and to strive to find "those points where private advantage does meet and coincide with the general interest" (Wyszomitrski, 53). Both Kammen and Wyszomitrski use Tocqueville's idea to legitimize the NEA as a necessary governmental funding for the arts due to the undeniable presence of coincidences between public and privates interests in the arts. However, these mutual interests are often obscure and implicit and some, including Jarvik, do not have a clear understanding about the effects of public funding for the arts. This is due, in part, to ever-changing interests and values of the American people. I believe that much debate surrounding the NEA and its effect on art, artists and the American public, not just in dollars, is due the ambivalent needs of the American public and the government's fragmented understanding of such needs with regard art. As a result, a public policy regarding art funding (NEA) is very difficult to define and its public acceptance is difficult to evaluate.

With regard to Jarvik's argument that the NEA "disturbs the US tradition of limited to government," it is in my opinion that people are always going to disagree about how limited government should be. After reading Kammen's paper however, we see that this disagreement, especially surrounding the arts, increases due to this ambivalent nature of the value of art to both the artist and the public. Some people may want patriotic art during war time while others may find controversy with this. When regarding the values and expectations of government with public needs such as education and defense, they are better understood and more expanded than those of the arts. We have a better defined understanding of what "enlightened self interest means in these circumstances" (Wyszomirski, 56).We can recognize the need for government's role in providing for defense through military spending but struggle when providing for defense through art. Kammen support's this idea of changing values by providing an example that "a broadly based acceptance for government support for culture waned precipitously after the Cold War ended in 1989" (Kammen, 135). Where they valued arts during war time for making anti-Communist propaganda, Americans now projected their anxieties onto domestic enemies, notably those who shared unusual, unfamiliar, or unconventional views"”namely artists and academics. In 1989, many people who long feared foreign ideologies now turned fears to domestic enemies that they saw as antipatriotic and/or elitists.

By linking state federal entities with state entities, Kammen believes that it might help depoliticize culture because support at the state and local levels is "less likely to promote controversy (Kammen 132). If this is true, Kammen's notion of "cultural federalism" would help to achieve both excellence and equity in the arts. And this achievement of excellence would include minimizing anti-intellectualism, fear of innovation, and mistrust of constructive cultural criticism (Kammen 135). Unfortunately however, eliminating the NEA would make Kammen's vision an impossibility. Although cultural federalism in Kammen's understanding may not be achievable as either a policy or a policy with such effects, I do not believe that privatizing art funding through the elimination of the NEA would in any way help solidify state and local governments or the cooperation of privately run institutions with state and local governments.

Another possible explanation to the Jarvik's reasons for the elimination of the NEA can be found in an observation made by Wyszomitrski regarding the awareness of our nation during the 1980s of its "finite resources and social capabilities". Specifically, Wyszomitrski says that prosperity and good government are limited due to a stronger emphasis on "assessment, evaluation, and demonstrable impact of governmental programs" (Wyszomitrski, 76). Although Jarvik does not mention it, (believe it or not), the NEA did do some good. Kammen notes that "despite slips ups and unhelpful bureaucratizations, the two endowments (NEA & NEH), the Smithsonian Institution, the Institute of Museum Services, the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the array of state cultural agencies that have emerged or been transformed during the past generation, all have redefined their mandates and modes of operation as circumstances dictated (Kammen, 128). Kammen shows that the beneficiaries of NEA funds (the later) leads to a substantial impact on the both the nature and meaning of public culture in the United States. Within the past thirty years, preservation, creation and dissemination and interaction along with museum attendance have all increased. According to Kammen (128) "diverse stimuli are responsible, but a very major one, surely, has come from initiatives supplied by both endowments.

Finally, I want to personally address some of Jarvik's more specific reasons for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. I have several problems with first reason for the elimination of the NEA because "the arts will have more than enough support without the NEA." First of all, even if private funding increased with budgetary cuts to the NEA, this may only translate into more money, not more public benefits or public needs being met. For example, more private money could only pigeonhole art to a private purpose and commission works for private and not public purposes. Although private funds are used for public purposes, a policy that cuts federal budgets has a greater cost to the public in terms of accessibility to and the benefits of art as opposed to actual dollars.

If we have a combined public and private funding for art, we can better ensure that great art is a benefit to a great amount of people. Jarvik reasons that the NEA "is for welfare for cultural elitists". Maybe so. But a person does not have to go to an opera to benefit form this art. Perhaps a middle class teacher went to this opera and thus can bring it to life in a classroom filled with underprivileged children. However, this far-fetched understanding arguably is an answer to a far fetch belief that the NEA is cultural welfare for elitist. Moreover, a final discount Jarvik's first reason lies in Kammen's description of a multiplier effect that occurs in the public funding of art through an increase not only economic in nature but in the participation by people. I strongly doubt that private support will increase for with an elimination of public support, specifically public support by the people.

        In closing, public funding of art is necessary for meeting a public need for art. Public participation and understanding of culture in the United States is a commitment we all (should) make. Furthermore, the actualization of this commitment should not be the responsibility of the private sector. With regard to the idea of limited government, I believe it is the responsibility of the federal government to meet the needs of its citizens and part of meeting such needs includes protecting the public through necessary and proper limits of expression. Such government control is a public need that is necessary and proper for our continued pursuit of happiness and establishment of justice; the elimination of the NEA, of public funding for the arts high jacks our nation's culture to the pursuits a few people with a lot of money.