George Will

Time was, artists were proudly adversarial regarding authority, the established order, etc. "Epater le bourgeois!" and all that. Now they are just another servile interest group seeking morsels from the federal banquet. Are they real artists? Sure, because in this egalitarian era, government reasons circularly: Art is whatever an artist says it is, and an artist is whoever produces art. So, being an artist is a self-validating vocation.

Advocates of government subsidies for "the arts" usually speak rhetorical cotton candy, sugary air about how art is a Good Thing, therefore public spending on it is a Good Deed. (Try this: For the word "art," substitute "surfing" or "religion.") Government should not be subsidizing corn either, but at least it can say what corn is. For government today, "art" is a classification so capacious it does not classify.

Under the last Democratic administration, the NEA said art is ... almost everything. The NEA democratically decreed that "art includes the expressive behaviors of ordinary people," including "dinner-table arrangements." The head of the National Endowment for the Humanities believed: "Today the lives of ordinary American people have assumed a place beside volumes of European classics in the humanities."

Invoking a utilitarian principle -- the greatest self-esteem for the greatest number -- the two endowments effectively said: We hear America singing and everyone sings equally well. Napoleon advocated a society of careers open to talents. By subsidizing artists, broadly -- very broadly -- defined, government creates careers open to the untalented. It had better.

In 1980, Robert Hughes, who then was Time magazine's excellent art critic, dryly noted, "Every five years, the art schools of America alone produce as many graduates as there were people in Florence in the last quarter of the 15th century." Today, when arts graduates are still plentiful, the cheerful if loopy assumption is that art is like artichokes -- increase the financial demand, the supply will increase.

That assumption is right as rain regarding another commodity -- lobbyists. Which is what the portion of the "arts community," including the "just plain cool people," who participated in the conference call has become. But, then, lobbying is, Lord knows, "expressive behavior," and therefore it is ... art.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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