Friday, December 26, 2008

Before we Leave this Topic

Before we leave the topic of Art, Artists and the People, today's Boston Globe had an OpEd, titled "How the arts can nourish a struggling nation." The author, Thor Steingraber, is an opera director and Harvard University's Hauser Center Fellow for Arts, Culture, and Media.

The issue was the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The writer wondered who President Elect Obama would select to replace Mr Dana Gioia as Chairman of the NEA.

Mr Steingraber, while pointing out the good that Mr Gioia has done, tells us that the NEA needs a strategic plan (who doesn't) and that we don't spend enough on the NEA:
The Endowment's annual budget is less than the Pentagon's cost for a single fighter plane. And for every per-capita dollar the NEA spends, France's Ministry of Culture spends more than $13,000.
What he doesn't tell us is that for this current fiscal year, Fiscal Year 2008, the NEA budget is $144.7 million. The New York Times has a single F-22, coming off the production line at just under the cost of the NEA. Others quote a higher cost. On the other hand, the F-18, being produced for the Navy and Marine Corps costs, about $60 million a piece, so you could get two for the price of the NEA. I will point out, the F-22 is a thing of beauty.

The thing that I thought was most interesting was the comparison based on population. If I understand Mr Steingraber correctly, France spends about 380 Billion US dollars a year on the Arts. That is, in the US the NEA budget works out to about 47 cents per person. Thus, if the French spend $13,000 per capita more than the US spends per capita, then in France they spend about $6147 per person on the arts. With a Metropolitan France population of about 62 million people, that comes out to $380 Billion, which is about half the size of the US Defense Budget. With a French GDP of just over $2.5 Trillion dollars, the Ministry of Culture must be controling over 14% of the GDP. By comparison, the French Defense Budget is 2.4%.

I am of two minds about the National Endowment for the Arts, but it has been around for a while and I am dubious about killing it outright. On the other hand, I am not prepared to give it the cost of a Squadron of F-22s each year.

However, where I take issue with Mr Steingraber, is when he says:
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a handful of artists were accused of subverting American culture. Robert Mapplethorpe became the cause celebre, and so began the "culture wars." Social conservatives and fiscal watchdogs joined forces in an offensive against the arts. Their battle cry: Art was responsible for the decay of American values, and why should American tax dollars pay for it?
I am not so sure that the "culture wars" began with the reaction to Mr Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photos or photographer Andres Serrano's infamous crucifix in a jar. I think that such artistic artifacts were another offensive in the "culture wars" and finally the other side woke up and realized they were under attack.

Art should sometimes just give us enjoyment. Visiting a display of Impressionist paintings is very pleasurable for me. On the other hand, Art should sometimes challenge. But, when those challenged push back, that should be expected and accepted also. Not everything done in the name of art is makes good sense. Not everything lampooned by art deserves protection from lampooning. Let there be a free and open discussion and let us not hide this cultural conflict by suggesting that it is merely "Self-appointed censors like Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan." A lot of us reacted to Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe by saying that they did not represent the culture that we loved and wanted to support.

Artists should have the freedom to express their art. The voters should have the freedom, through their elected representatives, to curtail payment to those who have gone too far--not a little too far but a big step too far. The best is when art competes freely in the market place and the people vote with their wallets.

Regarding art causing us to think, that is happening this week with the movie, The Reader. Both Ann Althouse, Law Professor, and Eugune Volokh, Law Professor, have been blogging about Ms Kate Winslet's interview with a movie flogging site.

I wrote several inches on the "interesting" part of the Winslet interview, but then cut it. Professor Althouse and Professor Volokh did a good job with the issue. And, the part I had written constituted TMA. I will say that I am with those who think Ms Winslet is wrong in her views on one of the issues that come up in the movie--and issue she believes does not exist. And, I will be skipping the movie.

Regards -- Cliff

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