05 March 2010


Shikha Dalmia has a piece in the most recent Reason about "no-brainer" budget cuts: the NEA, NEH, NED and CPB, which combine to about a billion dollars in federal spending. It's mildly recommended, but I bring it up because I want to mention the NEA.

Here's what bugs me about the National Endowment for the Arts. Actually, let's get this out of the way first: it's not an "endowment" by any definition I can find. The NEA is just another tax-funded federal institution. It's not endowed with anything. Sure, I'm being a bit of a stickler there, but call a spade a spade, alright?

What actually bugs me is this: art is cheap and plentiful already, so what is the NEA for?

Look, I love art. I really do. Most of my vacations revolve around visiting art museums and galleries. I'd venture to say I have as much art in my possession as any other poor 26 year old grad student that isn't part of the art "scene." I'll even concede that the existence of art is a public good, which is enough to make it a legitimate candidate for state funding in my book.

But the whole point of government provisioning of public goods is that the market tends to under produce such things. Do you see any lack of art around?  There are two million people in this country who list their occupation as artist, give or take. People are falling out of the woodwork to make more art. Why do we need to spur them on with tax money?

(I guess we're lucky Congress hasn't tried to support those two million artists the way it's tried to support farmers, of whom there is a similar number.  Otherwise we'd end up with guaranteed minimum prices for photographs, and people would be paid to not paint things, and a certain number of sculptures would be rounded up every year and destroyed.  There but for the grace of God...)

Like I said, making art is cheap. Sure, some of it is expensive, but not in the same way bridges or hospitals or jet planes are expensive. If you spend less money on bridges, you tend to get worse bridges. If you spend less money making art, there's zero correlation with how good the resulting art is.

Some scraps of newspaper and a ballpoint pen are all you need to make something cool. One of my favorite artists got started in her work because all she could afford as a student was some colored construction paper. Cameras are a few dozen dollars. Computers are a couple hundred. Some artists have limited funds and can't make the massive installation they envision with lasers and cast aluminum and a live choir. Maybe they have to scale down their vision. But creativity is born of necessity.  You can't wait until you have all the funds and tools and material you think you need to make the perfect piece of art anyway.  In the end, I'm not at all convinced that we're getting more or better art from the NEA budget.

PS I'm not even going to get into the whole issue of whether the NEA essentially acts as away to subsidize private collectors.  I'll just say that if you want to subsidize art as a public good I think there are much better ways to do it than the NEA.

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